Umm al-Dunya, the “cradle of civilization” as the Middle East has it, heads to the ballot box
By Safa Joudeh
Traffic flowed seamlessly through the streets of the middle-class Dokki district near Cairo on Monday evening. The initial round of voting for Egypt’s first parliament in three years had come to an end in the absence of the country’s customary elections fanfare. The unsteady trickle of voters into polling stations throughout two-days was a far cry from last year’s relatively modest but boisterous crowds that granted presidential elections their widely-touted public seal of approval.
In a last ditch effort to galvanize voters, campaign banners overlooking street markets and residential neighborhoods were left hanging despite a period of enforced electoral silence ahead of the vote. But the lacklustre messaging and tired campaign slogans only served to highlight the depth of the Egyptian street’s disillusionment with electoral politics, after numerous cycles of voting have failed to bring an end to years of political turmoil.
Early poll counts point to an estimated turnout rate as low as 20 percent, though officials overseeing the ballots suggest a much lower figure. In an attempt to boost turnout the Egyptian government announced a half-day off for state employees on the second day of voting. But voters didn’t bite. In stark contrast to the 2012 parliamentary elections, youth participation remained abysmally low, while women and elderly citizens made up the lion’s share of the voting public.
“Egyptians have gone to the polls a dozen times in the past five years, and if we ignore the vast amount of context behind the upheaval of those years, it’s easy to conclude that a parliamentary election never led to hugely positive change in the country” said Dr. HA Hellyer, nonresident fellow at the Brookings Center for Middle East Policy and the Royal United Services Institute in London. “Young voters some of the most politically active in Egypt,” he believes, “had huge expectations, and haven’t seen any of them realized.”
Egypt has been without a legislature since the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood-led chamber on technical grounds in 2012. The long-delayed parliamentary elections, taking place in two rounds with the second phase scheduled in November, are the final chess move in President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s political roadmap to democracy, marking the end of the transitional period that began with the Egyptian uprising in 2011.
But while the transfer of legislative authority back to an elected chamber will bolster Egypt’s democratic credentials with its partners and allies abroad, the prevalence of voter apathy indicates that Egyptians don’t expect much from their representatives in terms of influencing the political process, let alone in restoring stability. “I voted in all the elections from a sense of collective responsibility not for faith in my chosen candidates,” admitted a man in his mid-thirties who identified himself only as Kamal, after casting his ballot at the Gamal Abdel Nasser school-turned-polling station in the heart of Dokki.
Fears abound that the legislature will further consolidate centralized control with the president. They have a point: the outcome is tethered to an electoral process that gives a clear advantage to pro-state power brokers. Badly drafted electoral laws failed to ensure equal opportunity among parties and candidates, favoring those with strong financial and political backing. In addition, 75 percent of parliament’s 596 seats are reserved for independent candidates, leaving a paltry 120 seats to be contested by parties and coalitions in a winner-takes-all system that further curtails the influence of political parties. On several occasions, the security apparatus intervened to ensure the nomination of candidates on specific party lists, while preventing others from running.
The incoming parliament will likely be composed of loyalists and business leaders, with a strong contingent of politicians who belonged to Hosni Mubarak’s now defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) thrown in for good measure. While NDP members are not slated to make a comeback as a political formation, many have been absorbed into influential political parties eager to capitalize on their wide-reaching patronage networks in rural areas, where the percentage of people who tend to vote is higher. A considerable number of candidates nominated by leading electoral coalition For the Love of Egypt (FLE) are former NDP members. Initial counts indicate that FLE has won a sweeping victory in party-based candidacies in the first phase of the election. The coalition is widely assumed to be supported by the state.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood, once Egypt’s largest organized political force, has been excluded from the race, while few secular or leftist opposition groups have much chance of winning seats. Plagued by internal disputes, detached from the human concerns of citizens and lacking basic channels of dialogue, they have failed to develop bases of popular support, whether on political or ideological lines. Electoral alliances formed in a bid to maximize votes ended up grouping pro-state parties and influential politicians into leading coalitions that dominated the campaigning scene, leaving no room for a genuine alternative to the prevailing political current. “There’s an overall atmosphere that isn’t conducive to a deeply competitive race – a significant proportion of the population views the entire process as entirely illegitimate, as they seek the reinstatement of Morsi, and other political forces were dealt a large blow by the electoral law that prioritized individual candidates, rather than political parties,” Dr. Hellyer observed.
Some Egyptians eager to see a return to stability were all too willing to give their votes to big-name politicians and party lists, believing that well-funded lawmakers with ties to the state have a better chance at influencing policy. “My main concerns have to do with the economy,” Mona Abdel Latif, a 42-year-old homemaker said near a polling station in the Agouza district of Giza. “The country needs experienced leaders, not newcomers with democratic principles who lack the ability to manage state affairs,” she added.
In a country beset by a level of instability unseen in decades, Egypt’s polarized political landscape, tightly-controlled public sphere and troubled economy have dampened the public’s enthusiasm for politics. Footage from polling stations across the country showed that heavily armed security personnel backed by army forces at the entrances to polling stations in many cases outnumbered the number of voters present; a fact neither lost on the ruling authorities nor one to raise a great deal of concern. With the president’s largest opponents sidelined, and the country’s standing in the international arena fully restored, no viable competition to his authority exists at the present time, least of all by a legislature lacking in both substantive influence and the confidence of voters.