Egyptian elections will give the country its first elected parliament in over three years. President el-Sissi’s supporters called the vote free and open, but critics said electoral laws suppress political opposition.
As Egyptians head to the polls on Sunday to elect the first parliament since then-army general and now President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi el-Sissi led the military ouster of former Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, it will mark the final step in what the government claims is a transition to democracy.
But with opposition squashed and an election law seen as a throwback to the era of former autocrat Hosni Mubarak, critics have said the new chamber will serve as little more than window dressing for an authoritarian regime.
“The president is quite popular in Egypt and clashing with him will not help,” said Shebaq Waguih, spokesman for the Free Egyptians party, a political party funded by billionaire media tycoon Naguib Sawiris. “We believe that there will be a kind of agreement between the parliament and the presidency and a kind of advanced sharing of power.”
The election will take place in two phases, with the first beginning in Egypt on Sunday and the second continuing next month. Run-offs will be held in December and new legislative chamber is expected by the end of this year.
Parliamentary election law calls for 75 percent of the 596 seats in parliament to get to directly elected candidates, 20 percent of seats will be filled by politicians on party lists and the final 5 percent of representatives will be appointed by the president.
While government supporters say the elections are free and the field is open for anyone who wishes to run, critics argue the system favors individual candidates and resembles the system under Mubarak, when wealthy individuals and those with connections to the government dominated elections.
“We are not very optimistic about our chances in winning a lot of seats in the upcoming elections because the priority in independent individual system is for your ability to spend,” said Khaled Dawoud, spokesman for the Democratic Current coalition which is running in the elections, and a member of the Dostour party, a liberal party founded by Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei.
“In big constituencies where you have 40 or 50 candidates running for seats, you will have fragmentation of votes and people with money and influence can basically buy votes,” Dawoud added. “They could win constituencies with a very small number votes considering what we expect of the relative turnout.”
A politically wary populace
To make matters worse, Dawoud said Egyptians had grown tired of the political process in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution and that a state of apathy had taken over among many voters.
“Especially young people do not feel that we are about to witness true diverse elections in which people are competing against each other over programs or over ideas and legislation,” said Dawoud, adding that he expected low voter turnout. “Most young people that I speak to have this impression that the results are known in advance in terms of having the parliament that’s mostly in support of president Sisi.”
While in many ways the new parliament may resemble past parliaments under Mubarak, with the absence of the National Democratic Party, the former autocrat’s ruling party, there will likely be a very weak party structure in the new parliament, according to Nathan J. Brown, a scholar of Middle Eastern law and politics at George Washington University and expert on Egypt.
No real opposition
“In the entire Mubarak era, except arguably in the final parliament there were viable opposition movements that were represented,” said Brown. “This parliament…you can point to some independent figures…you can point to ideological tendencies that might be rivals with each other, but there’s nobody in there that would really pose as opposition.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, which dominated elections following the 2011 elections before being ousted from power by the army, has now been branded a terrorist organization and its members banned from participating in elections.
The party that came in second to the Muslim Brotherhood, the ultraconservative Salafi Nour party, has struggled to survive. Its standing among previous supporters has not yet been put to the test after supporting the military’s ouster of Morsi. It was the only Islamist group to back the coup and associate with a government that led a bloody crackdown on fellow Islamists.
Amr Farouk, chairman assistant of foreign affairs of the Salafi Nour party said they did not expect to win as many seats as in the previous parliament, but added that it was because they were fielding fewer candidates and contesting fewer seats.
“We need…representatives from all parties, that’s why we are not running for 100 percent of seats,” said Farouk, believing their success rested on convincing Egyptians they sought to share power. “I think a successful measurement of the Nour party is to have a good candidate who can really translate the dream of Egyptians into reality.”
Government’s parliamentary safety valve
How the el-Sissi’s government will see as the role of the parliament or how the president chooses to use it also remains uncertain.
“The whole process of getting to this point has been messy and unorganized, which gives the impression that [the parliament is] not that important,” said Amy Hawthorne, deputy director for research at POMED and who formerly served in the US State Department focusing on the Egyptian transition.
Hawthorne said the new parliament could end up playing any number of possible roles, including a political cover for an authoritarian government.
“I think always there is a role in authoritarian systems for parliament and it has very much played its role Egypt in the past, as kind of a bit of a safety valve,” said Hawthorne. “Even though true oppositional voices are excluded from this process, the parliament will be a way for all these people to…in a way that lets out a little bit of steam.”
Whatever its role is to be, Dawoud said his coalition will continue to participate in Egypt’s political debate in the hopes of future change.
“At the end of the day … we are … under siege by the media, we are being attacked day and night for being people who supported the January 25th revolution,” said Dawoud. “I don’t think we should omit the chance to show our ideas, and state and engage directly with the people.”