The Middle East Channel

The effects of Egypt’s election law

Egyptians have finally begun to learn the rules that will govern their first post-revolutionary parliamentary elections, scheduled to begin on November 28. The election law announced by the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) is remarkably complicated, generating great confusion both inside and outside of Egypt. Those poorly understood rules will play an important ...


Egyptians have finally begun to learn the rules that will govern their first post-revolutionary parliamentary elections, scheduled to begin on November 28. The election law announced by the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) is remarkably complicated, generating great confusion both inside and outside of Egypt. Those poorly understood rules will play an important role in shaping the results — and are already pushing the Egyptian party scene into a polarized competition between Islamist and secular blocs, with independents somewhere in the middle with no clear political or economic agenda.

The electoral system that the SCAF has chosen for the forthcoming election is a departure from Egypt’s historical practice. Egyptian elections have typically been governed by a majoritarian system in smaller constituencies (222 in total). Such a system traditionally made voting a choice between individual candidates rather than parties’ programs, which put a premium on coming from a strong local tribe or from a wealthy background. The small size of constituencies made this possible because it increased the electoral weight of extended families and tribes, especially in rural constituencies.

The new law creates a mixed system, which reserves one-third of the lower house’s 498 seats to be contested by a majoritarian system in 83 two-member constituencies (with each constituency more than double the size of the previous ones). The remaining two-thirds (332 seats) will be contested according to a Proportional Representation (PR) system in larger constituencies where the district magnitude ranges between 4 and 12 seats. The districts for the two systems are not identical, which means that voters will be casting votes and candidates will be campaigning in potentially radically different districts.

The closed party lists that will be used to choose two-thirds of the seats restrict personalized voting in such constituencies. From a normative perspective, this is not bad at all — in fact personalized voting was always cited as one of the major deficiencies of voting behavior in the pre-revolution era. But in practice it means that the balance will tip in the Islamists’ favor. The new secular parties are still quite weak organizationally. They had no time to build party organizations capable of getting out sizable crowds to support party labels. Many of the secular parties have no option but to try to get traditional local leaders on their list (the chiefs of local tribes and wealthy families in rural constituencies). The local clout of such figures, however, would hardly make a difference in the large PR constituencies. Instead, party organization and a clear ideological profile would be the greater asset, especially the type of organization that stretches over extended regions. In Egypt right now, only Islamists possess those advantages.

How parties order candidates on their lists will also matter. The candidates’ order on party lists determines their chances of winning and losing, with those on the top winning even if a party got just one seat whereas those at the bottom would only win if that party wins all seats contested in the constituency. This creates huge internal conflicts within parties on who gets the top places. Islamist parties have the internal party discipline to enforce the order decided by the central office on their members. The story is quite different, however, for the newly created liberal and secular parties, most of which still lack the power to enforce internal discipline. Thus, for such parties, it is extremely difficult to sort the issue of candidates’ ordering without strong and visible internal conflicts, conflicts that might even threaten the party’s unity and existence.

Finally, there is the requirement that at least one of the two MPs elected from each majoritarian constituency has to be either a peasant or a worker, a heritage of the Nasserist era. Practically, this means that elections in majoritarian constituencies are fought through electoral alliances that are struck between pairs of candidates — usually one of them is either a worker or peasant and each comes from a different village in the constituency. Such alliances are win-win tactics as they enable each candidate to win votes from the other candidate’s stronghold — votes that would never be obtainable without such alliances. History has taught candidates in majoritarian constituencies that it is extremely difficult for a candidate to win on his/her own — it is often impossible for one’s stronghold to be able to secure a majority of votes in the whole constituency from the first round. This rule again favors Islamist forces, which have historically made maximum use of such alliances to penetrate the strongholds of many other contestants.

The enlarged majoritarian constituencies in the new election law will likely encourage more candidates to build such electoral alliances with the Muslim Brotherhood candidates. This is because relying on one’s personal popularity, local clout, or tribal support won’t guarantee a majority in such enlarged constituencies. Rather, the support of a party organization would be the only key. Moreover, these enlarged majoritarian constituencies would have the effect of increasing the number of candidates per seat, making it even more difficult for a candidate to win a 50 percent plus one majority from the first round. The logical solution in such a fragmented battlefield is to strike a deal with the only force whose party organization would still be collectively behind its candidates regardless of how many other candidates are running. These are again the Muslim Brothers. All this is not because the Muslim Brothers are the only political force in town, but because they are the most organized and the only force that could mobilize all its members behind a single candidate in each constituency.

The enlarged majoritarian constituencies are also likely to harm the electoral chances of the revolutionaries. The reason is that many of them are likely to run as independents — either because they failed to found their own parties or because they resent many of the established ones. Running as independents would not work in their favor, however, because only quite a few of them enjoy enough name recognition on the constituency level. In addition, the majority of them lack any experience whatsoever in running elections the Egyptian way; something that requires money and strong local connections — both of which many of them lack.

The conventional wisdom in Egypt right now is that even with the many institutional advantages, the likely outcome is that Islamist forces would end up only with a plurality rather than a majority of seats, making the future parliament a fragmented one in which no single party has a majority. This expectation has to be followed by a caveat however; if the electoral weight of the Salafis turns out to be really significant, a majority of seats could materialize. Right now there is no reliable assessment whatsoever for the size of the Salafis’ force. Judging by the recent exchange of attacks between the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis, some commentators think that the Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy is to try to distance themselves from the Salafis — at least during the election campaign — so as to portray themselves as the moderate Islamist force. Irrespective of both parties’ attempts to position themselves during the election (although some electoral coordination is likely to happen), the reality of Egyptian politics right now is likely to push Islamist forces to coalesce at some point. If not during the campaign, then at any point after the parliament is formed when the religious-secular debate starts to take shape during the deliberation of the new constitution. After all, their agendas on many constitutional issues are quite congruent.

Having said the above, it is not fragmentation of the upcoming parliament that is likely to be the most problematic for the country’s early steps toward democracy. Instead, it is the unprecedented polarization that is created in parallel between the Islamist bloc on the one hand and the secular bloc on the other. If this divide holds during the campaign and is reflected in the structure of parliament membership (where government is dominated by one bloc and opposition by the other), then political competition in the country for the coming years will remain to be fought along the religious-secular axis. This diminishes, to a great extent, the room available for common ground and comprises — both urgent necessities to confront the country’s embedded economic and social problems.

Mazen Hassan is a lecturer in the department of political science at Cairo University.

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