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Analysts: Elections Take Egypt Closer to Authoritarian Rule

An Egyptian casts her vote in the first round of parliamentary elections at polling station in Giza, Cairo, Egypt, Oct. 18, 2015.
An Egyptian casts her vote in the first round of parliamentary elections at polling station in Giza, Cairo, Egypt, Oct. 18, 2015.

The official results from the first round of Egyptian parliamentary elections indicate that the big winner is a pro-government alliance headed by a former intelligence general, taking 60 out of the 120 seats up for grabs.

For many experts that indicates the new parliament is going to be predominantly a pro-government legislature, one where the winning bloc, For the Love of Egypt, might amend the constitution to reduce parliament's oversight authority, and create a strong presidential executive system.

Some political analysts argue that the election law was designed from the very beginning to create a parliament with no opposition when it earmarked 75 percent of the parliament seats for independent candidates and only 20 percent for political parties, according to Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

“There are very few fierce regime critics who are participating in the electoral process and so clearly they have managed this election in such a way that is not going to be a representative parliament with a fully empowered opposition that is seeking to challenge the government.” Hanna said.

Authoritarian relapse

He believes that there has been an authoritarian relapse in Egypt and said this is not a transitional process toward democracy but rather a consolidation of regime power and authority.

Emad Shahin, Professor of Political Science at Georgetown University agrees.

“Since Egyptian President [Abdel Fattah al-] Sissi came to power, he has been depoliticizing the Egyptian system and the Egyptian political dynamics - trying actually to demobilize the system. And I think this is one of the results or the consequences of his strategy. At the moment the 2012 and the 2014 constitutions give the parliament considerable amount of power.” Shahin said.

Egyptian voters appeared to be shunning the ballot box in every step of the first round of these elections highlighting growing disillusionment since the army seized power in 2013 and promised to restore democracy.

Low voter turnout

Many experts agree that the record low turnout in the Egyptian parliamentary elections indicates that many Egyptians, especially young voters who represent 60 percent of the registeredto vote, are completely withdrawing from the political process with a rampant perception that the new parliament will not advance a transition toward democracy.

But Abdel Monem Said, director of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington's Regional Center for Strategic Studies argues that following the election of the new parliament, Egypt will be on the right track.

“By then Egypt would have completed its democratic institutions with a parliament equipped with the most powerful constitutional mandate in the history of Egypt and a strong judiciary, so I expect a rich kind of democratic politics.” Said says.

Said, a prominent member of the National Democratic Party under former president Hosni Mubarak, is not concerned that a pro-Sissi party list For the Love of Egypt, headed by a former intelligence general, is emerging as the winning bloc of parties in the first round. He said even if this coalition won the second round it would have less than 20 percent of the parliament seats, as mandated by the new law.

Parliament of interests

But Amy Hawthorne of Program for Middle East Democracy noted that when the election law earmarked 75 percent of the parliament seats for independent candidates it weakened the idea of parliamentary blocs and transformed the upcoming parliament into a parliament of interests of individual members.

“It is a basic, ABC of democratization, of process of democratic change, that you need to have an opposition in order to debate, [have] accountability of those in power, choices for the voters; some kind of real policy discussions. And there is no opposition in Egypt today. It is not allowed," said Hawthorne.

Hawthorn added “Therefore you will have a parliament of many individuals who will support President Sissi in one way or another; just a further development down the road of returning to authoritarian rule.”

Hawthorne expects that a lot of Egyptians, especially young people, will stay away for politics, thus serving what she says is a deliberate strategy by President Sissi that depends on people being apathetic and not participating.

But she warned that this is a dangerous path.

“When you have an authoritarian government and a struggling economic situation and no meaningful outlet for peaceful opposition, then it leads to an explosion and so right now I am not sure what the path for peaceful political change is.”

No room for change

Professor Shahin sees no room for a political change in Egypt for years to come. The Georgetown professor is himself a casualty of the current climate; in May, an Egyptian court found him guilty, in absentia, on charges of espionage, and sentenced him to death..

He is waiting for a different set of dynamics.

“One is a need for a strong solid coalition from civilian politicians that would include the various colors of the political spectrum in Egypt that can counter the hegemony of the military and the elements of the old regime and these who are supporting this kind of autocracy and authoritarianism.”

The second requirement Shahin extracts from other countries’ experience.

“Eventually the military will come to a realization that it can’t fix the system alone. This is exactly the realization that militaries in Chile, in Spain, in Portugal and in Brazil in the 1970’s realized; that they have to go into a process of self-reform and they have to take one or two steps back in order to allow civilian activity to manage the political process and the economy. “ Shahin added “We all know that militaries do not build democracy and they are not the right engine for building a political process.”

Other experts argue that external pressure can also help push Egypt closer to a real democratic transition by not endorsing what they see as an undemocratic path.