Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
5 - 11 October 2000
Issue No. 502
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Bigger choice than ever

By Ibrahim Nafie

Ibrahim NafieThere are many reasons to anticipate a high poll during the forthcoming parliamentary elections. And such broader public participation is certain to come as a relief after a long period of voter apathy.

The first elections in Egypt were held in November 1866, when 75 delegates were voted into the Chamber of Deputies, newly established by a decree of Khedive Ismail's on 22 October of that year. Although the function of this chamber was largely consultative, few countries at the time could boast such a representational body. Democracy only reached maturity in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century when suffrage was generalised and when freely elected representative bodies proliferated. There is little doubt that democracy in Egypt would have progressed similarly had not the British occupation in 1882 curtailed our democratic development for 40 years.

The purpose of reminding ourselves of Egypt's pioneering democratic experience is not to rest on past laurels, but rather to gain a broader perspective on recent developments in our electoral process. President Mubarak is fully committed to ensuring the integrity of such developments that should lead to a newly elected parliament that will be truly representative and worthy of the role expected of it at this crucial juncture.

It is heartening that there are now more than 4,000 registered candidates competing for 444 seats in the People's Assembly. With an average of nine candidates per seat competition is certain to be intense, all the more reason why we hope to see broad participation by a discerning electorate. Such participation, after all, is the most efficient check against the kind of offences we have seen, admittedly as isolated incidents, in past parliaments. Moreover, now that there is full judicial supervision over the electoral process for the first time in the history of parliamentary elections in Egypt voters can be sure their ballot will count.

Voters should, therefore, have complete confidence in a free and fair electoral system operating within a multiparty environment, no small feat given the attitudes that became entrenched during that extensive period in which the need for a single party system undermined any real element of choice in the balloting process.

Four parliamentary elections were conducted under this system, the first taking place following the promulgation of the 1956 constitution and producing, in June 1957, the first post-revolutionary parliament whose members were drawn from the newly created National Union Party. Within less than a year, however, the unification of Egypt and Syria in February 1958 required the creation of a joint Egyptian-Syrian National Assembly whose members were appointed by presidential decree. Following the breakup of the UAR in 1961, a new constitution was promulgated as was a new state party -- the Arab Socialist Union (ASU) -- from which candidates were drawn for the National Assembly elections that were held in 1962 and again in 1969. The last assembly, however, did not complete its term because the promulgation of the permanent constitution in September 1971 necessitated the formation of a new parliament, the elections for which marked the fourth and last elections held under the monolithic single party system.

The beginning of the Sadat era saw the first steps towards a multi-party system. Within the ASU left, centre and right wings became formalised as platforms, or manabir. It was on this basis that, in 1976, the first pluralistic elections were held in Egypt since the 1952 Revolution. Then shortly after the formation of the People's Assembly in November 1976 Sadat abolished the political role of the ASU.

Political party diversification in Egypt took its next important step with the promulgation of the Political Party Law of 20 November 1977, which enshrined the right to create new political parties. Since then, five parliamentary elections have been held -- in 1979, 1984, 1987, 1990 and 1995.

Ironically, if 1979 marked the first truly multiparty elections, the climate in which they took place almost spelled the end of the process of democratic transition. Sadat had just signed the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty on 26 March 1979. So vociferous was the outcry against it from the opposition and independents in the still incumbent 1976 parliament that Sadat dissolved parliament and called for new elections. With the promulgation of the decrees of September 1981, a massive campaign of arrests and newspaper closures, the fate of democracy appeared bleak.

So successful was President Mubarak at turning this situation around that the 1984 elections were held in a climate of stability and optimism. Contributing to the new and refreshing buoyancy was the president's willingness to respond sympathetically to opposition demands, one of which was to introduce the system of political party lists which, it was felt, would help strengthen political diversity. Soon afterwards, however, the constitutionality of this provision was challenged on the grounds that it discriminated against independents. The Constitutional Court upheld the appeal, leading to the amendment of the electoral law, the nullification of the parliament elected in 1986 and to new elections in 1987, under conditions more favorable to independents. The 1987 elections brought more than 100 opposition representatives into the People's Assembly, which at the time had 458 seats, giving the opposition the highest percentage of representation in Egypt's parliamentary history. However, this parliament, too, would not complete its term, for the Constitutional Court ruled that the amendment that sought to reconcile between party lists and independents did not fulfil the constitutionally stipulated requirement of equal opportunity for all candidates.

In 1990 elections reverted to the system of individual candidacies. The opposition decision to boycott the elections, however, backfired, and it lost much of the ground gained in the previous elections. Many National Party members had withdrawn from the party to run as independents, leaving voters with a choice mostly limited to ruling party candidates and ruling party breakaways. Moreover, although the opposition took part in the 1995 elections their showing was very weak. If, in the forthcoming elections, the majority of contestants are still National Party candidates or National Party breakaways, the number of opposition candidates has increased considerably, a factor that holds the promise of an intriguing electoral battle.

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