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Death of politics in Egyptian elections

Officials state their surprise that so few Egyptians turned out to vote, but they shouldn't be given that the electoral laws they wrote eviscerated all politics in the country

Mustafa Kamel El-Sayed , Sunday 15 Nov 2015
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There is nothing better than the proverb "They kill a person and then walk in his funeral" to describe the state of our rulers as they lament low voter turnout in the first round of parliamentary elections in the past two weeks.

The government passed an electoral law opposed by major political parties and many experts because it eliminates any political dialogue during the campaign season. They dwindled public space by besieging any opinions that differ with them on television, leaving the airwaves either brimming with wailers and manipulators of supposed leaks that infringe on the privacy of those who displease the regime, or even worse, regime pleasers who did the same in the past.

What else should we expect from elections where not a single political platform was worthy of serious debate about the future of the country? Or elections where the vast majority of candidates have nothing to distinguish them except their degree of devotion to the president.

Before the elections, if I, or you dear readers, had an opportunity to sit with officials who are interested in public participation and described to them this political scene in any other country, and asked them what the voter turnout would be, what would be their response? Wouldn't they say they would be very surprised if voter turnout were high? So why are officials and media personalities shocked and upset by what happened in Upper Egypt and West Delta in the past weeks?

Those who drafted the electoral law were told  and these opinions were also conveyed to the president when he was minister of defence and after he became president  that in order to save the Egyptian political system the role of political parties must be bolstered. Also, that combating terrorism should be through making room for civic forces such as political parties, NGOs, and a free media in order for citizens to have a spectrum of opinions that want the good of the country through a variety of legitimate means. That way, citizens would have several options.

We have learnt that there is no government in the world that enjoys absolute consensus by the masses, where the prime minister or leader of the majority parties in a democratic system is happy to win nearly two thirds of the vote. At the start of their tenure, approval of governments that win elections is limited.

For example, in France President Francois Hollande had an approval rating of 25 per cent of voters, according to opinion polls there. Differences and variety are traits of all creatures, including human beings. Differences and variety enrich existence, but those who drafted this law are irritated by differences because they believe you must either support everything the regime does since 3 July 2013, or otherwise you are a Muslim Brotherhood sympathiser or terrorist.

The youth who were sentenced to jail for objecting to the protest law are not Muslim Brotherhood and do not agree with everything that happened after 3 July. Mohamed ElBaradei and others who share his opinions in Hazem El-Beblawi’s cabinet can never be described as either of these camps. Readers of some Egyptian newspapers these days will discover many of those who belong to a third, fourth or fifth camp. Then why did our media propagate this inferior view of political trends in Egypt?

The masses who boycotted the elections responded, but they are not all Muslim Brotherhood. There are many who do not necessarily oppose President El-Sisi, but disapprove of some aspect of this rule, whether because promised prosperity has not materialised or freedoms are undermined, or transparency is lacking in major regime decisions.

Regime experts of course came up with outlandish excuses to justify this curious electoral law. First, that individual candidate seats is a historic tradition in Egypt and it is the format used in many democracies such as Britain, US and France. But these experts forget that the individual system practiced in Egypt before the 1952 revolution was unfamiliar with what is known as an independent MP.

Everyone who won under the monarchy belonged to a political current, and parliaments under the king were divided between the Wafd, Liberal, Constitution or Monarchist parties (such as the Peoples’ Party or Union Party, etc). It was easy for voters to choose  either a Wafd candidate or someone from another party created by the king.

The candidate himself was not of particular interest to voters, which is why a saying became popular at the time stating: “The people will elect anyone nominated by the Wafd, even if it is … ” I will leave it blank for readers to fill in.

The same applies to democracies that practice a similar system to Egypt’s under the monarchy, which is known as the majority system  unlike proportional representation that most parties in Egypt prefer. Any Briton has the right to run in elections, but British voters ask what party he or she represents, be it Labour, Conservative or the Liberal Democrats. In the American system voters ask whether candidates running for Congress belong to the Democratic or the Republican party. In democratic systems, it is very rare to find a non-partisan or independent member of parliament (as defined in Egypt).

Naturally, voters can become fed up with political parties, but then new parties emerge or some civic groups or social movements evolve into political parties. Political action by nature is group action, therefore it makes no sense for someone to approach the process of public action as an individual. Participating in public action simply means the ability to work with others, gaining strength through this collective action.

The second excuse is that political parties are weak. There have been many press campaigns by regime loyalists against political parties because they are weak, unrepresentative of the people, or have no presence in villages and neighbourhoods.

While some of this is true, what can be done since democracy does not exist in the absence of parties? Should we not ask about the reasons behind the frailty of these parties, and how former regimes marginalised these parties by cancelling free and honest elections  the only guarantor for parties to evolve? And do we treat the weakness of parties by stifling them or nourishing them so they can flourish?

The committee drafting the electoral law chose to stifle political parties, and thus citizens found themselves in the first round of elections There is nothing better than the proverb "They kill a person and then walk in his funeral" to describe the state of our rulers as they lament low voter turnout in the first round of parliamentary elections in the past two weeks.

The government passed an electoral law opposed by major political parties and many experts because it eliminates any political dialogue during the campaign season. They dwindled public space by besieging any opinions that differ with them on television, leaving the airwaves either brimming with wailers and manipulators of supposed leaks that infringe on the privacy of those who displease the regime, or even worse, regime pleasers who did the same in the past.

What else should we expect from elections where not a single political platform was worthy of serious debate about the future of the country? Or elections where the vast majority of candidates have nothing to distinguish them except their degree of devotion to the president.

Before the elections, if I, or you dear readers, had an opportunity to sit with officials who are interested in public participation and described to them this political scene in any other country, and asked them what the voter turnout would be, what would be their response? Wouldn't they say they would be very surprised if voter turnout were high? So why are officials and media personalities shocked and upset by what happened in Upper Egypt and West Delta in the past weeks?

Those who drafted the electoral law were told  and these opinions were also conveyed to the president when he was minister of defence and after he became president  that in order to save the Egyptian political system the role of political parties must be bolstered. Also, that combating terrorism should be through making room for civic forces such as political parties, NGOs, and a free media in order for citizens to have a spectrum of opinions that want the good of the country through a variety of legitimate means. That way, citizens would have several options.

We have learnt that there is no government in the world that enjoys absolute consensus by the masses, where the prime minister or leader of the majority parties in a democratic system is happy to win nearly two thirds of the vote. At the start of their tenure, approval of governments that win elections is limited.

For example, in France President Francois Hollande had an approval rating of 25 per cent of voters, according to opinion polls there. Differences and variety are traits of all creatures, including human beings. Differences and variety enrich existence, but those who drafted this law are irritated by differences because they believe you must either support everything the regime does since 3 July 2013, or otherwise you are a Muslim Brotherhood sympathiser or terrorist.

The youth who were sentenced to jail for objecting to the protest law are not Muslim Brotherhood and do not agree with everything that happened after 3 July. Mohamed ElBaradei and others who share his opinions in Hazem El-Beblawi’s cabinet can never be described as either of these camps. Readers of some Egyptian newspapers these days will discover many of those who belong to a third, fourth or fifth camp. Then why did our media propagate this inferior view of political trends in Egypt?

The masses who boycotted the elections responded, but they are not all Muslim Brotherhood. There are many who do not necessarily oppose President El-Sisi, but disapprove of some aspect of this rule, whether because promised prosperity has not materialised or freedoms are undermined, or transparency is lacking in major regime decisions.

Regime experts of course came up with outlandish excuses to justify this curious electoral law. First, that individual candidate seats is a historic tradition in Egypt and it is the format used in many democracies such as Britain, US and France. But these experts forget that the individual system practiced in Egypt before the 1952 revolution was unfamiliar with what is known as an independent MP.

Everyone who won under the monarchy belonged to a political current, and parliaments under the king were divided between the Wafd, Liberal, Constitution or Monarchist parties (such as the Peoples’ Party or Union Party, etc). It was easy for voters to choose  either a Wafd candidate or someone from another party created by the king.

The candidate himself was not of particular interest to voters, which is why a saying became popular at the time stating: “The people will elect anyone nominated by the Wafd, even if it is … ” I will leave it blank for readers to fill in.

The same applies to democracies that practice a similar system to Egypt’s under the monarchy, which is known as the majority system  unlike proportional representation that most parties in Egypt prefer. Any Briton has the right to run in elections, but British voters ask what party he or she represents, be it Labour, Conservative or the Liberal Democrats. In the American system voters ask whether candidates running for Congress belong to the Democratic or the Republican party. In democratic systems, it is very rare to find a non-partisan or independent member of parliament (as defined in Egypt).

Naturally, voters can become fed up with political parties, but then new parties emerge or some civic groups or social movements evolve into political parties. Political action by nature is group action, therefore it makes no sense for someone to approach the process of public action as an individual. Participating in public action simply means the ability to work with others, gaining strength through this collective action.

The second excuse is that political parties are weak. There have been many press campaigns by regime loyalists against political parties because they are weak, unrepresentative of the people, or have no presence in villages and neighbourhoods.

While some of this is true, what can be done since democracy does not exist in the absence of parties? Should we not ask about the reasons behind the frailty of these parties, and how former regimes marginalised these parties by cancelling free and honest elections  the only guarantor for parties to evolve? And do we treat the weakness of parties by stifling them or nourishing them so they can flourish?

The committee drafting the electoral law chose to stifle political parties, and thus citizens found themselves in the first round of elections  and will in the second round  in front of several thousand candidates they cannot differentiate between because they present themselves as “independent.” Even candidates who hail from political parties, their parties have no electoral programmes except being loyalists. No wonder the large majority of voters stayed away from this dull contest.

We have not reinvented the wheel. We reject all democratic systems in the East, West, North and South, but we did not invent an alternative wheel. Parties always make a comeback and defeat independents because parties are a key tool for electoral mobilisation. However, parties return with nothing that distinguishes them in terms of programmes and clear intentions for parliament. We are regressing.

We dream of the plurality found in some parliaments under Mubarak between 1987-1990 or 2005-2010, when the opposition constituted 20-25 per cent of MPs. Mubarak moved away from this plurality in the 2010 elections that ushered in an overwhelming majority, where the opposition only had seven out of 454 seats. This was the last straw for his regime. Should we not learn from the lessons of the near past?

The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.

 

 and will in the second round – in front of several thousand candidates they cannot differentiate between because they present themselves as “independent”. Even candidates who hail from political parties, their parties have no electoral programmes except being loyalists. No wonder the large majority of voters stayed away from this dull contest.

We have not reinvented the wheel. We reject all democratic systems in the East, West, North and South, but we did not invent an alternative wheel. Parties always make a comeback and defeat independents because parties are a key tool for electoral mobilisation. However, parties return with nothing that distinguishes them in terms of programmes and a clear nature of the majority in parliament. We are regressing.

We dream of the plurality found in some parliaments under Mubarak between 1987-1990 or 2005-2010, when the opposition constituted 20-25 per cent of MPs. Mubarak moved away from this plurality in the 2010 elections that ushered in an overwhelming majority, where the opposition only had seven out of 454 seats. This was the last straw for his regime. Should we not learn from the lessons of the near past?

The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.

 

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