Egypt’s Elections: Practiced, But Still Imperfect

Egypt Elections Ahmed Abdel Fattah.jpg

Egypt’s parliamentary elections in 2012- the first in the wake of Egypt’s democratic uprising- were understandably messy. They were held on a condensed timeline, under intense political pressure and using an untested electoral system.  Members of the High Elections Commission (HEC) were clearly improvising the electoral timeline as the process was unfolding.  The allocation of electoral symbols was stretched so thin that some individual candidates had to formally object to being assigned an onion, crane, teapot, or vacuum cleaner.  The size of the ballot was such that in some districts that it unfolded like a map. 

Even with two nation-wide elections and two national referendums held since the uprising, a surprising number of Egypt’s election problems remain unresolved.  The following shortcomings in 2012 should be watched for closely in parliamentary elections of April 2013.  It is unlikely that the efficiency of the electoral system, the smoothness of its processes and the competency its officials have improved to any significant degree. 

A flawed framework

Many problems of the 2012 parliamentary elections were inherent in Egypt’s problematic legal framework.  Egypt’s electoral system, then and now, is a complicated one characterized by a mixture of proportional representation and majoritarian districts, occupational quotas mandating that a certain number of farmers and blue-collar workers be represented in parliament, and staggered election rounds.  Though the law was recently amended by the Shura Council and reviewed by the Supreme Constitutional Court, it remains a headache.  Few improvements were made, a fourth election round was added and Egypt’s opposition claims that districts were egregiously gerrymandered. 

There also remain gaping holes in the details of implementing the system; vague terminology and lack of procedural guidelines give judges in polling stations throughout Egypt free reign to interpret the law to their liking.  The problem, identified in 2012 parliamentary elections, remains unaddressed even after the electoral law was revisited during the constitution redrafting process and revised by the Shura Council in early 2013. 

Administrative snafus

2012 parliamentary elections were rife with administrative errors.  Lack of preparedness on the HEC’s part was the beginning of procedural woes; elements of the electoral process were left undetermined or incomplete by the HEC by the time the relevant stage had begun.   For example, the commission failed to release an official statement regarding the borders of electoral districts before the beginning of the registration period, leaving this information subject to debate among candidates and political parties. It also failed to specify which type of largest remainder method it intended to use to calculate seat allocation for political parties once all rounds of party list elections had been completed.    

The HEC also revised the electoral process as it unfolded, altering procedures and timetables, often with little to no prior notice.  These changes included, but were not limited to, the shortening of the appeals period due to the Eid al-Adha holiday, changes to the location of polling stations without prior notification, and last-minute adjustment of voting hours.  The same can be expected for upcoming elections, as the Egyptian government is steamrolling ahead despite a plethora of unresolved issues surrounding electoral law and clamoring from the opposition.

Logistically, all phases of elections (candidate registration, complaints and appeals, voting, and counting and tabulation) were all compromised in minor ways by mismanagement and mistakes.  Some registration venues were so overcrowded that scuffles broke out among irritable Egyptians.  On election day, polling stations opened late (in fact, some never opened whatsoever on the first day of voting) and ran out of materials including ballots and ink.  Ballot misprints on a large scale was the cause for cancellation and nullification of elections in some districts.

Although the HEC’s glitches did not betray a particular bias, there has been ample opportunity to troubleshoot them between parliamentary elections.  Unfortunately, trends in subsequent elections show little improvement. Polling stations are still opened shockingly late, voters’ fingers are still inked incorrectly, and mistakes compromising the integrity of the ballots and ballot boxes are still made.

A confused electorate

In the previous parliamentary election, voters were genuinely confused on election day thanks to complicated election procedures and a lack of civic education to clarify them.   Multiple ballots and an unprecedented number of candidates translated into a daunting experience for voters, especially for the large number of illiterate or first-time voters in Egypt.  The end result was a cumbersome voting process and the mistaken casting of ballots.   

Though this is the only shortcoming that could self-correct as voters gain more experience via Egypt’s frequent post-uprising elections, many Egyptians still demonstrate a poor understanding of voting procedure and the broader democratic process.  The HEC is not obligated by law to undertake civic education, and accordingly has not.  The same is true of judges tasked with presiding over polling stations.  Many of these election officials continue to possess inadequate knowledge of Egypt’s complex electoral system and have not received sufficient training to remedy it.  An added concern and more cause for confusion in the upcoming parliamentary elections is the stance taken by the judges themselves. The Judges Club, which boycotted the constitutional referendum in December, has not made a similar announcement for parliamentary elections but the threat of a partial or full strike looms large.

Illegal, unabashed campaigning

Perhaps the only blatant violation of electoral law since the fall of Mubarak has been the systematically illegal campaigning of political parties and candidates.  During the campaign period for 2012 parliamentary elections, most politicians used a range of illicit mediums to influence voters including the use of public institutions and the distribution of goods and services.   The use of religious slogans and places of worship by Islamist parties was ubiquitous.  The Freedom and Justice Party and al-Nour Party in particular paid little attention to the ban on Election Day campaigning, instead distributing materials inside and outside of polling stations and constructing “media centers” where voters could obtain instructions on how and where to vote.

Though political parties are likely to continue pushing limits to gain whatever campaign advantage they can, the HEC’s lack of an enforcement mechanism to uphold campaign laws and prevent overt campaigning on Election Day continues to prove problematic.  In a rare improvement, Egypt’s election authorities did adopt new regulations for the 2012 constitutional referendum restricting campaign activities within certain proximity of polling stations.  However, violations still occur with impunity.   

To its credit, Egypt’s post-Mubarak elections have been free from any serious or systematic foul play.  This is not a small accomplishment in a nation new to the workings of democracy, though it is of course overshadowed by Egypt’s lurches back towards autocracy within the broader framework of political transition. The continued failure to resolve mistakes of the first parliamentary elections suggests a troubling lack of effort on the part of Egypt’s high election officials and legislative authorities tasked with reviewing electoral law.  In most cases, problems could be remedied through simple measures like better planning and communication of the HEC.  Concrete steps to improve electoral procedures are laid bare in regular reports of international election observation groups; the election commission needs only to act on them.  For the time being, there’s no reason to expect that upcoming parliamentary elections will be significantly improved from the last.  With election day less than two months away and a revised electoral law already passed, the opportunity for thoughtful reform has already passed Egypt by.   

Sarah Grebowski is a research assistant for the Syria Policy Analysis initiative at the Rafik Hariri Middle East CenterPreviously, she managed domestic election observation efforts in Egypt’s first post-revolution elections.

Photo: Ahmed Abdel Fattah

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