Woodrow Wilson Center
Egypt’s parliamentary elections will be a critical test for Egypt’s fragile transition and will be watched closely throughout the region and the world. On November 28th, the electoral process will begin with elections for one-third of the seats in the lower house of parliament, the People’s Assembly.
In the pre-election environment, incidents of media censorship, politically-motivated arrests, restrictions on civil society activity and ongoing military trials of civilians have all been cause for serious concern. The field of political contenders has been unclear amid frequently-shifting alliances and the rapid formation of new parties. Moreover, some uncertainties remain about the voting process itself, due to complicated election laws, restrictions on election monitoring, and suspicions regarding the aims of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces during the ongoing transition.
What might we expect to see on election day? Which parties are expected to perform well, and which parties may be disappointed? What steps have been taken to ensure that the voting process is free and fair, and what remains to be done? How are civil society organizations in Egypt involved in the pre-election environment, whether through voter education, candidate trainings, or other efforts? Who are the “actors to watch” in Egypt in the run-up to the elections, and what challenges do they face? What actors or events may jeopardize the process? What can the U.S. do to help ensure that the elections go smoothly? What is the role of Egypt’s new parliament likely to be, and what key challenges will remain after these elections?
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An audio recording of this event is available here.
Speaking from Cairo via Skype, Houdaiby expressed several aspects of the upcoming elections on which to focus. He relayed that the elections are significant because they are the “first step” to transfer power to the Egyptian people, but he also enumerated a number of challenges including security concerns, an undemocratic media, and a suspect judiciary. There is currently a leadership vacuum, according to Houdaiby, in Egypt’s political landscape which has resulted in a fragmented population. He stressed that the threat Islamic parties pose to democratic development is over publicized, and that Egyptians are seeking coherent approaches to security and economic issues while they formulate a new identity. Houdaiby also said his optimistic estimate for election turnout is approximately 40 percent, which he concluded would be a vast improvement from previous elections. Additionally, he asserted that there is a noticeable lack of media objectivity which has stunted some of the election measures.
Next, Magdy Samaan spoke about the restraints placed on freedom of expression since the SCAF took over for Mubarak. He asserted that freedom of expression has shrunk immensely since the revolution, directly referring to several of the activist bloggers who have been detained and arrested in recent months.Egyptian television has reverted back to Mubarak-style coverage by promoting sectarianism, particularly during the protests at Maspero, according to Samaan. He believes that the SCAF is “playing with Mubarak’s cards” when it comes to freedom of expression. Samaan added that the upcoming elections represent a “dress rehearsal” for the subsequent steps toward democracy, though he warned that the value should remain reasonable because the results will illustrate the political weight of many parties and individuals, though they will not rule the country. Samaan also said there is an opportunity for Egypt to follow and learn from Tunisia’s positive democratic elections.
Michele Dunne addressed the topic next, agreeing that the elections will illuminate Egypt’s political layout but will not guarantee political transition. We “must watch the larger story,” Dunne said, noting that violence during and after the proceedings is a legitimate concern. She also expressed that the SCAF’s actions indicate that it intends to “shape” the constitution, and she said that the role of both the parliament and the cabinet remain unclear. Additionally, Dunne was concerned that the developing institutions will in fact be powerless once they are formed, but she stressed that it was far too early to “give up” on Egypt’s transition.
Stephen McInerney added several remarks as well, stating that the complexities of the election proceedings may cause immense confusion among the population, particularly because some of the results will be delayed which may arouse suspicion. He also detailed many of the coalitions that have been formed in the run-up to the elections, including the Democratic Alliance, the Egyptian Bloc, and the Alliance to Continue the Revolution, among others.
During a question and answer session, Houdaiby and Samaan agreed that the SCAF has shown a willingness to negotiate many aspects of Egypt’s transition, though altering the military budget may prove difficult. Houdaiby also stated that most Egyptians are paying close attention to the upcoming elections, though many feel betrayed by the SCAF and pessimism has started to cloud Egypt’s initial confidence in the proceedings. Regarding the logistics once the votes are tallied, McInerney expressed that there is a “lack of clarity” regarding how parliamentary seats will be portioned to election winners, and Dunne added that this characteristic may have a negative impact on the public’s perception of balloting procedures.
Regarding the attachment of conditionality to financial support based on the success of Egypt’s democratic transition, Dunne stated that it may in fact be a positive idea, even though she objected to it in the past. However, McInerney stressed that U.S. Congress and the Obama Administration need to agree on how to institute conditionality since each entity has shown disparate strategies in the past. Both domestic and international non-governmental organizations will also play an important role at Egypt’s polls, the panel agreed. However, it remains unclear the amount of access that will be granted to these actors since Egypt has not officially approved many of the requests to observe the elections. Houdaiby added that thus far campaigns have been focused on individuals rather than specific ideologies, and that many parties should address the role of Islam in Egyptian democracy.