The path towards democracy in Egypt: the missed chance of the parliamentary elections

Denise Giacobbi*

POMEAS OP-ED, 2 August 2016

After more than two years since Morsi’s removal from power, parliamentary elections have been held in autumn 2015. Since the first riots in Tahrir, the country has been going through turmoil and hardship. The Egyptian parliament has also changed from a super-majority of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party prior to the revolution, to the elections of 2011-2012 in which pro-Islamic parties won more than 70 percent of seats.

Having been declared unconstitutional in 2012 by the Supreme Constitutional Court, the parliament was dissolved despite President Morsi’s attempts to reconvene it. With the new Constitution in 2014, there also came new rules for the House of Representatives regarding minimum number of members and age requirements. The new Constitution failed to give a clear delimitation of executive and legislative powers, though giving space for restrictions upon the President by the parliament. Meanwhile, al-Sisi has been exploiting the legislative vacuum by issuing decrees, and thus extending his powers in the legislative branch. Furthermore, on March 1, 2015, twenty days before voting was due to start, the Supreme Constitutional Court found that the electoral districts law - designed by the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated legislature - was unconstitutional. Hence, the ballots had to wait until the legal matter was resolved in late October.

After a seven-month delay, the parliamentary elections were eventually held between October 17 and December 2, 2015, with a new electoral distribution and in a completely different climate than that of 2011. The new electoral law provides for a mixed representation: 448 out of 596 seats in the House of Representatives were given to individual candidates, 120 to winner-takes-all party lists, while the remaining 28 seats were occupied by members directly appointed by the president. The first doubts regarding the transparency and impartiality of future members began long before the elections approached. Several parties - starting from el-Dostour and Nasserist Karama - boycotted the ballots, while many voices condemned the new law as leading to an unfair representation, let alone to potential clientelism caused by the high ratio of individual candidates.

With the elections approaching, the government was concerned by the expected low turnout and the call for boycott by a large number of parties. For this reason, it imposed a $62 fine for not voting, and deployed tens of thousands of police and soldiers to safeguard polling stations from potential attacks. The difference between the parliamentary elections of 2011 and those of 2015 could not be starker. In 2011, the elections saw a huge number of candidates in each electoral district, ranging from the far left to the far right, with no administrative nor security interference, and with the neutrality of the regime of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. In this occasion, the voter turnout reached 54 percent . Conversely, the latest elections were held in a climate of ultra-nationalism, media manipulation, and political oppression. Considering also the absence of any solid opposition candidate and the apathy and indifference spreading among Egyptian voters, it is no wonder that the voter turnout strove to reach 20 percent in some governorates such as Cairo and Suez, recording an average of 28,3 percent across the country, according to Egypt’s High Electoral Committee .

As far as the results were concerned, all 120 partylist seats were gained by the “For the Love of Egypt” coalition, led by former military intelligence general Sameh Seif el-Yazal. Besides including National Democratic Party’s former components, For the Love of Egypt is also widely believed to be pro-Sisi. Overall, the parties winning the majority of seats were the Free Egyptian Party with 65 seats, the Nation’s Future Party with 53 seats and the New Wafd Party with 36 seats. Finally, the most prominent Islamist party, el-Nour, won 11 seats thanks to its support for el-Sisi during the presidential elections.

The new parliament was put to the test when it had to revise - within its first two weeks of mandate - more than 330 decrees issued by Mansour and al-Sisi. Some of these decrees were of extremely controversial nature, but instead of giving them the appropriate space for discussion and analysis, the revision process was characterised by the members’ unfairness and unconcern in voting. The whole procedure gave the idea of what the new parliament was going to represent: the image of a legislative body bolstering the executive without any healthy debate, instead of constituting a proper check on the President’s power.

Today’s Egypt is a completely different country from the one that led the marches for democracy in 2011. The ongoing abuses by security forces and the harsh restrictions on freedom of speech are far from what the demonstrators in Tahrir Square had expected. People are now stuck between an authoritarian military government and the resulting political and social paralysis, which leaves no hope for change. With the new parliament, Egypt had a slight chance of securing fair government and limitations on the executive power, but due to a suffocating political climate Al-Sisi will still have an easy way into oppressive policies.

Despite some positive actions were taken such as a draft proposal presented in April 2016 by the Free Egyptians Party , the new parliament still behaves like the long arm of the executive whilst turning a blind eye on those decrees restricting civil rights and liberties. Meanwhile, Al Sisi’s statements on the excessive power given to the parliament should ring a bell on how the president has grown accustomed to the power he enjoyed during the period in which the legislative organ was suspended. With 120 party list seats given to a coalition in favour of al-Sisi and 448 individual candidates, it might become very easy to approve amendments limiting the power of the parliament, and granting the presidential leverage against it.

Surely, a clearer constitution explicitly delimiting the executive and legislative powers would represent a solid basis for any parliamentary adjustment. From here, the electoral system designed in 2014 needs a thorough revision to give less space to family and business connections (favoured by the high ration of individual candidates), and give more room for manoeuvre to political parties. The risk for the country abandoning the long-forgotten path towards democracy is that of a step back into political violence on the doorstep of a tormented Middle East.

* Former POMEAS Research Assistant, student at the School of International Studies in Trento, and at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa.