The Future of Egyptian Democracy Hinges on the Fight Over Its Electoral Law

by Devin McCarthy // Published March 12, 2013
egypt protest

Over two years since the Arab Spring ousted President Hosni Mubarak and brought the promise of democracy to Egypt, it is clear that that promise is threatened. While most of the media covers the protests and riots in the streets of Cairo and Port Said, the battle that may ultimately decide the fate of Egyptian democracy is being fought over Egypt's new electoral law.

Egypt was scheduled to hold parliamentary elections on April 22, but those elections have now been suspended. The reason is an electoral law passed in January by the Shura Council, Egypt's upper house of parliament, which is now being contested in Egypt's courts.

While it might seem like it would be better for Egypt to have elections under any electoral law rather than postpone them, it is extremely important that Egypt get its electoral system right. An unfair law could create dissatisfaction with the democratic process among Egypt's electorate and harm the progress of democracy in the Middle East.

FairVote has produced a number of analyses on the democratic transitions of Egypt and other countries in the region as part of its Arab Spring Series. As we reported after the last parliamentary elections in 2011-2012, Egypt uses a parallel electoral system in which two-thirds of the legislature is elected using a proportional representation system and the remaining third is elected under winner-take-all rules. The inclusion of proportionally allocated seats had a major effect on the composition of the current Egyptian parliament.

The Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that was banned under Mubarak's regime, received about 37.5% of votes in the last election for the People's Assembly, more than any other party. In the winner-take-all districts, however, their Democracy Alliance coalition won over 65% of the seats - enough for a decisive supermajority in parliament had no other representatives been elected.

With the proportional seats added, the Muslim Brotherhood's share of parliament dropped to 46%. That is still a disproportionate percentage of seats compared to their nationwide support, but it does accurately reflect two important facts about the Egyptian election: 1) The Democracy Alliance had the most popular support of any political bloc, but 2) it did not have a majority of support. The mixed Egyptian electoral system's performance in the in 2011-2012 People's Assembly elections was far from perfect, but it at least prevented the undemocratic event of one group taking control of the body without receiving a majority of votes.

That was not the case in elections for the Shura Council in early 2012, where the Freedom and Justice Party (backed by the Muslim Brotherhood) won 58% of elected seats despite receiving only 45% of the vote under the same parallel system as the lower house.  As Egypt's new electoral law was drafted and then adopted by that same Shura Council, it is understandable why Egypt's other parties find the law to be suspect. On February 26, the National Salvation Front, Egypt's primary leftist opposition group, vowed to boycott any elections carried out under the new law.

The new electoral law would not alter the 2:1 ratio of proportional seats to winner-take-all seats while increasing the size of parliament from 508 to 546. But the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have attempted to gain an advantage through gerrymandering Egypt's district map, which is possible both in the winner-take-all districts and in the proportional representation districts. While gerrymandering is typically very difficult with multi-member districts using proportional voting systems, it can be done in Egypt's proportionally elected districts because the ratio of representatives to population is not the same in every district.

The best course for Egypt is to do away with the parallel voting system and transition to a more fully proportional system like those of Germany and New Zealand. That system should have no distortions caused by winner-take-all and a district map such that the number of People's Assembly representatives per citizen in a district is consistent throughout the country. Whatever law Egypt settles on before the next election, though, it is essential that it be fair to all major parties, communities, and interests in Egypt. Otherwise, the legitimacy of Egyptian democracy may be irreversibly damaged.