A candidate in the Egyptian parliamentary elections, for which voting started on Sunday, has sparked the ire of religious officials because his posters included a photograph of the Koran. Egypt’s election committee bans the use of religious symbols in election publicity, but doesn’t bar candidates from making fun of themselves – as a poster for another candidate demonstrates: Hamda Bakra was photographed in a Napoleonic pose next to an apple tree with a sketch of an EKG heart test printout.
As in prior election campaigns, Egypt has once again been festooned with colorful posters and original – sometimes surprising – slogans from the thousands of candidates competing for the 596 parliamentary seats.
The first round of voting concludes Monday, after two days of voting (with the second round following in December). This is the first parliamentary election since the legislature was disbanded by order of the court in July 2012. Unlike the last elections in late 2011 and early 2012 – which stirred hope among Egyptians for political change following the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 – this time the voting is taking place in, at best, an atmosphere of deep apathy and, at worst, deep frustration. Many of the organizations that brought young people together to participate in the revolution have said they won’t take part in the election, and numerous citizens have said they attach no importance to the vote, which is not expected to result in an independent legislature.
Egypt’s election law gives independent candidates 75 percent of the seats in parliament, with a further 20 percent going to party lists (the remaining 5 percent will be appointed by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi). This ratio is designed to prevent Sissi’s opponents from the small parties winning seats, and ensuring that only supporters of the president from large parties such as the Free Egyptians Party take their place into parliament. The large percentage of seats reserved for independent candidates enables the Sissi administration to provide individual assistance to its supporters and hurt the chances of its opponents.
The expectation is that the new parliament will, uncoincidentally, look very similar to parliaments during Mubarak’s reign. It will be a handpicked, submissive and obedient body that will not place obstacles in the president’s way.
Sissi will also be able to dissolve parliament at will, in accordance with a constitution that was drafted in keeping with his own vision.
Sissi could argue that the parliamentary election completes the plan he drafted when he assumed power in July 2013, after he deposed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. In accordance with that plan, a new constitution was drafted and a new president elected, followed now by parliamentary elections. But that plan, which officially includes democratic principles, is far from what those involved in Mubarak’s overthrow would have wished for.
During his years in charge, Sissi has issued laws and rules limiting freedom of expression, barring demonstrations and imposing heavy punishments on media correspondents who don’t act in accordance with directives from the regime. He has given his security forces special status under the law, and has allowed the regime to punish citizens based on a draconian terrorism law.
It is doubtful if the new parliament will be able to, or wish to, reexamine the validity of the laws. Sissi has not just sufficed with election provisions to ensure that he gets a parliament to his liking. In recent months, his administration has carried out an arrest campaign against Muslim Brotherhood activists and members of civilian organizations. Newspaper editors have been called and given clear directives over what they can and, particularly, cannot publish, while bloggers have reported being harassed by “anonymous” thugs.
The true test of the election will be the turnout. In the first round of the 2011-2012 election, the turnout was 59 percent. In the second, in January 2012, it went up to 65 percent. In the 2014 presidential election, that figure dropped to 47.5 percent.
The faith that the public may place in the current voting will determine the extent of the parliament’s legitimacy. But as Mubarak and Sissi have already shown, Egypt can function, for better or worse, without a parliament or with one that is not independent.
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