At first glance, it seems that Egypt’s Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has succeeded in obtaining the parliament he wanted. He has managed to avoid any unexpected outcomes in these parliamentary elections and the electoral coalition that he informally supported–“For the Love of Egypt”–has won. However, on the other side, this election has given the pro-democracy camp very promising indicators about the capacity and stability of the evolving authoritarian regime. For instance, wide popular and partisan withdrawal from the electoral process have cast doubt on the political legitimacy of the regime.
In addition, al-Sisi regime’s capacity for political recruitment and mobilization has proven to be too feeble in comparison to the previous authoritarian regime of Mubarak. Finally, this election has revealed that the al-Sisi regime is a mixture of personalist and military authoritarianism, in which the centrality of the dictator, a lack of institutionalization and a limited capacity to distribute benefits and offices except to a narrow base of supporters threaten its stability and longevity.
The first Egyptian parliamentary elections since the military coup were conducted between October 17th and December 2nd this year. Although many observers have underestimated this election and its political significance, it nonetheless offers important insights into the nature of the evolving authoritarian regime in Egypt and clues as to the future of its democratic transformation.
There is significant evidence that shows that Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was reluctant to invite the people to engage in parliamentary elections. For example, he postponed the call for elections for a longer period than expected, taking almost two years between issuing the new constitution in January 2014 and holding parliamentary elections in October 2015. Moreover, al-Sisi clearly expressed his dissatisfaction with the wide powers given to parliament: in the 2014 constitution, which he says was written with “good intentions”, they are comparable to those granted to the president. Therefore, many rumors have spread about the possibility of his modifying the current constitution or preventing the new parliament from establishing a government and/or discussing and revising the 350 laws issued by al-Sisi during his exceptional period in possession of both legislative and executive powers.1
As a classical military ruler, the idea of power-sharing is alien to al-Sisi’s vision of efficient government. Prof. Nazih N. Ayubi has stated that military officers, on seizing power after a coup “or revolutionary movement”, always remain skeptical towards the democratic political process, its usefulness, its reflection of conflicting stances, ideology and interest politics. In addition, generals typically remain fearful of democracy since they are not sure where it will lead. Ayubi has argued that the military vision of politics is mainly bureaucratic and administrative. They seek to manage political issues not by way of a deliberative method and conflict resolution but through a model based on military orders/discipline.2
This observation could explain the attitude of Gen. al-Sisi toward the current parliamentary election as “a necessary evil”, which is valuable only to complete the prerequisites of legitimacy, rather than to represent the views of different political trends or the interests of competing groups. But to avoid any unexpected outcomes, al-Sisi worked on preparing the favorable conditions before calling the elections. He led a harsh crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood–his main opponents and a major political force in Egypt–as well as other revolutionary movements (such as the April 6th movement and other leftists and civil activist movements). Furthermore, he sidelined political figures and parties, many associated with the activism of the January 25th revolution, even those that supported his military coup (paradoxically called “the democratic wing of the coup”) in favor of a group of parties and independent candidates who mostly belonged to the former ruling party (Mubarak’s party), the National Democratic Party (NDP). Therefore, many parties and partisan coalitions decided to boycott the elections. Lastly, al-Sisi restricted competition in this election to those who support him and others who more strongly support him. Hence, ironically, he has called on all competing Egyptian parties to form one electoral coalition (against whom?) as a condition for his support.3 Later on, he decided to informally support an electoral coalition called Fi Hob Misr “For the Love of Egypt” established by statist figures and including a number of parties, most of them headed by former members of the NDP.
The primary results of the parliamentary elections indicate that Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has succeeded in obtaining the parliament he wanted. The electoral coalition “For the Love of Egypt” has won all closed-list seats (120 seats) in both rounds4 and independent candidates have gained 56.9% of seats at the expense of partisan candidates, who gained 43.1%.5 The two victorious parties were the liberal Free Egyptians Party (securing only 65 seats out of 596 seats), followed by the Nation’s Future Party (a statist party) with 50 seats.6 No doubt, the dominance of independent MPs and the fragmentation of partisan seats between about 16 parties (9 of them with fewer than 10 seats)7 will negatively affect the stability and effectiveness of the parliament. Moreover, former intelligence officer Sameh Saif al-Yazal, the coordinator of the “For the Love of Egypt” electoral coalition, has stated that he will lead the formation of a pro-Sisi parliamentary bloc comprised of independent MPs.8
On the other hand, there are many reasons to doubt the decisiveness of these perceived victories. First of all, the voting turnout was extremely low. The High Electoral Committee announced that voting turnout in the first and second stage of Egypt’s parliamentary elections was 28.3%.9 However, the scenes of empty polling stations and the vanishing of the “long lines phenomenon” do not suggest these percentages were accurate. “Elections without voters” was a common term used by media reporters and commentators.10
Also, contradicting governmental statements about voting turnout at the beginning of voting serves to cast doubt on these numbers. Prime Minister Sherif Ismail declared after the first day that voting turnout ranged from 15–16%, while his adviser on elections said it was 22%, and the Minister of Local Development said it was 11-15%.11 Other official statements were more absurd. For instance, the spokesman of The High Electoral Committee declared that in the first half of the first day the percentage who voted was only 2.27%.12
This popular boycott goes hand in hand with wide partisan boycott. Many parties (mostly Islamist parties) and potential electoral alliances withdrew from the elections for political reasons or lack of financial resources or both. In addition to the previously ruling party, the “Freedom and Justice Party”, which was legally dissolved, the list of boycotting parties includes: Strong Egypt Party, al-Wasat Party, Homeland party, Building and Development Party, Bread and Freedom Party, The Popular Current, and The Reawakening of Egypt Electoral Coalition.13
This wide popular and partisan withdrawal from the electoral process casts doubt on its legitimacy and rumors about the “bad intentions” of Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi toward the wide prerogatives given to the parliament in the current constitution render winning this parliamentary election a trivial victory.
Despite its insignificant impact on the political status quo in Egypt, this parliamentary election has sent a highly significant message regarding the degree of strength and stability of the newly-formed authoritarian regime.
First, extremely low voting turnout and decreased partisan participation in this election raises doubts about the legitimacy of the current political system. As is known, political legitimacy is not only an abstract reality measured by normative values, but it is also a social fact measured by citizens’ attitudes and behavior. Political scientists’ conceptions of political legitimacy include what is called “acts of consent”, which refer to positive actions that express citizens’ recognition of state authority and a general willingness to obey its decisions. These acts of consent include voting in elections, paying tax, etc.14 Although some claim that low electoral participation has no definite meaning, as it may point to individuals’ boredom and indifference towards political issues as a whole rather than a “silent insurgence”, it is clear that boredom and indifference are still unhealthy signs for political legitimacy.
The second important message concerns the political capacity and degree of coherence of the evolving political regime. It was widely observed during this election that all participating parties and coalitions failed to recruit reputable candidates and had a limited capacity to mobilize supporters (despite using illegal means such as vote-buying). The overt disputes and verbal clashes between many prominent Pro-Sisi figures and electoral lists (e.g., For Love of Egypt and Egypt Call) made the situation even worse. These facts falsify the claim that the old regime has returned back intact, let alone coming back even in a much better shape. No doubt, the brutality of security services and its grip over the political field is now much stronger than Mubarak’s era. Nevertheless, the al-Sisi regime’s capacity for political recruitment and mobilization has proved to be feeble.
This fact leads us to the third message, which I believe is the most important one, about the fate of the evolving authoritarian regime in Egypt. Prof. Barbra Geddes classifies authoritarian regimes into three groups. The first group is personalist regimes, in which the access to political influence or office depends much more on the discretion of an individual leader. In military authoritarian regimes, a group of officers decides who will rule and exercises influence on policy making. The last category is single-party regimes, in which access to political office and control over policy are dominated by one party. According to Geddes, the personalist and military regimes are less stable and more vulnerable than the single party regime.15 This election has revealed that the al-Sisi regime is a mixture of personalist and military authoritarianism, in which the centrality of the individual, lack of institutionalization and limited capacity to distribute benefits and offices except for a narrow base of supporters threaten its stability and longevity.
The sad aspect in this story is that the pro-Democracy camp in Egypt seems to be too exhausted, disappointed, and fragmented to receive these promising messages. Between those arrested and in prison, those in exile, and those remaining in Egypt under close observation by the authorities, no one group is able to take advantage of this opportunity. As long as the democrats in Egypt are unable to overcome the trauma of the military coup to end their internal disputes by agreeing upon a common consensual agenda, the political situation in Egypt will remain in a “balance of weakness.”
1. According to the constitution, the president possesses both executive and legislative powers until the election of the new parliament.
al-Araby al-Jadeed: http://goo.gl/exXhLC (accessed: 2-12-2015)
2. Nazih N. Ayubi, al-dawlah al-markaziah fi misr “The Central Government in Egypt” (Beirut: markaz drāsāt al-weḥdah al-‘arabiah, 1989): 105-106.
4. Asharq Al-Awsat: http://goo.gl/0DQeyx (accessed: 5-12-2015)
5. Alwafd: http://goo.gl/NRUxMt (accessed: 5-12-2015)
7. Youm7: http://goo.gl/LG5QOn (accessed: 5-12-2015)
8. Asharq Al-Awsat: http://goo.gl/0DQeyx (accessed: 5-12-2015)
14. Bruce Gilley, “The meaning and measure of state legitimacy: Results for 72 countries” European Journal of Political Research 45 (2006): 501-505.
15. Barbra Geddes, “What do we know about democratization after twenty years?” Annual Review of Political Science 2 (1999), 114-144.