Egypt Inching its way down to Democracy

by Jais Mehaji, Arab Spring Series // Published June 16, 2011
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Although the Arab Spring movement started in Tunisia, as I discussed earlier this week, the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt was the year’s most stunning development. As the most influential and populous nation in the Arab world, Egypt, both in times of war and peace, has often played a leadership role in the region. The political changes happening in Egypt will certainly reverberate strongly in the region. Now it is turning to the even-harder task of establishing an enduring democracy, which if successful, will set a standard for its neighbors.

Similarly to their secular Tunisian counterparts, some Egyptians fear that rushing through elections might give the Muslim Brotherhood a decisive advantage, due to its more organized and consolidated nature as a political party; an advantage that some feel might will obstruct the liberal democratic course. According to the New York Times in a June 8 article, the military council now in power after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak has been “aloof”, firmly entrenching a status quo about which many Egyptians have become cynical – as evidenced by the persistence of protesters months after the departure of Mubarak.

As the current regime seeks to approve a referendum to schedule parliamentary elections in September, exact voting rules have yet to be determined. Furthermore, district lines as well as the possibility of revising the constitution still stirs up debate. Nonetheless, inching its way down to democracy, the military junta now in place has recently proposed a package of amendments which lay the foundations of the Egyptian electoral system and provide a sense of what this means for the democratic experiment.

The Supreme Military council on March 17 introduced a mixed member system of individual candidacy and party-list proportional representation, which if approved, would be chosen in the coming People’s Assembly (lower house of parliament) elections in September. Simply put, one third of the seats will be determined through a closed-list PR while the remaining two thirds will be allocated through the Mubarak-era individual candidacy system. In this system, each voter gets two votes: one for their local district representative and a second for their party of choice. In the event that no candidate receives an absolute majority in the first round, a second round is held. Also, half of parliament must be represented by workers and farmers. Some have written in more detail about this convoluted form of parallel voting (MMM).

Critics encompassing a spectrum of parties of all political stripes, including the 25 January Revolution’s youth movements, have expressed reservations about the proposed amendments. They cite that the system is biased in favor of the individual candidacy system which in the past was manipulated by the Mubarak regime to consolidate his ruling party and curtail any form of political pluralism. Critics also fear the parliamentary domination of the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood. Although the Brotherhood’s recent alliance announcement with Egypt’s liberal party might ease some concerns, some of its members have clearly stated their goal of imposing Sharia law. This might even raise fears for Egypt’s sizable Coptic minority.

As discussed in several commentaries in a New York Times special collection earlier this year, maintaining the individual candidacy, winner-take-all system for so many seats is indeed problematic. Not only does it continue the bitter institutional legacy of the Mubarak era, but it will seriously weaken the role of political parties, as some have argued, due to its highly candidate-centric nature. By relying on winner-take-all – the candidate with the most votes winning 100% of power -- the individual candidacy system confers each district’s majority a disproportionate amount of power, with geographically polarized representation based on tribal lines and a boost to locally powerful business élites, which many see as relics of the old regime. Although many Egyptians will vote on tribal lines regardless, their salience will be more visible under such a system. Retaining the individual candidacy system might also lead to ballot rigging, as well as a majority of candidates running as independents – highly reminiscent of the way elections were run under Mubarak. A more ambitious proportional representation system that goes beyond the one third, on the other hand, would encourage people to account for candidates’ party platforms, since the seats gained would correspond to the parties’ popularity. Essentially, a more far-reaching PR system would make the virtually non-existent party system in Egypt more robust, and more attuned to the demands of the people.

Indicating a growing lack of trust in the transitional military government, as well as fears of a Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary takeover, an increasing number of leaders of the former Mubarak opposition now favor drafting a new constitution before elections take place. However, questions about how this constitution would be written --whether the panel would be appointed or elected and so on – are vigorously debated in Egyptian political life. Amending the 1971 constitution, which had supported the former authoritarian system of government, is an important first step in managing a safe transition to democracy, through judicial oversight and more transparency and accountability. Although the proposed amendments are insufficient to some Egyptians and even a source of contention, the current debates signal a historic shift in Egyptian discourse that has shattered the psychology of fear that had prevailed for decades. What this all means is that Egyptians are learning the game of democracy, and that we must watch this closely because of Egypt’s central historic role in the Arab world.