Egypt to go to polls, a revolution continues

by  Paolo B. Maligaya, NAMFREL Senior Operations Associate
from NAMFREL Election Monitor Vol.2, No.24
On November 28, Egypt will go to the polls to elect members of the lower house of parliament, the first such electoral exercise in the country since the end of the 30-year presidency of Hosni Mubarak, forced to resign in February during the Egypt uprisings which started in January 2011. The Egyptian revolution followed similar protests in Tunisia; these uprisings as well as those in neighboring countries similarly calling for the end of the respective regimes in power, were later dubbed the "Arab Spring."

While the election in Tunisia, held on October 24, was hailed as orderly and peaceful, the lead-up to the Egyptian parliamentary elections has been characterized by mistrust and confusion. After Mubarak's resignation, Egypt has been under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), essentially a military junta, which suspended the constitution, dissolved both houses of parliament, and who said they would rule for only six months prior to holding of elections. After several changes in dates, the SCAF finally announced that the election for People's Assembly (members of the lower house of parliament) would take place in three stages between November 28 and January 10; the election for Shura Council (upper house), also in three stages, between January 29 and March 11; and finally, a presidential election, in a date still to be determined. The Parliament will be tasked to draft a new constitution for Egypt. A Supreme Electoral Commission (SEC), composed of judges -- said to include Mubarak appointees -- will administer the elections; more than 9,000 judges will supervise the
polls, with at least one judge to be assigned in each polling station. In July, during the presentation of a new election law, the military rulers said they will not allow foreign observers to monitor the election, saying "we reject anything that affects our sovereignty." Even local monitors reportedly will be granted limited privileges. The decision was swiftly criticized by Egyptian activists and international governments and organizations. The chairman of the SEC later stated that international monitors and the media would be welcome to "follow" -- rather than officially "observe" -- the parliamentary election. Much later, only one foreign organization, The Carter Center, reportedly was granted access to "witness" the election. In comparison, Tunisia allowed hundreds of foreign observers and thousands of
local observers to monitor the October polls.

The Egyptian election process is complicated:

The elections for People's Assembly will be done in three stages for all of Egypt's 27 governorates: polling on November 28, run off on December 5 in 9 governorates (including Cairo and Alexandria); polling on December 14, run off on December 21 in another 9 governorates; and polling on January 3, run off on January 10 in the 9 remaining governorates
498 seats will compose the People's Assembly, 10 of which will be appointed by the SCAF
The new election system divides the country into 129 People's Assembly constituencies. Each constituency will have between two and 12 seats.

Of the 498 seats for lower house, 332 from 46 constituencies will be elected via proportional representation list system. The 50 or so political parties contesting the election would have a list of candidates for each constituency, and must include at least one female candidate. However, these lists are closed to the public. Half of these political parties were formed only this year, and most of those in existence prior to 2011 were largely unknown to most Egyptians.

Of the 498 seats, 166 from 83 constituencies will be elected via individual candidacy system
(first-past-the-post); almost 6,600 candidates are contesting these 166 seats
The Shura Council elections, starting in late January, will also be done in three stages.
The run-off elections will be held in constituencies where none of the candidates got more than 50% of the total votes.
The country's military rulers cited security concerns and the country's large number of voters as the reasons for coming up with the system. Most Egyptians however are confused with the new system, that some are saying the people will just likely vote for the people or organizations they voted for in the past (specifically, members of Mubarak's now defunct National Democratic Party that used to dominate elections by landslide margins), meaning there will not be much change after the revolution. In a welcome change, Egyptians will now be able to use their identity cards to be able to vote, unlike during Mubarak's time when citizens had to obtain special voting cards from police stations. More than 50 million people are eligible to vote in the upcoming elections. Voting will also be done in Egypt's
different embassies and consulates around the world.

Analysts have grouped the different political parties in Egypt into four categories: Islamists, leftists, liberals, and revolutionary youth parties. There are also independent candidates running as individuals. Among the different categories, the Islamists have benefited from the Egypt uprisings as they were banned and jailed during the Mubarak regime. Among the Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, formed in 1927, is pegged to dominate the polls. Though conservative, they are said to be moderate compared with other Islamic parties contesting the election. Among the liberals, the New Wafd Party enjoys the most support based on surveys.

The campaign period officially started on November 2. Almost immediately, news of "vote traders" surfaced, of people buying and selling votes for a price. Islamists were accused of giving away food or selling goods at half-price in Cairo. Under the SEC's regulations, election offenders face imprisonment of up to 15 years, and a fine of up to 200,000 EGP (more than US$ 33,000). The SEC has also set a ceiling of 500,000 EGP on campaign expenditures for independent candidates, and 1 million EGP for party lists.

The transparency of the coming elections is also being questioned, as Egyptian NGOs will not be allowed to intervene if there are cases of fraud. Also, because of the current electoral system, many people up to now do not know who are running in their constituencies.

Many are not confident about the upcoming polls, saying that the present system shows that the new military rulers are reluctant to hand over power to democratically-elected leaders, as they keep delaying the hand-over of power to democratically-elected civilians. The military has also been violent to peaceful protesters, causing protesters to fight back; many have died and have been injured in violent clashes between the military/police and civilians even after Mubarak's ouster.

Many are still hopeful though that the upcoming parliamentary elections will be successful. The Arab world is looking at Egypt and taking its cue, its citizens continue to inspire neighbors hoping for revolutions in their own backyards. They do not want Tunisia to be a fluke. Can democracy truly work in their context, they want to find out. The longer the military clings to power though, or the longer the vestiges of the Mubarak regime remain visible, the more they risk the rise of extremists that Mubarak successfully stamped out during his regime, gaining support among citizens who are similarly voicing out against the current leadership. The country may also be losing an opportunity for unity made possible by the events in January; already, people are taking sides as diverse groups have sprang up, gained prominence, and started to quarrel in the aftermath of the uprisings.

The revolution is not over. It has just begun, and Egyptians want it sustained. There are still people in Tahrir Square because they want change, and so far they are not seeing it. They want the military rulers to immediately move towards the transition of power. The conduct of timely, transparent, free and fair elections, actively participated in by Egyptian citizens who have been waiting for this time for more than 30 years, could hopefully, finally lead to that.