North Africa, West Asia

Why almost nobody participated in the Egyptian parliamentary elections

Awaited for more than two years, the first round of parliamentary elections in Egypt has bluntly confirmed the widespread disillusion of many voters about the country's political system.

Jan Völkel
23 October 2015

Demotix/Aly Hazzaa. All rights reserved.

Despite insistent calls for high participation by President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, and various pro-government celebrities shortly before the elections, turnout rates for the first round remained low.

Official sources first claimed an interim turnout rate at 16 percent, a number later raised to 26.6 percent. However, it is likely that quite a remarkable number of voters participated only after receiving some money (which is of course difficult to verify or falsify); this rather confirms the suspicion that Egyptians, by and large, do not believe in the sense of these elections.

After the first of two election days, the unbelievably low turnout rate of only 2.27 percent made the headlines and prompted furious reactions from regime supporters. As with the presidential elections the year before, authorities threatened that eligible voters abstaining from voting would be fined up to 500 Egyptian pounds (approx. 55 EUR, 62 USD, 40 GBP), a penalty that had already been included in electoral law during Mubarak’s time, but was never applied.

Again similarly to the presidential elections in May 2014, the authorities decided at the end of the first day to give public employees a half-day off (Monday afternoon) in order to enable them to participate in the elections.

The year before, governmental employees could even enjoy a full day without work obligations, but since many of them used this unexpected holiday for a trip to one of Egypt’s amazing beaches instead of to the nearest polling station, the authorities decided this year to leave it at half a day. So people could no longer leave for the beach, but many of them still preferred to go home right after work, or go shopping; more than 10,000 football fans also decided to use their free afternoon to support their favourite football team, Al-Ahly—not during a match, notably, but during one of the team’s training sessions. Pictures of the full stadium went viral and nicely confirmed not only the Egyptians' reputation for humour and creativity, but also how unimportant the elections are to them.

Yet why did so many Egyptians refrain from engaging in these elections, which were promoted as the third and last step in the country’s “roadmap to democracy” since the enforced removal of the former president, Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013?

The authorities were quick to release statements explaining the low voter turnout, speculating that the Muslim Brotherhood would have kept people from voting (probably the Brotherhood’s intention, but a definite overestimate of their existing influence on the people) or made simple references to the weather, which they perceived as too hot (though polling stations were open from 9am to 9pm, when cooling winds kept temperatures quite agreeable in the morning and evening hours).

Parliament was never very popular

Beyond these official excuses, there are of course serious reasons why voters largely stayed at home. The parliament never played a crucial role in Egypt’s history, and its standing among Egypt’s population has never been very high. With parliament being seen as a mere rubber-stamp for the government’s bills and actions under Mubarak and before, turnout rates for elections were always low—until the revolution, in 2011, when the official turnout rate in the first democratic post-revolutionary elections in winter 2011/2012 was 54 percent.

However, the quick dissolution of the democratically elected parliament by the Supreme Court in June 2012 (lower chamber) and June/July 2013 (upper chamber, which was dissolved with the 2014 constitution) sent the message that a parliament is not really necessary—a message reinforced by analysts' criticism that “the president does not want a parliament now”.

The reason is most probably that parliament, despite its overall weakness vis-à-vis the government, still provided a platform for critical voices, including influential businessmen opposing the increasing influence of the country’s military strongmen in economic activities. Observers believe that the current government was not unhappy about the repeated postponements of the new parliament's elections, as they had to make sure that once a parliament was enacted, the prerogatives of the government would be beyond any potential criticism.

Democratic activists were massively excluded from the elections.

Almost nobody protested against the long period without a parliament, as indeed a lot of people also believe the parliament could again serve as a potential stronghold for the Muslim Brotherhood, after their big success in the 2011/2012 elections. The remarkable downturn in the first round of parliamentary elections of the al-Nour party, the last openly Islamist current in Egypt’s political landscape, speaks volumes: though it permanently distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, and expressed vocal support of the president, El Sisi, it never got rid of the suspicion that it could act as the Brotherhood did.

Thus many Egyptians lost interest in the legislative chamber for two contradicting reasons: opponents of El Sisi believe that it will be too tightly controlled by government; supporters believe that it might be too influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, in analogy to what Guillermo O’Donnell called “delegative democracy”, many Egyptians have abandoned their own responsibility for the country’s future political path to the president, who is seen as “the embodiment of the nation and the main custodian and definer of its interests”.

El Sisi plays this role well, presenting himself as one who cares about everybody and everything; in such a concept, alternative political institutions, such as the parliament, are of only secondary importance. From that perspective, it is no wonder that hardly anybody questioned the dubious stipulation in the current constitution that the president himself may appoint up to five percent of the parliament’s deputies—a regulation that goes back to Nasser’s time. However, while presidents Sadat and Mubarak usually appointed ten deputies, El Sisi will appoint 28; the constitution of 2012, elaborated during Mohamed Morsi’s term, might have had many democratic flaws, but at least it excluded the option that the head of state might select any parliamentarian himself.

Unknown candidates, unclear electoral system

The complicated and confusing electoral system elaborated by a committee under the auspices of El Sisi discouraged many Egyptians from knuckling down to thinking beforehand about the question of whom to vote for. From the total 596 parliamentarians (the highest number of parliamentarians Egypt has ever had), 448 are elected as independents in 205 countrywide electoral districts; 120 get elected via party lists in only four districts (Upper Egypt and Greater Cairo with 45 seats each, Western Delta and Eastern Delta with 15 seats each); finally, 28 will be selected by El Sisi himself.

To be elected, candidates as well as lists have to receive more than 50 percent of the votes; if no candidate or list achieves this, run-off elections are arranged a week after the initial round of votes. Voters easily calculate that in order to get their favourite candidate through, they would most probably have to engage twice in the elections, once for each round. Indeed, after the first round of elections, only four independent candidates have their ticket into the next parliament already in their hand; in all other districts, run-off elections usually between two candidates are necessary. Apparently, this "double effort" to effectively participate in the elections is too high a bar for many voters.

In addition, the fact that organised party lists make up only one fifth of the chamber’s total seats prevented a stronger mobilisation of voters for programmatic reasons. Fundamental topics such as the most appropriate form of the country’s economic system, ecological concerns or new concepts for education and social services, all in dire need across Egypt, remained unarticulated throughout the election campaign. Instead, independent candidates tried to appeal primarily through their personality, instead of any political programme. Hence, there were no public debates about the country’s multiple problems ahead of elections that could have mobilised more Egyptians to cast their vote and contribute to a future politics.

The overall excitement over the elections was further doused by the decision to hold elections countrywide not on one day, but in two rounds, with 14 out of its 27 governorates having voted now in October and the remaining 13 governorates being scheduled to have their elections in late November. After the announcement of the results from the first round, with the sweeping success of regime-close individuals and members of the pro-Sisi alliance, “For the Love of Egypt”, turnout will most probably be even lower in the November round of elections, as the overall direction of the future parliament is already clear and voters will lack any sense of making a difference with their vote.

A predictable outcome

To a certain extent, the election results were predictable beforehand. For one, potential alternatives to the government’s mainstream attitude were excluded from the beginning—the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, the strongest force in the 2011/2012 elections, was banned after the Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organisation, and al-Nour, the last visible Islamist party, was sidelined and bullied before the elections through various legal complaints and smear campaigns.

Similarly, democratic activists who were the main drivers behind the 2011 revolution were massively excluded from the elections; leading members of the April 6 movement, for instance, are still in prison, not on voting lists. Many secular parties, such as the Dostour party, decided to withdraw and not to participate in the elections. Therefore, a major branch of Egypt's political spectrum did not stand for election from the outset.

The many who stayed at home are well aware that parliament will make no difference whatsoever.

In addition, the various minimum quotas lists had to fulfil (21/7 women, 9/3 Copts, 9/2 workers/farmers, 6/2 youth, 3/1 disabled, 3/1 Egyptians abroad, with potential overlapping; numbers for constituencies with 45/15 seats) were presented as an attempt to promote minorities; in fact they excluded newly founded, smaller parties from participating in the elections, as they were not able to fulfil these rigid requirements.

In consequence, voters in many constituencies see no credible alternatives, but may choose from various candidates with the same, pro-governmental attitude; already 50 percent of all 5,500 candidates are former members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, and almost all candidates support the current regime.

And even in areas where convincing alternatives were available, reasonably those candidates with the highest potential influence would be elected. This, logically, would predominantly be wealthy persons able not only to finance the election campaign themselves, but also to give their local electorate the feeling that they are influential enough to achieve something good for the neighbourhood. Those candidates understandably must be close to the regime around the president and influential players.

Likewise, the winners from the party lists contest were highly predictable, as seats are not assigned in relation to their respective share of votes, but the list getting more than 50 percent of votes wins all seats, while the others receive no seats. This means that the two most successful lists will get into the run-off election, and only one will then be assigned all 15 or 45 seats, depending on the constituency.

This negates any chance that opposition members makes it into the parliament, as their number is already restricted from the outset, and even if they won, say, 20 percent of votes in the first round, they would have no seats in the end, as the party 'For the Love of Egypt' dominates.

Voting in an autocracy makes no sense

Finally, all Egyptians I spoke with were fully aware that Egypt has left its path to democracy and has fully restored autocracy. While, against the background of the perceived superiority of security over personal rights in Egypt today, they do not necessarily condemn this, awareness is widespread that under the current conditions the parliament has no power whatsoever.

Many obstacles stand in the way: the dominance of regime supporters among the candidates; El Sisi’s strong prerogatives over the parliament, which might even be increased if the constitutional amendment the president spoke about in September is indeed pushed through; and the tailor-made voting system that structurally favours established elites over young revolutionaries.

The new parliament will be under immense pressure from the beginning, as the constitution grants it only 15 days to adopt the hundreds of presidential decrees made by Adly Mansour and Abdel Fattah El Sisi over the last two years in the absence of a legislative chamber. This task is impossible if deputies want to take it seriously and discuss every decree individually; therefore, they will most probably agree to ratify all decrees collectively in one move, as otherwise they will run the risk of being dissolved due to neglecting the capability to act, and in any case, the public perception of the “incompetent parliament” will become even worse.

These obstacles will prevent the parliament from playing any significant role in future, whatever the political attitudes and background of its members. For this reason, the European Union has, unlike during last year's presidential elections, refused to send a new observation mission in order to monitor the upcoming parliamentary elections. The Carter Center, once a reliable partner for observing Egyptian elections after 2011, had already closed its Cairo office in October 2014 in realisation “that political space has narrowed for Egyptian political parties, civil society, and the media”, and that “the upcoming elections are unlikely to advance a genuine democratic transition in Egypt”. Remaining as international observers during the current elections were the African Union, which sent a goodwill mission of 35 observers only, and the Washington-based NGO “Democracy Reporting”, which had to massively downsize its originally planned mission shortly before the elections, as many of their members did not receive the necessary visa from the Egyptian foreign service in good time.

The abstention of so many Egyptians from the parliamentary elections' first round reflects the loss of faith in the current government's rhetoric about achieving democracy in Egypt. This does not necessarily mean that they disagree with the necessity of having a strong president at the top of the state. Yet the many potential voters who stayed at home are well aware that the new parliament will make no difference whatsoever. So why should they cast their vote and support a system where they know they have no influence at all?

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