Egypt’s New Parliament: What Do the Results Mean?

With the newly-elected Egyptian parliament about to convene, several questions have been posed regarding the election in which the members were chosen: was it fair? Is it a genuine addition towards democracy? And what do the numbers indicate?

The elections were fair in terms of procedural integrity, with results truly reflecting unrigged votes. Procedural integrity refers to the legal measures taken to guarantee that a voter can cast a ballot, which will be counted without rigging. Rigging can take many forms, one of which is placing extra marked ballots in favor of a certain candidate. Other indications of procedural integrity, which were witnessed in these elections, include; an efficient system for registering new voters and reviewing current voters, preventing voters from casting their ballots multiple times, and candidates or their representatives can witness the counting of the ballots for a transparent process of sorting the votes and declaring the official results. As was the case in the eight post-2011 uprising elections, the latest parliamentary elections in Egypt highlight a key 2011 gain—ending the rigging of elections and instituting procedural integrity, which has largely been absent in Egypt since 1952, and was witnessed most blatantly in Egypt’s parliamentary elections under former president Hosni Mubarak.

The 2015 elections were, however, also marked by a lack of general integrity where genuine political competition was lacking, and oversight over electoral spending was absent. Local and international election monitors agreed that vote-buying was prevalent, and proved to be one of the most common violations during these elections. The lack of genuine political competition was evidenced by the low turnout, where only approximately 15.6 million out of 56.6 million registered voters, or 28 percent, cast their ballots. A likely reason for this is the political climate, which since July 2013, has been focused on the need for an individual leader capable of controlling all state agencies, and bringing much-needed stability to the country. Another likely reason was the withdrawal of some important political groups or parties from the electoral race, such as the Dostour and Strong Egypt parties, as well the Muslim Brotherhood.

Many of the political parties who did participate in the elections, did so despite reservations over the laws governing the elections, which allotted 448 seats to individual candidates, compared with 120 seats for party lists. It did not come as a surprise when preliminary results revealed that independent candidates secured 318 of the elected seats, with party members securing 237. Notably, independent candidates and members of political parties were able, according to the law, to run both as independents and on party lists. The Free Egyptians Party, which secured the highest number of seats among parties, gained only 65 of the 237 won by parties, or 11.4 percent of the elected seats. This is an indication of the fragility of party coalitions when faced with independent candidates, which casts doubt on the seriousness of the ruling government to adopt an election system aimed at strengthening political parties. These parties are the pillar of a genuine democratic system where competition is based on political programs rather than professional or family affiliations.

The insistence on the use of a parliamentary elections system which favors individual candidacy has plagued the Egyptian parliamentary elections since 1990. Its use has resulted in the weakening and marginalization of political parties. Money, family, and tribal loyalties are the key elements of a successful candidacy, regardless of candidates’ efficiency or political agendas.

The results of the latest parliamentary elections are also an extension of the electoral behavior of the post-July 2013 active Egyptian electorate. In January 2014, Egypt’s constitution passed with a 98 percent approval rating in a referendum in which only 31 percent of eligible voters participated. Five months later, during presidential elections President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi secured 93 percent of the votes with a 33 percent turnout rate. Most recently, turnout in the parliamentary elections was 28 percent.

Comparing the most recent elections to the first parliamentary elections held after Mubarak’s ouster is an indication of the shift that has taken place over the past four years. In 2011, which witnessed an open political space, strong party coalitions and party lists making up two thirds of parliamentary seats, voter turnout was 62 percent—the highest ever in the history of Egyptian elections. In addition to the overall low turnout in 2015, the key politically active and influential urban governorates of Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said, and Suez had the lowest turnout in these elections. According to official HEC figures, voter turnout was 18 percent in Suez, 19 percent in Cairo, and 24 percent each in Port Said and Alexandria. These are the governorates that sparked the January 25 revolution and had the biggest share of confrontations with the Mubarak regime. These figures indicate that the politically active middle class refrained from participation in most of the post-July 3 elections.

Voters participating in post-July 3 elections, on the other hand, appear used to electing state-candidates, who were, for the most part, lacking in the parliamentary elections. The only exception was For the Love of Egypt, the party list which secured all 120 seats allotted for party members. The reason behind their victory is likely that it was portrayed as representative of the state. This sweeping victory was further ensured by the use of an absolute electoral system, which was also widely criticized by political parties taking part in the elections. In this winner-takes-all system, the party list that secured more than 50 percent of the vote won all of the seats in that constituency.

The overall plunge in voter turnout, along with other circumstances surrounding the elections—since the passing of the electoral laws to the publishing the final results—has had further negative consequences on the Egyptian political climate. It has cast doubts on the viability of a genuine democracy, and is also an indication of a lowered confidence in the entire electoral and political process.

Yussef Auf is a Nonresident Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, where he focuses on constitutional issues, Islamic Shari’a, elections, and judicial matters. He has been a judge in Egypt since 2007.

Image: Photo: Mohamed Abdel Ghany (Reuters)