The Upper house of Egypt (Shura Council), dominated by Islamists, approved a new parliamentary elections bill on January 19. The law is too complex for a nascent democracy and too confusing for voters of whom about a third are illiterate. The new bill has provoked controversy, in a repetition of the experience of the controversial constitution draft, and is marking another cycle in the ongoing rift between Islamist and civil parties.
The bill adopts a mixed electoral system that is comprised of individual first-past-the-post candidate districts and proportional representation (party and independent) lists. Added complication is the provision that allows independents to form their own lists or be on a party’s list. Accordingly, the country has been divided into two different types of districts for the individual candidate voting and the proportional representation voting. Moreover, some seats must be reserved for “workers” and “farmers”.
The draft law, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood and its ultraconservative Salafist allies, is too controversial as most of liberal and leftist parties, particularly the umbrella National Salvation Front (NSF), oppose it. First of all, the draft law is perpetuating the problems in the previous law. Most of these parties think the individual candidacy system was largely responsible for electoral fraud, irregularities, vote-buying and acts of coercion in previous elections. Second, the draft adopts the closed-list proportional representation system, which violates the NSF’s main demand to adopt the open-list system. Third, according to the bill, MPs can change their party affiliation during their term and independents can join parties following their election. This provision would serve Islamists’ strategy of fielding as many (partisan and independent) candidates as possible in order to secure the majority in the same defunct National Democratic Party’s way. Fourth, the bill doesn’t include harsh penalties for those who abuse places of worship and public buildings for campaigning and for parties that may use a sectarian religious message in their campaigning.
More important, the bill is in favor of the best organized ‘Islamist’ parties but is biased against many segments of society, including Copts, women and Egyptians residing abroad. For one thing, the large geographical space of the districts serves Islamist parties the best, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, as they can draw on greater financial resources and, thus, are likely to be able to launch bigger electoral campaigns both nationally and locally, outcompeting liberal and leftist parties with more limited financial resources. In fact, the bill doesn’t include clear election finance regulations. In addition, the draft law imposes a constituent-based threshold that requires every party to secure at least one-third of total votes in a district for its candidates to enter parliament. The law also states that the remaining seats in the list system go to parties with the most remaining votes. The opposition has complained that this would diminish the chances of small parties and give the Islamist parties the chance to take all remaining seats. Further, the law even allows some of those who have evaded conscription to run for parliament. The reason behind this, according to the opposition, is to allow some of the Brotherhood’s members who did not perform their military service to run for parliament.
There is no positive (even temporal) discrimination for the least representative categories of Egyptian society; Coptic Christians and women. According to observers, without a quota for Copts, the new House of Representatives will have very small number of them, especially after the Constitution revoked the president’s right of appointing 10 MPs in the House.
In the electoral bill sent to the supreme court for revision, there is no representation quota for female candidates and no guarantee that parties will place them in winnable positions on the lists. Finally, the bill doesn’t allocate a number of seats for Egyptians living abroad in the parliament as previously requested by the foreign ministry.
Ayman el-Dessouki is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Cairo University, Egypt.