The 2015 Elections: The End of Competitive Authoritarianism in Egypt?

epa05051376 A handout photograph made available by the Egyptian Presidency shows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) casting his vote for the run-off ballots in parliamentary elections, in Cairo, Egypt, 02 December 2015. The run-off vote on 213 seats allocated for individual candidates is held on 01 and 02 December. EPA/EGYPTIAN PRESIDENCY/HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES © European Pressphoto Agency

History will long ponder the process and results of the election to the new Egyptian parliament, due to convene in two weeks' time. This election signifies the most important turning point in Egypt's parliamentary life since the adoption of party pluralism in the late 1970s. Parliamentary contests have long been the main criterion for evaluating the legitimacy and popularity of political regimes, both on the domestic and international fronts. Indeed, the international community, both individual countries and international organisations, has for decades promulgated representative democracy as the central pillar of democratic transition. Yet whatever the 2011 Egyptian revolution meant in terms of legislative oversight of the executive and equitable distribution of limited resources, the failure in the post-Mubarak era to resolve the country's parliamentary and election issues will long be remembered. After 37 years of limited political pluralism, the new political system implemented, behind closed doors, a new parliamentary election law without engaging in any social dialogue or broader exchange.

Among the unresolved issues is setting aside proportional representation lists and individual representation systems, whether to establish a quota for the representation of workers and peasants, and managing the legal aspect of electoral coalitions between similar and dissimilar political parties. This is why the upcoming elections will be closer in spirit to those of the People’s Assembly in the 1960s and 1970s, when candidates vied for support of the state within the context of the Socialist Union as the only umbrella for political participation, rather than competing over programmes and visions regarding oversight, policy, and legislation. Some might have found in this new parliament a bold negation of the principle of party pluralism as the basis of political representation in the legislative authority, and of the importance of pluralism reflected directly in the distribution of parliamentary seats among the majority and minority.  What is certain is that this parliament will remain, for a time at least, the symbol of a unique precedent: party-affiliated candidates will be content to compete over individual seats, while candidates close to the regime monopolise complete lists that cast them as a potential majority, regardless of any previous or current political affiliation or homogeneity. Until we realise this fact sometime in the future, we will probably continue to describe this parliament as a “pre-game” parliament, or a “constituent” body for a new republic as the French say, or describe the elections as a mere “warming up” exercise as we say in everyday Egyptian dialect. In the meantime, this will allow the new political regime to sort out the elements that will effectively support it rather than become a burden in the future. Despite the fact that Egypt has been without a parliament for three years, a new election law has been passed and constituencies have been delineated, electoral stages decided upon, and an absolute list system adopted – a trial-and-error process pitting everybody against everybody. The objective is to establish, through a competition and elimination process, a new majority capable of playing the role that the National Party once played: a control agent mediating between the central authority and the public, and rearranging the relative clout of the other blocs that took part in the elections.

Moving on to the electoral process itself, we find changes no less important and significant. Indeed, an entire parliamentary era has ended and a new one, with new rules, has begun. The relative decline of political Islam as a parliamentarian opposition, represented by the al-Noor party, is one of the most important elements in these elections. In addition, the ability of political money to triumph over the usual power of local assabiyyat, if not totally obliterate them in several constituencies, signals the arrival of a new model. This entails the redefinition of parliament’s political role, no longer as a resource allocation platform but as an arena of financial rivalry among wealthy deputies. A sizeable contingent of Egyptian state officials, including judges, councillors, and former officers, has also emerged as candidates at the head of the most prominent lists. No less important is the unexpected rise of the “Mustaqbal Watan” bloc, supposed to represent the weight of youth in the new legislative authority by a group of hitherto unknown youth cadres, reminding us of the old Nasserist youth organization, Monzamat al-Shabab, and the centralized mechanisms of mobilisation and ascension for which it was known.  Each of the above four features requires a separate article, once parliament begins its work.

On a third level, this parliament will probably distinguish itself from those that preceded it by the many “grey areas” that are likely to boost the power of the presidency over the newborn parliament. Among these grey areas is whether single-seat deputies can or cannot form a parliamentary opposition bloc on their own, the possibility of choosing a speaker of parliament from among appointed – and not elected – members, and the Elections Committee’s right to nullify the election of a deputy based on other candidates’ complaints. Another grey area is parliament’s ability to elaborate a legislative agenda that contradicts – even if minimally – the urgent tasks on its agenda.

These quick remarks make it clear that the logic of rupture has prevailed over any continuity in the legacy of Egyptian parliamentarian pluralism as we have known it for forty years. This pluralism was constrained in many previous elections (those of 2010 are the most famous for their restrictive trends), and its fortunes ebbed and flowed over the past forty years. It is certain, though, that this was one of the regime’s central pillars of legitimacy vis-à-vis its electors and, particularly vis-à-vis the international community which since the early 1980s made pluralism the most important indicator of democratic reform, and a pre-requisite of international financial and political support.

A quick look at the Egyptian media, at the high rate of abstention from voting, and at the reports of the few international observers present conveys that the elections were seen as positive, “sufficient in [themselves] as proof” of the Egyptian regime’s commitment to a democratic transition. Yet the fact that, as usual, neither the Egyptian public nor the observers have expressed discontent with the widespread voter bribery shows that those concerned care primarily about the fact that a parliament exists, regardless of the legal and political environment that allowed these elections to take place, and of the minimal legislative role it will play in the future. In other words, the lack of public interest and the international community’s satisfaction with the minimum requirement reflect the crystallisation of a new rule which says that competitive authoritarian regimes are no longer a pre-requisite condition for recognition and support, that political systems no longer need to gain public or international acceptability when they undertake institutional restoration. The recent Egyptian elections confirm beyond the shadow of a doubt that the pro-forma presence of legislative institutions is entirely sufficient in the current context of shifting national, regional, and international priorities. The main question remains, however: should we consider this satisfaction of minimum requirements as a new basis according to which the electorate and international order have to accept all changes imposed by neo-authoritarian regimes, or is it simply a temporary “public and international blind eye” in the context of managing a more vital crisis, namely the war on terror?

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.