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Egypt's parliamentary elections — The roots of a democracy in denial

by Wael Abdel Hamid, Arab Spring Series // Published January 18, 2011
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In 2010, Egypt held parliamentary elections which were widely criticized at home and abroad as corrupt and anti-democratic. Of particular concern was the fate of the Muslim Brothers, who had risen to prominence as the main opposition party in the 2005 elections, only to be swept completely out of Parliament in 2010. The Brotherhood’s crushing defeat sparked allegations of corruption and vote suppression by the ruling party of President Hosni Mubarak amid widespread reports of irregularities at the polls. This article examines the 2010 elections through an institutional lens, examining the structure of elected government under the Egyptian constitution and discussing the extent to which the democratic process appears to have been subverted during the recent elections.  

General Introduction – The Egyptian Republic

Egypt has been a Republic since a 1952 coup of the army leaders who could count among them Gamal Abdel Nasser- considered today as the founding father of the modern Egyptian Republic.  While generally called “Egypt”, its complete name is the Arab Republic of Egypt. Islam is the state religion although, theoretically, a freedom of belief is guaranteed. I place an emphasis on “theoretically” because of the Coptic Christian community’s current situation, which is closely linked to myriad elections issues.

Current voting methodology and institutions

There are three great elections in Egypt: for President, the Chamber of People and the Shura Council.

President

The first (and the most important) election is the presidential election. Every 6 years, Egyptians have to elect their president in a runoff-two-round system.  The current president, Hosni Mubarak, has led the country since 1981. He is now in his fifth term, and international observers do not know if he will seek a sixth in 2011. If not, his son, Gamal Mubarak, (the certain next leader of the National Democratic Party) is the favorite to be the next Egyptian president. 

This election is watched by a special body called the Presidential Election Commission, established by Article 76 of the constitution..  It is supposed to enjoy complete independence, and is charged with the supervision of the whole Presidential election process.

Parliament

The chamber of people

There are 508 members in the People’s assembly (Magless al shaab). 498 of them are directly elected by Egyptian voters using a first past the post direct ballot. The last 10 members are directly introduced by the president. People vote by districts, of which there are 254 in the whole country. Every district votes for two representatives and at least one of them must be a worker or a peasant according to the constitution. The Egyptian High Elections Commission controls the reliability of the election process, and was the center of much attention in December 2010.

The Shura Council

The Upper house of the parliament is called the Shura council (Magless al shura). It is a 264-member assembly where representatives are elected for 6 years. 176 of them are directly chosen by Egyptian voters and 88 members are appointed by the President of the Republic. However, legislative powers of this house are limited as the People’s Assembly remains the main institution.  This is indeed more a consultative house as the word shura stands for “consultation” in Arabic. 

The December 2010 Elections

Elections for the People’s Assembly caught the world’s eye in December 2010. Egyptian parliamentary elections were called fraudulent and corrupt.Unfortunately, it appears the elections lived up to the accusations.  

The National Democratic Party of Hosni Mubarak won 420 seats while the main official opposition neo-liberal party (Wafd) won 15 seats, and independents also known as Muslim Brothers won 9 seats (the Brothers later refused the seats they had won in protest of the results).

The outcome of the election appears especially surprising when we consider that , if we look at the  2005 parliamentary elections , we notice that Muslim Brothers used to retain 88 seats, or 20% of the assembly --  a historical record for the banned organization. The Brotherhood  has effectively been officially forbidden in Egypt since the September 1981  assassination of  President Anwar Al Sadat by some of their members. In the years preceding the 2005 election, however, Hosni Mubarak underestimated the gathering potential of the brotherhood and began to tolerate their activities  in Egyptian society. Thus the Muslim Brothers managed to rise as the principal opposition bloc and to obtain this historical record in 2005. 

How can a group go from controlling 20 percent of parliament in 2005 to losing nearly all of its seats in less than a decade’s time? “Where do the Brothers go from here”? famous Almasry Al Youm newspaper columnist Issandr al Amrani asked in a column explaining the evolution of the Brotherhood’s situation during the past 5 years.

The answer lies in the barriers Egypt presents to real democracy. Apparently recognizing Muslims Brothers as a threat to his power and wanting to prepare the field for his son to take a controlling role in his political party, President Mubarak is widely accused of rigging election results and using intimidation tactics to ensure his son’s eventual rise to power.

While in a full democracy, politicians and actors of the civic society try to improve voter turnout, Egyptian officials try to control and to lower it. A wide and impressive campaign of pressure  drove  turnout down to the ridiculous level of 25%. Although the court cancelled the votes in 24 pro-Mubarak districts, the Election Commission (manipulated by Mubarak despite their mandate for independent review) overturned the court’s decision and ordered the validation of the outcomes in the questionable districts. People also denounced the intimidating presence of police in front of election polls. Egyptian media reported that 10 people were killed during the electoral process across the country, simply as a result of their trying to vote.

Reaction to the controversial election has been intense. The Muslim Brothers boycotted the assembly after the elections, refusing the 9 seats they won. Such pre-eminent opposition leaders as the former chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed Al Baradei called for boycotting the polls. Al Baradei Still has a great influence in Egypt although he is not affiliated to any political party. These reactions might be evidence of other reasons beside official suppression for the low turnout seen in the election. 

The confluence of these factors in an election marred by allegations of corruption is an ominous sign for Egyptian democracy.  An increasing number of signs point to Egypt’s status as a democracy in denial, in which constitutionally protected freedoms and institutions are cast aside by leaders seeking to consolidate their grip on power.  6001 members of Muslim Brotherhood were arrested in 2010 alone, signaling the beginning of a political schizophrenia. And while recent events in Tunisia have driven home a stark lesson on the dangers of denial, only time will tell how that lesson has been received by Egypt’s leaders.