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 toward democracy? What did 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 in the elections included an efficient system for registering new voters and reviewing current voters; preventing voters from casting ballots multiple times; and allowing candidates or their representatives to witness ballot counting through a transparent process of sorting votes and declaring the official results.
As in the eight post-2011 uprising elections, the latest parliamentary elections highlighted a key 2011 gain – ending the rigging of elections and instituting procedural integrity, largely absent in Egypt since 1952, and witnessed most blatantly in Egypt’s parliamentary elections under Hosni Mubarak.
The 2015 elections were, however, also marked by a lack of general integrity where genuine 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 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 was 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 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 parties who participated in the elections, did so despite reservations over the laws governing them, 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 favoring individual candidacy has plagued Egyptian parliamentary elections since 1990. Its use has resulted in the weakening and marginalization of political parties. Money, family and tribal loyalties are key elements of a successful candidacy, regardless of a candidate’s efficiency or political agenda.
The results of the latest 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, when there was 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 Jan. 25 revolution and had the biggest share of confrontations with the Mubarak regime. These figures show 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, tended to elect 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 representing the state. This sweeping victory was further ensured by the use of an absolute electoral system, which was also widely criticized by political parties. In this winner-takes-all system, the party list that secured more than 50 percent of the vote won all of the seats in a constituency.
The overall plunge in voter turnout, along with other circumstances surrounding the elections – from the passing of the electoral laws to the publishing of final results – has had further negative consequences on Egypt’s political climate. It has cast doubt 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 Shariah, elections and judicial matters. He has been a judge in Egypt since 2007. This commentary is published by permission from the Atlantic Council and can be accessed at: www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/egyptsource/egypt-s-new-parliament-what-do-the-results-mean.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 15, 2016, on page 7.