The Elusive Myth of Democratic Egyptian Elections

November 8, 2010


Later this month, Egyptians will go to the polls, or attempt to, in order to vote in the country’s parliamentary elections. The elections will unlikely be a democratic affair in the Western sense. In fact, opposition candidates, voters, citizen groups—essentially everyone other than government representatives—are fully expecting the elections to be a violent and rigged episode. For easy reference, one can look to the June elections for the Shura Council, or upper house of Parliament, in which the governing National Democratic Party (NDP) managed to land 80 out of a possible 84 seats. Those elections were marked by violence and allegations of rampant violations.

Elections in Egypt are not generally democratic, they do not necessarily reflect the will of the people, and they will invariably usher in a house in which the NDP has an unshakeable majority. More so, the elected body has very little control over the government and none over the president, who, thanks to some creative constitutional amendments in 2007, can dissolve the Parliament at will. Election results are apparently so preordained that many have questioned the wisdom of participating at all. Opposition groups, among them the National Alliance for Change (NAC), led by former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) head and current political reformer Mohamed ElBaradei, have been calling for a boycott. ElBaradei told reporters at a Ramadan Iftar meeting on September 7 that voting “would go against the national will.” Many political analysts and some members of the opposition have echoed the belief that participation in the elections only gives credence to a fundamentally flawed system and perpetuates the state myth of a democratic nation.

The above argument certainly has its merits, but it misses the point. Elections in Egypt are not about who wins seats—that is usually a foregone conclusion. They are about the “how and the what,” in the sense that they are oases of political activity, demand, and dissension in an otherwise arid climate. In that way, every election fought represents losses and gains for the respective participants in ways that invariably influence the following elections. Also, the ballot boxes can yield surprising results—as in the case of the 2005 elections when the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) gained a jawdropping 88 of 454 seats in the elections for the lower house. This outcome certainly would not have come about if the Brotherhood had not participated. To be sure, there are also significant, detrimental changes that happen as a direct consequence of the elections, among them constitutional amendments designed to hobble the opposition’s ability to field candidates and campaign. Still, for opposition parties and movements, boycotting the elections is the equivalent of throwing away the only political participation they have. It would mean relinquishing any visibility or influence and it would mean admitting to their supporters that they are essentially mere window dressings in the democratic façade. Arguably, this is a reason why these elections have only ever been boycotted once, in 1990. The Egyptian political arena is one where contestants scrabble for the smallest patch of ground. The high moral ground simply does not figure into it.