Egypt’s Doomed Election

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.

Unlike in Tunisia, which successfully used a simple across-the-board proportional system to include many voices in the country’s legislative assembly, Egypt’s multilayered system is likely to marginalize new progressive, secular and liberal groups that lack grass-roots networks across the country.

The sidelining of smaller Islamic and secular parties would damage citizens’ faith in the democratic process, and the exclusion of the minority Coptic Christians from significant representation in Parliament could be catastrophic.

Copts are unlikely to vote for Islamic parties and, after October’s violent street battles between Christian demonstrators and the military, they have lost faith in old liberal movements like the Wafd Party. They are instead coalescing around niche parties like the Justice Party and the Free Egyptians. But these groups are polling at less than 5 percent — not enough to win more than a handful of seats. And if Copts are shut out of Parliament, they are also likely to be absent from the committee which will draw up the new Egyptian constitution.

The military has also retained an anachronistic quota, reserving at least half of the new Parliament for “workers and farmers,” a rule that has been used to manipulate election results in Egypt since the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

In practice, this means that the new progressive parties that are lucky enough to pick up a few seats may not be able to fill those seats with the young leaders who organized the Tahrir Square protests in February. Instead, many of the founders of those parties will be leapfrogged so workers or farmers who were required to be placed on the party’s list can get into Parliament.

The threat of electoral defeat has even made some liberals sympathetic to the military’s attempt to dominate the constitution-writing process. They are so fearful of Muslim Brotherhood dominance that they would rather have secular strongmen in control than democratically elected Islamists.

It may be true that the military wants an impotent new Parliament, but when liberals resort to supporting the tools of dictators, the future is bleak.

What Egypt desperately needs is an election and a resulting Parliament that are seen to be fair and inclusive. Under the rules the military has imposed, the chances of that happening are slim.

If voters’ voices are not heard in their first post-revolutionary election, the crisis unleashed by democratic failure in Egypt will have consequences reaching far beyond the Arab world.

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

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