Egypt, the parliamentary elections and the Arab Spring
After more than two years of parliamentary hiatus, Egyptians have been finally called to choose their new legislative representatives, thereby making the third and final step of the so-called “roadmap to democracy” announced by the President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in July 2013.
Despite el-Sisi’s promise of prompt parliamentary polls right after his military coup, the government has shown no hurry in calling citizens to vote and it has repeatedly postponed elections since the dissolution of the lower and upper chambers by the Supreme Constitutional Court in mid-2012. During this whole time, el-Sisi has de facto fully controlled the legislative power, issuing more than 310 new laws by decree, most of which have been harshly criticized by leftist political voices such as the Egyptian Social Democratic Party’s leader and political activist Mohamed Abou El-Ghar.
Though being appreciated for securing a high level of stability in the country and for making it more reliable in its relations with the West, el-Sisi has approved important laws as the adoption of the budget and the project to widen the Suez Canal without a public debate or consultation, triggering some criticism among political analysts.
For instance, Abdallah al-Sinawy has started to question the infallibility of el-Sisi, as “a President with full executive and legislative powers hinders the administration’s stability and legitimacy, locally and internationally.” As the absence of a Parliament could have undermined the legitimacy of el-Sisi’s decisions and compromised the country transition to democracy before the international community, the President decided that the time was mature to hold new elections in two phases (October and November). However, the electoral laws were approved without effective participation by parties, potentially leading to a Parliament emptied of its political substance, as the political analyst al-Sinawy says to the independent news website Mada Masr.
Indeed, el-Sisi has re-introduced the parliamentary electoral districts law, dividing the country into “individual candidate” districts and “electoral list” districts. More specifically, 448 parliamentarians out of 596 were elected on an individual basis in 205 districts, 28 were appointed by el-Sisi himself, and 120 via the winner-takes-all party lists system in only 4 districts. This means that the list gaining more than 50% wins all the seats, while the others receive no seats. As the figures show, this tailor-made voting system has clearly favorited individual candidates over lists, mainly wealthy people with important family connections and Egyptian élites, precluding the participation of those candidates who did not have the financial means to support their campaign. Therefore, personal interests and money have dominated the electoral campaigns of individual candidates without any precise political program. Moreover, this individual system helped Hosni Mubarak to consolidate his power in the 1980s and in the 1990s and allowed him to easily control the legislative branch. Does it hint that el-Sisi’s regime is slowly moving in that same direction?
Besides the difference between individual and party lists, opposition members have eventually played a limited role, as the pro-government alliance “For the Love of Egypt” has dominated the polls from the outset. To be excluded from elections were not only the Muslim Brotherhood (declared a terrorist organization by el-Sisi) but also democratic activists who have led to the 2011 revolution; moreover, the April 6 Youth Movement has been disqualified from politics. Many secular parties, such as the Constitution Party, the Socialist Popular Alliance, the Popular Current Party, the Free Egypt Party, the Bread and Freedom Party, and the Justice Party decided to boycott the elections. In addition, the introduction of quotas (women, Copts, workers/farmers, youth, disabled, Egyptians abroad), presented as way to protect minorities, has further limited the participation of newly founded and small parties. Thus, the political choice for voters has become extremely limited since the beginning of the electoral competition and it might have been one of the causes of the very low turnout registered in both rounds, despite the fact that the government granted half-day off to its employees to allow them to cast their ballots on 23 November 2015.
The High Elections Committee announced a turnout of 26.56% in the first stage (October 17-19) when Egyptians elected 273 candidates, including 60 list seats in the West Delta and Upper Egypt constituencies. Regarding the second phase, the turnout was recorded at 29.83%. In both cases, the loyalist electoral alliance “For the Love of Egypt”, gained more than 50% of votes and it is now entering the Parliament with all 120 seats, as provided by the winner-takes-all lists system. Such a composition circumvents the democratic framework of checks and balances, especially considering that the winning coalition has been led by a former General, Sameh Seif Elyazal, who has close ties to the military, and as a consequence, to the President.
Even though the second round registered an increased turnout almost reaching 30%, the overall participation was much lower than the 2014 presidential election and 2011-2012 parliamentary polls, recalling the Mubarak’s era. Apart from the lack of a political alternative, disillusionment and lack of enthusiasm have marked these elections as if the results were already written beforehand and the Parliament was perceived as an unnecessary institution. In fact, el-Sisi presented himself as the savior of the country and as the only one able to ensure stability after years of political turmoil. The fear of terrorism reinforced his protective image amongst moderate Egyptians who seem to be still afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood’s radicalism.
Furthermore, nonetheless the skepticism over him, el-Sisi was able to promote himself through mega infrastructure projects such as the extension of the Suez Canal and new reforms to revive the country’s economy. He has also rehabilitated Egypt at international level, sealing deals with Russia and China. In this context, the lack of the Parliament has been generally accepted by Egyptians, who got used to living under autocratic regimes. Criticism came only from some analysts and political parties as the ones cited above.
It is noteworthy that participation in Egyptian parliamentary elections has never been very high until the 2011 revolution when it reached the 54%. The Parliament has traditionally played a secondary role, and under Mubarak it was considered as a mere rubber-stamp of government’s bills. Today such role risks to be emphasized because of its composition and as it will have to revise, reject or approve all past presidential decrees of Adly Mansour and el-Sisi; in other words, all the legislation made since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi.
It is likely that fulfilling these tasks will create a great pressure on the new Parliament, thereby leaving little room for political debate and diminishing even more its role. Indeed, a reduced role of the Parliament seems to be what el-Sisi really wants. The President himself has warned Egyptians against the powers of this institution, stating that “the Constitution gave the Parliament broad powers, with good intentions, but the country cannot be run on good intentions.”
In comparison with Mubarak’s autocratic but “liberal” regime based on civilian elites, el-Sisi consolidated the power around the presidency and the military, so that we could define the current government “more presidential.” To confirm this trend, we can mention the call el-Sisi has made to amend the Constitution in order to reduce the Parliament’s powers.
Even if former members of the National Democratic Party (NDP) managed to enter the Parliament, they will have little chance to counterbalance the military and el-Sisi’s loyalists. To conclude, if the Arab Spring showed the people’s willingness to tear down Mubarak’s autocratic government, on the other hand, these Parliamentary elections have marked a return to the past, reversing what the 2011 revolution had brought. Not only they have re-introduced prominent figures of the “ancien régime” (NDP) but also they might totally transform Egypt into an autocracy in the near future.
Executive Master in European Communication and Policy (IHECS – Institut des Hautes Études des Communications Sociales)
 Abdallah al-Sinawy is a political analyst and a journalist working for Al-Shorouk, a prominent Arabic newspaper published in Egypt.
 The current electoral law was approved in July 2015, after the Cabinet made some minor amendments to the previous one that was ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court (March 2015).
 50% of 5,500 candidates were former members of the NDP. See: Jan Völkel “Why almost nobody participated in the Egyptian Parliamentary elections,” openDemocracy, October 23, 2015, https://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/jan-v-lkel/why-almost-nobody-participated-in-egyptian-Parliamentary-elections.
“Does Sisi want a parliament?,” Mada Masr, April 16, 2015. http://www.madamasr.com/sections/politics/does-sisi-want-Parliament.
Ezzat, Dina. “El-Sisi one year on: Mohamed Aboul-Ghar,” Ahram Online, May 29, 2015. http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/130744/Egypt/Politics-/ElSisi-one-year-on-Mohamed-AboulGhar.aspx.
Kassab, Beesan. “Why is Sisi afraid of the Constitution and parliament?,” Mada Masr, September 15, 2015. http://www.madamasr.com/sections/politics/why-sisi-afraid-constitution-and-Parliament.
Mandour, Maged. “From Mubarak to Sisi: the end of liberal autocracy,” openDemocracy, November 10, 2015. https://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/maged-mandour/from-mubarak-to-sisi-end-of-liberal-autocracy.
Messieh, Nancy, and Ali Mohamed. “Who is Participating in Egypt’s Parliamentary Elections?,” Atlantic Council, February 20, 2015. http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/egyptsource/who-is-participating-in-egypt-s-parliamentary-elections.
O’Toole, Megan. “Is Egypt’s Sisi facing growing isolation?,” Al Jazeera, November 17, 2015. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/11/egypt-sisi-facing-growing-isolation-russian-plane-crash-151117102158934.html.
Völkel, Jan. “Why almost nobody participated in the Egyptian Parliamentary elections,” openDemocracy, October 23, 2015. https://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/jan-v-lkel/why-almost-nobody-participated-in-egyptian-Parliamentary-elections.