The initial round of Egypt’s first post-Mubarak election for the 498-seat lower house of parliament begins Monday. It will move ahead despite violent protests against the ruling military council that forced the interim government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf to resign and raised doubts about the country’s transition to democracy.
The latest bloodshed, the demands of protesters for a postponement, and an election boycott by at least one party, dashed hopes for a smooth balloting that would produce a legitimate parliament as a critical step away from the Egyptian dictatorship overthrown in the January 25 revolution. Voting will occur as a new interim prime minister, the 78-year-old former premier Kamal El-Ganzoury, struggles to form a government.
The election is taking place according to the “road map” of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the de facto ruling body since the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year regime nearly 10 months ago. Despite the demands of protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and some political parties for postponement, the election has the support of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party is expected to be the biggest winner, as well of other leading political groups.
SCAF’s shifting rules and timetable envisioned the military retaining ultimate control after the parliamentary elections until the election of a 270-seat upper house, the formation of a constitutional assembly, the writing and ratification of a new constitution, and election of a new president. SCAF indicated it would hold on to power until 2013 under this “road map,” but recent demonstrations and an agreement between SCAF and political factions–including notably the Muslim Brotherhood– forced it to acquiesce to a speedier transition and guarantee presidential elections and the transfer of power by June 2012.
SCAF’s handling of the transition has fueled uncertainty throughout the run-up to the parliamentary election. The crisis deepened in recent weeks, amid growing political wrangling about SCAF’s place in Egypt’s future political system and over constitutional protections. Vague about the timetable for eventually handing power to civilian authority, SCAF has tipped its desire to be an ongoing guardian of the state, complete with supra-constitutional powers, amnesties for past misdeeds and insulation from full civilian control. Protesters frustrated by the slow pace of change and the military’s heavy-handed rule are also demanding that SCAF chief Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi step down and that SCAF quickly hand over power to civilian authority.
In another contentious debate as Egyptians go to the polls, Islamists and liberals fearful of Islamist domination have increasingly come into conflict over the issue of putting constitutional limits on majority rule.
The election beginning November 28 are being overseen by the High Judicial Elections Commission, appointed by SCAF decree No. 136 last July in accordance with Egyptian electoral regulations law No. 73 of 1956. Voting will take place in three rounds starting with the most heavily populated electoral districts in and around Cairo, the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, and other larger cities such as Port Said, Kafr Al-Sheikh, Assiut and Luxor.
Balloting is scheduled to take place in the remaining districts on December 14 and January 3. Polls will be open at all locations for two consecutive days to allow time for all who want to vote to do so. Egypt had 45 million registered voters as of last March, but registration is not required in this election; Egyptians aged 18 and above are eligible with the presentation of their valid national ID card.
The voting system is complicated. According to a deal worked out with major political parties by Egyptian military Chief of Staff Sami Anan, members of the lower house, the Majlis Al-Shaab, are being chosen through a hybrid ballot. Voters will choose two people from among individual candidates to fill one-third (166) of the seats. For the remaining two-thirds (332) of the seats, Egyptians will vote for a list consisting of members of a party or an alliance of parties. List candidates will enter parliament in numbers according to the proportion of the vote the list as a whole receives. Also, the boundaries of a voter’s district differ depending on whether they are casting the individual-candidate portion of their ballot or the party-list portion; there are 83 different districts for the former, and 46 for the latter.
Analysts believe that the individual-candidate ballot would favor the falool, or remnants of Mubarak’s disbanded National Democratic Party, due to long-established networks of patronage. The party-list ballot is viewed as more favorable to old and well-organized groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wafd party.
A law dating from the Arab socialist era of Egyptian ruler Gamal Abdel Nasser requires at least one of the elected representatives from each individual district to be a worker or a farmer. If neither of the top two candidates in a district is found to be a worker or farmer after the first ballot in a particular round, a special run-off election will be held one week later to assure adherence to this law. Party lists must also include workers or farmers.
The Egyptian Supreme Administrative Court ruled that Egyptian citizens living abroad–8-10 million people–have the right to vote. However, they must have been registered in the Egyptian database of voters by September 27 in order to do so. Due to this and other logistical restrictions, less than 500,000 expats are expected to be eligible to vote.
According to the most recent public opinion survey, conducted in October by the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and the Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Institute, 51 percent of Egyptians who intend to vote have not made up their minds on which party to select. The poll indicated, however, that the election will be dominated by two main parties:
- Freedom and Justice Party, an Islamist party established earlier this year by the Muslim Brotherhood, itself a group formed in Egypt in 1928.
- The New Wafd Party, a liberal group that dates its origins to 1919 and Egypt’s nationalist movement under British colonialism.
The poll indicated that less than 1 percent of decided voters planned to cast ballots for the Youth Revolution Coalition, a leading force in the January 25 uprising. The 0.5 percent support for the Youth was a dramatic decline from August when another poll showed it with 17.2 percent backing.
Members of Mubarak’s disbanded ruling party are eligible to run. Opponents of the ousted regime sought to have former NDP members banned from becoming candidates, but after intense legal battles the Egyptian Supreme Administrative Court ruled November 1 that they can stand in the election.
Egypt has a history of low voter turnout, violence and ballot rigging. Widespread disgust with government manipulation of the parliamentary election in November 2010 helped foment the anti-Mubarak opposition that ignited the 25 January revolution. After the revolution, SCAF dissolved that parliament and organized a constitutional referendum on March 19; it took place with a nearly 50 percent turnout and a marked absence of violence or irregularities.
The latest eruption of protests and related violence has led to concerns that the post-revolution election process will now be tarnished if not disrupted by renewed violence. At least 42 people died and 1,000 were injured as security forces violently attempted to quell the recent protests. At least one party, the Social Democrats, announced a boycott of the polls.
SCAF announced that it would bar foreign groups from systematically monitoring the parliamentary election, though a token number of international observers will be allowed at polling locations.
Tom Plofchan is a graduate student in the Middle East Studies Center at the American University in Cairo. He is writing a Master’s thesis on the Egyptian elections.