Egypt’s legitimacy crisis in the aftermath of flawed elections

Egypt’s 2010 parliamentary elections have left behind a political scene that is simultaneously frustrating and puzzling. The frustration is readily apparent–domestic observers and some local and international media correspondents have documented numerous violations that marred the elections. Most notably, security forces staged an organized intervention on behalf of the ruling National Democratic Party’s candidates, hindered some judges overseeing the elections from doing their job, and blocked many observers from either entering the polling stations or remaining long enough to evaluate the election process. Vote-buying was widespread and acts of violence at polling places resulted in some loss of life and damage to public property. This dishearteningly lengthy list of violations has greatly limited the integrity, ! transparency, and competitiveness of the elections. It has als! o stripp ed the credibility of the ruling establishment’s promise to hold free and pluralistic elections of which Egypt would be proud–and which would have been a huge step forward on the path of democratization.

For the next five years, Egyptian citizens will have an NDP-dominated People’s Assembly. The NDP won over 90 percent of the seats, with opposition and independents’ share declining from 24 percent in the 2005-2010 parliament to less than 10 percent today. Despite its relatively strong numbers in the last parliament, the opposition was still unable to stop the NDP from pushing through its constitutional amendments and legislative action agenda, and was ineffective in its watchdog role and repeated attempts to hold the executive branch accountable. One would assume, then, that the ruling party’s almost absolute monopoly of the legislative process in the new People’s Assembly will mean the opposition, with very little representation in parliament, will enjoy an even more extremely flimsy oversight role.

The 2010 parliamentary elections, by almost completely unifying the legislative and executive branches, will only further aggravate the existing problems in Egyptian politics. The People’s Assembly will have a ruling party controlling 90 percent of the seats and a stunted opposition with only a handful of non-influential deputies, while the Muslim Brotherhood (whose deputies were the most effective watchdog within the opposition) and the liberal Wafd Party are completely absent. The assembly will lack the legitimacy of popular approval, which comes only from fair and transparent elections. A parliament like the newly elected assembly only deepens the negative repercussions of one of the most serious structural imbalances in Egyptian politics, namely the weakness of the legislative branch and the continual decline of its oversight role.

Furthermore, at a time when Egyptian society is witnessing heightened sectarian tensions between Muslim and Christian citizens, and the security, religious freedoms, civil liberties, and political rights of Christians are being challenged around the Middle East, the new People’s Assembly in Egypt for 2010-2015 will under-represent Copts. Out of its nearly 800 candidates, the NDP only had 10 Copts, while the liberal Wafd Party nominated five Copts and the leftist Tagammu three Copts, in addition to a handful of independent Coptic candidates. Copts thus represent less than two percent of the new People’s Assembly, meaning they are underrepresented relative to their numbers (most unofficial estimates place Copts at 10 percent of the population) and relative to their influential role in Egyptian society.

In evaluating the outcome of the election and what it means for Egypt’s political scene, it is difficult to assume that the ruling NDP and its various executive branch bodies manipulated the electoral process with the sole purpose of attaining total control over parliament. There is no doubt that the NDP was looking to keep its comfortable, greater than two-thirds majority in the People’s Assembly, continue to consolidate its position as the dominant party, diminish the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in parliament, and limit political competition.

But in approaching the elections, the ruling party also wanted to achieve a complementary set of political objectives in the 2010 elections, most prominently to strengthen the position of the cooperative opposition parties in the People’s Assembly by substituting their deputies in place of the seats held by the Muslim Brotherhood members.

The NDP also had a strategic interest in conducting the electoral process with enough integrity, transparency, and competition to enable the party to defend its reformist credentials and forge a new image of itself with the Egyptian public.

Finally, given the western (especially American) interest in the parliamentary elections and the government’s outright rejection of international monitoring, the NDP was aiming to stage the elections in a way that gave credibility to both the executive bodies’ management of election details and to the local monitoring.

The final results, however, reveal clear gaps between this set of NDP objectives and the actual outcome. The NDP has 90 percent instead of 80 percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly and the opposition has only a handful of spots. Furthermore, the electoral process was plagued with violations related to the Higher Electoral Commission’s weakness and the security agencies’ overwhelming strength; and domestic observers and the local and international media were harassed to such an extent that the outside world is openly denouncing the elections and raising concerns over how the presidential elections in 2011 will be run.

What prevented the NDP from carrying out its objectives? Is election abuse so run-of-the-mill in Egypt? Is it the extreme weakness of the registered opposition parties, which the NDP would have liked to see win more seats? Or is it the structural contradiction between the desire to dominate politics and policy making on the one hand and allowing a degree of limited pluralism on the other?

Whatever the case may be, Egypt is facing a new political crisis. The parliamentary elections, both in the way they were run and in their results, were far too removed from fairness, competitiveness, and the essence of democracy to generate a legislature that can effectively monitor the executive branch. Consequently, the newly elected People’s Assembly is bound to lack genuine popular legitimacy and to shed negative light on how the ruling establishment will stage the upcoming presidential elections in 2011.