From too much Egyptian opposition to too little

Egypt’s 28 November election and its 5 December run-off solved one problem for the ruling party–by removing the Muslim Brothers from the parliament–and created a host of others, including draining nearly all remaining credibility from the electoral system. Voter turnout apparently was lower than in the 2005 elections, less than 20 percent in the first round and less than 10 percent in the run-off elections.

Moreover, the extensive and organized abuses documented in reports by local observers and some judges suggest that the elections do not reflect the choices of those citizens who did trouble to vote. The security forces ran the show, manipulating the results in favor of NDP candidates, obstructing some judges from effectively overseeing the vote, blocking many observers from entering polling places, preventing others from remaining at the sites long enough to objectively evaluate the elections, and stopping supporters of some opposition candidates from voting. As a result of a 2007 constitutional amendment that removed full judicial supervision of the elections, the judicial branch and the impotent High Elections Commission were unable to curb the interference of candidates and security forces in the electoral process. The number of judges was reduced from one at every ballot box to one judge for roughly every 20 polling stations.

Opposition’s Lack of Representation

The results from the second round of elections on 5 December startled the Egyptian public, who expected there still to be a significant number of opposition deputies in the new People’s Assembly even though the National Democratic Party (NDP) was determined to keep the Brotherhood out. But between the two rounds the Muslim Brotherhood and Wafd withdrew from the elections in protest of the irregularities, with the Wafd deciding to expel any deputies who insisted on taking their seats in the assembly. NDP candidates won 420 of the 508 overall elected seats (not counting 10 seats to be filled by direct presidential appointment), candidates from the Wafd Party won 6 seats, Tagammu won 5, four smaller parties each won a single seat, and 69 independents were able to claim victories in their districts.*
The results left the NDP in control of 87 percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly, while the organized opposition has less than 3 percent of the seats (15 seats for the parties and one seat for a lone independent affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood who did not withdraw from the run-off). This means that the organized opposition will not have any real presence in the new assembly and thus will be unable to effectively perform its legislative or watchdog roles. The ruling establishment, executive branch, and People’s Assembly are now virtually identical, with each institution subject to the control of an overwhelming NDP majority.
Today the uniformity of the People’s Assembly is reminiscent of the Egyptian parliament under President Gamal Abdel Nasser and any legislation and budgets it passes will certainly be viewed as the ruling establishment’s will. The absence of these three components of legitimacy–voter turnout, a fair electoral process and balanced representation in the legislative branch combined with its relative autonomy from the executive branch–brings political life in Egypt to a new low.
In addition to the legitimacy issue, the NDP has also created at least two new headaches for itself in the aftermath of these elections, one legal and the other political.
First, there is a significant possibility that the newly-elected parliament could be invalidated by the already extensive legal challenges filed or others to come. Because only parties represented in parliament are eligible to officially nominate a candidate for president, declaring the 2010 parliament invalid would call into question the legitimacy of any presidential election held on the basis of that parliament. Second, if Wafd remains out of parliament, there will be no opposition party with a shred of credibility to contest the next presidential election, depriving the NDP of the thin veneer of competition it desires.

Legal Challenges

Legal challenges to the electoral process have a strong basis in Egyptian political history. Both the 1984 and 1987 parliaments were invalidated by court rulings related to the fairness of the electoral system. Although Egypt’s judiciary has been somewhat tamed by extensive executive branch interference since 2006, some of the feistiness of judges seen during 2004 and 2005 returned during the 2010 elections.
A few judges spoke out about blatant ballot box stuffing and other irregularities they witnessed, but rulings by the administrative courts (which hear citizen complaints against the government) are potentially more significant. During the short and chaotic official campaign period, administrative courts issued various decisions ordering the High Elections Commission to register opposition and independent candidates it had rejected. The commission has either ignored or bypassed these rulings, basing its practice in this regard on the fact that most rulings by administrative courts were being contested in civil courts. The Supreme Administrative Court then issued a historic decision calling the use of civil courts in this illegal and condemning the entire electoral process.
The Supreme Administrative Court’s decision sets up a potential basis for it to invalidate the parliament, and there might be other legal bases to do so as well. While this is unlikely to occur immediately there is a definite possibility it will happen eventually. Such an occurrence could trigger new parliamentary elections at a time inconvenient for the ruling party–for example, in the midst of a presidential succession or early in a new president’s term. It could also create a legal basis for challenging the legitimacy of the next presidential election, because parties will be included or excluded from contesting that race based on their results in the recently concluded parliamentary elections.

Political Concerns

The NDP also created a political cause for concern about the presidential race, although that problem could resolve itself in favor of the ruling party. The last thing the NDP wants is real opposition competition for the presidency, but the second-to-last thing it wants is the appearance of no competition at all. The NDP has taken extensive steps–including constitutional amendments–to prevent its most serious competitor, the banned Muslim Brotherhood, from getting on the ballot. But it would like the legal parties that generally cooperate closely with the NDP to run candidates in the presidential race.
Wafd occupies a unique position in Egyptian politics and has turned out, after years of internal divisions and weak electoral performance, to be oddly pivotal in the recent elections. Although the party has fallen far from its pre-1952 leadership position and proud tradition of nationalism and liberalism, many Egyptians still speak wistfully of the Wafd’s lost potential to lead the opposition. For the first time in decades, the party seized this potential in early December, when party members forced Wafd leader al-Sayyed al-Badawy to withdraw the party from the run-off elections after an ugly first round in which the Wafd captured only two seats. Badawy, a wealthy businessman with much to lose, appeared to be under great stress. He had apparently expected his party to benefit richly from the NDP’s determination to close out the Brotherhood.
If both Wafd and Tagammu (which declined to nominate a candidate for president in 2005) choose not to play the presidential election game–and if the government continues to refuse to recognize Ayman Nour’s faction of the al-Ghad party–the NDP would be left alone in the race to all intents and purposes. But the future is far from certain. There are many inducements the NDP can use to woo back the tame opposition parties it offended in the recent elections.
The question remains whether the NDP still has the capacity for skillful political management in the current era of uncertainty and looming presidential succession. The recent elections appeared to be out of control and out of sync with the current media environment. Ruling party candidates and government poll workers reportedly exasperated even NDP party leaders by perpetrating blatant fraud and condoning acts of violence by paid thugs. The dirty tactics that Egyptians tolerated twenty or thirty years ago are less acceptable in an era where YouTube, Twitter and other new media have made these practices a national and international embarrassment.
Post-election statements by NDP leaders have left Egyptians shaking their heads at the alternate reality in which their leaders seem to be living. NDP Secretary General Safwat al-Sherif, for example, said on 7 December that the new parliament reflected Egypt’s true political map and both he and Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif have resolutely rejected allegations of irregularities.
Legal and political quandaries stemming from the 2010 parliamentary election results are likely to plague the party and the ruling establishment for some time. Likewise, no post-election spin can resolve the elections’ legitimacy crisis or restore the People’s Assembly’s damaged credibility, which have worrisome repercussions for political life in Egypt.
*One of Tagammu’s five elected representatives, Abdel Aziz Shabaan, died a few days after the run-off election, leaving behind a vacant seat. Official election procedures require that a new election be conducted for the district formerly represented by Shabaan in order to choose his successor.

Michele Dunne and Amr Hamzawy coauthored this article. Michele Dunne is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., and Amr Hamzawy is a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

This article is published by agreement with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, © 2010, (http://egyptelections.carnegieendowment.org/).

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