Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt’s youth send a message to Sisi

The critically low turnout in Egypt’s current parliamentary elections, especially among the youth, serves as a warning to authorities, writes Hassan Nafaa

Al-Ahram Weekly

The parliamentary elections that are taking place right now in Egypt are extremely important for many reasons. Perhaps the foremost of these is that they are the first general elections to take place since the 25 January 2011 Revolution, within the framework of a permanent constitution and an elected president.

They should presumably establish an legislative authority that will complete the branches of a governmental system that, until now, has revolved in a vicious circle of a seemingly endless succession of interim phases.

Two revolutions erupted in Egypt in the past five years: the 25 January Revolution against the Mubarak regime, which had ruled the country for 30 years, and the 30 June Revolution against the Muslim Brotherhood, which was never really able to govern Egypt, although it managed to control the country’s fate for more than two years.

During this time, Egypt experienced a long period of confusion and unrest. First, two constitutions were drafted and ratified by the people in two public referendums held in two different eras.

Second, it had a succession of four presidents — two interim and two unelected. Of the latter, one was from the military (Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi) and the other was a civilian (Counsellor Adly Mansour).

Of the two elected presidents, one belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. This was Mohamed Morsi, who won with 51 per cent of the vote in a presidential election in which there were 14 candidates from across the political spectrum. He was swept out of power a year after he was elected by a popular revolution backed by the army.

The other elected president emerged from the ranks of the Egyptian Armed Forces and won 97 per cent of the vote in elections that — for all intents and purposes — had only one candidate. I refer to Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, who assumed power a little over a year ago.

Third, parliamentary elections were held and the Muslim Brotherhood won the majority (more than 40 per cent of the seats), and the Islamist trend as a whole won a super majority (75 per cent of the seats).

This means that the parliamentary elections that are currently in progress are the second such elections since the January Revolution. Most likely, these polls will yield a parliament totally devoid of Muslim Brotherhood members and perhaps of representatives of the entire Islamist trend.

This brief overview indicates that the political competition that has occurred in Egypt since the outbreak of the 2011 January Revolution has been restricted to two forces, neither of which believes in democracy: the military establishment and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Also, despite the fact that two revolutions were waged, no representatives of the forces that spearheaded either of these revolutions have been able to come to power so far, and it is unlikely that they will play a significant role in the parliament formed by the current polls.

In light of the foregoing, can these elections form the missing cornerstone in a solid and sustainable political system? Or will they yield the opposite effect and mark the beginning of a new phase of instability?

Though I believe that it is still premature to offer a definitive answer to this question, the fact that a large portion of the electorate in the governorates selected for the first stage of the current elections chose to sit out this vote, and that a vast majority of youth refused to go to the polls, are signs that Egypt is headed for a new phase of instability.

According to official returns supplied by the Higher Elections Committee, just over a quarter of registered voters turned out to vote. Some, moreover, contend that this figure is exaggerated and far exceeds the actual turnout.

But even disregarding such claims, the turnout is the lowest in our history of parliamentary elections. Also, according to official statistics, 15 per cent of the votes cast were invalidated. This too sets an unprecedented record in the history of parliamentary elections. It signifies that the valid votes cast account for, at most, 15 per cent of the total number of names on the voter registration lists.

Many observers prefer to attribute the remarkably low voter turnout to technical factors. They mention, for example, the lack of clarity of the new electoral law and the short campaign period.

Another commonly cited factor is the expansion of the electoral zones allocated to the party-list system and the consequent large number of candidates fielded, which made it difficult for people to acquire any substantial information about the candidates, or at least most of them, let alone to have some direct contact with them.

It was also argued that, because of the nature of most of the candidates, people felt confident that the forthcoming parliament would be one that would work together with a president whom they trust.

Still, as important as the abovementioned technical factors are, I remain of the firm opinion that they only played a secondary role and that the collective reluctance to participate in the polls is due to a range of political factors. All of these factors combined caused voters to lose conviction in the seriousness or value of these elections.

The political factors I refer to include the roadmap, announced after the removal of Morsi and supported by most of the forces that took part in the 30 June Revolution. The roadmap was subject to a series of sudden modifications that ultimately sapped its ability to produce a new political system that would be more competent and less corrupt and tyrannical than those of Mubarak or Morsi.

In the original roadmap, the promulgation of a new constitution was to be followed by parliamentary elections, after which presidential elections would form the last phase. Suddenly, the order of the last two stages was reversed so that presidential elections could be held before general elections.

Then, under the amended arrangement, preparations for the parliamentary polls were to begin within six months after the newly elected president assumed office. This stipulation was circumvented for no clear or understandable reason and the process of holding parliamentary elections was delayed for more than a year.

During that year, both legislative and executive powers rested in the president’s hands and dozens of controversial laws were passed, sometimes in flagrant contradiction to the constitution. The result was a marked restriction of individual and civic freedoms.

A second factor is that most of the major political forces in Egypt clearly expressed their opposition to the law governing the current parliamentary elections. They had called for a system that provided for a mixture of open proportional lists (as opposed to closed absolute lists) and single-ticket candidacies with 50 per cent of parliamentary seats allocated to each.

The insistence on the current law offered explicit proof of the current regime’s desire to tailor a parliament and to give security agencies a free hand to shape the electoral lists, as was made apparent during attempts to target the formation of electoral coalitions that sought to overcome the obstacle of the large electoral districts allocated to the closed-list system.

A third factor is that all the forces that took part in the 25 January Revolution, apart from the Islamists, were the victims of cheap and systematic slur and mudslinging campaigns. The revolutionary youth, in particular, bore the brunt of the propaganda, the purpose of which was not so much to slander them personally as it was to mar and distort the image of the January revolution.

The revolution was portrayed as a foreign conspiracy enacted on behalf of hostile foreign powers by their agents at home, while the June revolution was cast as a revolution against the “January conspiracy.”

Meanwhile, many young men and women who played prominent roles in both the January and June revolutions languished behind bars after being arrested and prosecuted on the charge of illegal protesting.

One could not help but notice the considerable increase in smear campaigns following Al-Sisi’s assumption of power. They had effectively become the official banner for media management of the current elections.

In a context such as the one outlined above, it is only natural that the vast majority of youth would refrain from casting their ballots in the current parliamentary polls.

The stance is akin to a referee raising a yellow card in a football match when a player commits a foul. Has the message delivered by the Egyptian youth reached President Al-Sisi?

The writer is  a professor of political science, Cairo University.

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