Egypt’s Doomed Elections

Written on November 24, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Africa, Culture & Society, Democracy & Human Rights, Middle East

By Andrew S. Reynolds

Egypt, the largest and most important country to overthrow its government during the Arab Spring, is careening toward a disastrous parliamentary election that begins on Nov. 28 and could bring the country to the brink of civil war.

As protesters fill Tahrir Square once again and violence spreads throughout Cairo, the military government’s legitimacy is becoming even more tenuous. The announcement Tuesday of a “National Salvation Government” may stem the violence for now, but the coming vote will not lead to a stable democracy.

The election is likely to fail, not because of vote-stealing or violence, but because the rules cobbled together by Egypt’s military leaders virtually guarantee that the Parliament elected will not reflect the votes of the Egyptian people.

While advising civil society groups and political parties on election issues earlier this year in Cairo, I found that the voices of Egyptians who were at the forefront of the revolution were stifled during the secretive election-planning process.

On countless occasions, political parties went to the ruling military council to object to drafts of the electoral law and were brushed off with piecemeal changes. Civic groups concerned about the representation of women and minorities were not even given a seat at the table. And the United Nations, which played a major role in assisting Tunisia with its election, was denied access to election planners in Cairo.

The result is an election that will overrepresent the larger parties while shutting out smaller ones, marginalize Coptic Christians and progressives and consign millions of Egyptians to voting for losers through an overly complicated process that combines proportional representation with majoritarianism and an antiquated quota system.

One-third of the 498 seats in Parliament will be chosen from districts in which the winners must get a majority of the vote (in a runoff if necessary). In these districts, name recognition gives established power brokers — local strongmen who held sway before the revolution — the upper hand. Even if most of the elected candidates are not high-ranking apparatchiks of the old regime — or “remnants,” as Egyptians call them — many are likely to have been cogs in the corrupt machine that ruled Egypt for decades.

Two-thirds of the seats will be contested in proportional representation districts, where voters select among party candidate lists and each party win seats in proportion to its share of votes. Read more…

Andrew S. Reynolds is an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

As published in www.nytimes.com on November 22, 2011 (a version of this op-ed appeared in print on November 23, 2011, on page A31 of the New York edition with the headline: Egypt’s Doomed Election).


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