I'm published in Al-Ahram Weekly.
With the 2015 parliamentary elections completed, its members chosen and anxious to get to work, it is worth our while to compare and contrast not only preceding parliamentary elections to the 2015 elections but also preceding parliaments to what parliament 2015 may be. Were parliamentary elections 2015 conducted any differently from previous elections? And will this parliament be any better than previous ones? Bottom line: Should Egyptians be hopeful that political change is in the making?
In 2005, though the not-unusual low turnout of 25 per cent resulted in the National Democratic Party (NDP) landing a sweeping majority of 417 seats of 454 seats, the major significance was in the Muslim Brotherhood presence. Though legally banned, the Muslim Brotherhood won 71 seats over and above the 17 they had gained in 2000 and became the major opposition party. Amidst partisan NDP dominance, the Muslim Brotherhood’s success signalled a fundamental change in political and social norms. It also exposed the roots of dissatisfaction associated with the ruling NDP, and more importantly, it predicted the crucial changes yet to come. Only five women and four Copts joined the 2005 parliament, but they were appointed not elected.
The 2010/2011 parliamentary elections were the last during Mubarak’s reign and may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. With a turnout of 27.47 per cent and, yet again, a sweeping 86 per cent NDP majority winning 424 seats, the elections were bound to be considered flawed and rigged, and they were. Egyptian and international observers confirmed as much.
This while the Muslim Brotherhood retained only one seat, losing 87 of the 88 seats they had won during the 2000 and 2005 elections. Affiliation to the ruling party, the NDP, was the trump card, and the look and feel of the parliament was no doubt about it NDP, with the absence of any significant opposition. Even the 65 women who joined parliament were mostly NDP affiliated.
As for the parliament itself, it was a rubber stamp. Automatically passing all government legislative decisions, it lacked autonomy and remained at the mercy of the ruling party.
We come now to 2011, the first post-Mubarak parliamentary election, where turnout was 62.04 per cent, a stark difference from turnouts during previous parliamentary elections. The reason for this heartening change was the 25 January Revolution. Egyptians, believing Egypt verged on a new dawn, were encouraged to participate.
But the makeup of the 2011 parliament was Islamist, pure and simple. The Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, won over 47 per cent of the seats, the Salafist Nour Party almost 25 per cent. Seculars and leftists won only 16 per cent. Women won 11 seats, altogether comprising only two per cent.
Though liberal and secular Egyptians were shocked, the world wasn’t. In fact, the world seemed overly accepting of this new course. Ex-president Jimmy Carter dismissed the idea that the US should be concerned about the Islamist victory. “I don’t have any problem with that, and the US government doesn’t have any problem with that either. We want the will of the Egyptian people to be expressed,” he said.
We come to the 2015 parliamentary elections. As a preamble, note that parliamentary elections 2015 saw a tangible decline in rigging and fraud, if compared with previous parliamentary elections. Vote buying, however, remained part and parcel of the way candidates accumulated votes. Goods such as meat and sugar remained the most common way of bartering for votes, but straight money was exchanged, too.
The turnout, almost 30 per cent, did not match that of the 2011 parliamentary elections. Overseas, voting by mail was scrapped a historical first in 2012 and conducted in person only, which prevented those living far from Egyptian embassies and consulates from participating in the election process.
Some attribute the low turnout, if compared to 2011 turnout, to Egyptians becoming apathetic. The truth is in the last five years, and in particular after 25 January 2011, Egyptians went to the polls too many times: to elect presidents, vote in parliaments, endorse constitutions and accept or reject referendums, in addition to second rounds in most of these elections. Fatigue may have rendered some too exhausted to participate.
The second reason lies in Egyptians believing Egypt is already in good hands. “Why bother to go out of my way when President Al-Sisi, whom I had voted for already, can deal with it,” was what some said, totally unaware of the ramifications of once again becoming depoliticised.
And in all fairness, the new electoral system confused many. The difference between party-based, closed lists, and independent candidates perplexed some; the fear of unwittingly choosing an Islamist candidate worried others. The 6.8 per cent invalid ballots confirm this theory.
Half the time Egyptians didn’t receive enough information on this or that candidate. However, candidates themselves weren’t to blame since the period allotted to campaigning wasn’t long enough. This contributed to many notorious candidates with no parliamentary experience winning.
As for the parliament itself, the 2014 Constitution give it powers parliaments never enjoyed before. This parliament has the right to form the government if it disapproves of the president’s choice in government. It is also the first parliament allowed to withdraw confidence from the president.
The constitution also dispensed with the 50 per cent quota for workers and farmers, a restriction befitting bygone days, to be replaced by quotas for women, Copts, youths, farmers and/or workers, the physically challenged, and expatriates, reflecting today’s day and age more accurately.
An aspect of the new parliament that may work against it, or for it, is the dominating presence of the For the Love of Egypt list. It won all 120 seats allocated to the list system and promised full-fledged allegiance to President Al-Sisi. The party is also calling on independent members to join it to formulate an even stronger bloc. This is causing quite a kerfuffle that may backfire in the long run.
Doubters claim this pro-Sisi allegiance will create a mirror image of the NDP’s absolute commitment to Mubarak. A parliament that stands behind the president and will not cause waves for the sake of causing waves is a positive in today’s dilapidated state of affairs. Still, a rubber stamp parliament that endorses the president’s every beck and call is not what Egypt needs. In all events, Egyptians will have to wait and see how critical and collaborative this parliament will be.
Despite the overwhelming success of the For the Love of Egypt list, other blocs have formed, including the Free Egyptians Party, which won 65 seats. Pluralism may characterise this parliament after all.
In this post-Islamist parliamentary era, the Salafist Al-Nour Party won four seats, while marginalised groups, such as Copts and women, did extremely well, affirming the change occurring in Egypt. Copts won 16 seats in phase one alone. As many as 73 women won seats. Add the 14 women appointed by the president and women then seize almost 13 per cent of parliamentary seats, a record by any standard.
Amna Nosseir, a female member of parliament who happens to be the oldest parliamentarian elected, heads the parliament until a speaker is elected, another first in itself. If this isn’t a good omen, I don’t know what is.
The writer is a political analyst.