“Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.” Bernard Shaw’s concerns aside, some claim that participation in elections is the epitome of democratic practice. The latest parliamentary elections in Egypt is an exception where “election by the incompetent many is substituted by an appointment-like election.” In Egypt, elections are typically a foregone conclusion and the ballot boxes do not yield surprises. Previous elections were rife with reported fraud. The votes were marred with rampant irregularities, and tainted with violations. In order to finagle with the results, the regime resort to rigging and meddling through: the disqualification of opposition candidates, carousel balloting, shutting polling stations, vote buying, and thugs intimidating voters. These practices invariably usher in a house with an unshakable majority for the ruling party. Despite the great length of creativity that the regime goes to, in order to sideline its opponents, a veneer of pluralism was usually preserved. Some opposition was always tolerated, as long as it did not impede the ruling party from having a comfortable control of the parliament.
In a country hitherto bereft of a true democratic transition, the outcome of the latest elections is shocking even by Egypt’s dismal standards. The ruling party will dominate exclusively without any semblance of competition. The sweeping victory of the party, and the withdrawal of the others before the runoffs, is a blatant indication that Egypt is regressing to a one-party-rule. This comes at a time where the regime’s commitment to monopolize power far outweighs any one else’s commitment to promote democracy. As the favorable international environment has faded, there was no attempt to keep appearances, before the international community, with a facade of competition.
Even if some are taken aback by surprise, the tactics, adopted by the regime before the elections, were a clear indication of what was about to transpire. To tighten state control, the regime attempted to censor any communication of controversial content. For instance, the telecommunications regulator imposed restrictions on mobile text messages. The regulations stipulated that cell phone providers get a clearance before sending mass SMS messages to their users. This step stifled the opposition’s ability to mobilize supporters. It also stripped them of a tool that enabled them to sidestep the restrictions they are exposed to while communicating with their constituency.
To further tighten its grip on the media, the regime extended censorship to broadcasters. The Minister of Information cancelled licenses of firms providing television satellite uplinks. Thus, satellite television channels were required to get official clearance before reporting live from anywhere in Egypt. The government also authorized a shut down of several private television channels on grounds of violation of broadcast license. A famous talk show that probe into sensitive corners of political and social life was discontinued. This was complemented by intimidation of journalists. A famous dissident editor, Ibrahim Eissa who is known for his satirical columns, was sacked from his position. Eissa was a biting critic of the president, and refused to toe the government line. This was meant to make an example of him for transgressing unwritten rules and crossing red lines. The regime also restricted the ability of political parties to advertise their campaigns. All these measures were meant to mute vocal anti government criticism.
To create the image of real competition, the calls for boycott had to be circumvented. Despite emphatic official assertions that the elections will proceed according to well established laws and constitutional precepts, the opposition has been mulling a boycott of the elections. With the lack of guarantees for integrity, participation ultimately supplied the regime with the trappings of a legitimate democracy and gave credence to the myth of political reforms. Therefore, some pondered staying away in order to unmask sham elections. The opposition, however, was divided on the merits of taking part in elections. The critics argued that boycotting would deprive the opposition of the opportunity for interaction with voters and allows the ruling party a full rein over political life. While, by participating, the opposition can expose electoral transgressions.
As some of the opposition entertained participation, the regime tried to tame the participants. The ruling party tapped its allies within opposition parties. These parties decided to ingratiate themselves with the regime to secure some seats in the parliament. A tacit deal with the regime would allow these parties a comeback that they would not otherwise be able to achieve, on their own, in the campaign trail. Thus, the regime can replace the Muslim Brotherhood members, a thorn in their side, with other malleable members from these parties. The regime also brought in a constitutional ban on religion based parties, and put obstacles in the registration of their candidates. Moreover, they imposed a ban on brandishing the political slogans of the Muslim Brotherhood, with the warning that any infringements would warrant immediate action.
The regime also tinkered with the constitution to obviate judicial oversight. Instead, a feebly staffed appointed electoral commission was to run the poll. There were petitions to allow international monitors to observe the parliamentary elections. Egypt rebuffed these calls as an affront to sovereignty that would enable foreigners to interfere in internal affairs. This stance, however, precluded any type of monitoring even by domestic civil society. The commission gave credentials to a small percentage of civil society groups. The proxies of the candidates were denied entry to the polling stations as well.
All these practices lead observers to foresee circumscribed elections. The aftermath of the elections confirmed these speculations. For what it portends for the country, the outcome of the elections sounds like an obituary for any aspirations for democratic transformation. This is a serious setback to democracy, and will lead to a couple of dire consequences:
First, this outcome allows the ruling party to promote its candidate for presidential elections without obstacles. Egypt is on the cusp of a profound change at the twilight of the Mubarak era. The country is swirling with the debate on whether Mubarak is laying the ground work for his son. Mubarak’s delicate state of health catapulted these questions to the headlines. The question seems apt on who wields power after Mubarak. This parliamentary elections was the first episode in a series that would lead to answer that question. It is considered a prelude to the presidential elections expected to take place in the coming year. The parliament plays an essential part in vetting presidential candidates. A candidate is required to secure at least 250 signatures from the lower and upper houses and municipal councils. Thus, solid control of the parliament will make it easier to block independent challengers.
Second, the credibility of any future elections is irreparably impaired. Elections in Egypt usually witness meager turnout. Citizens usually watch from the sidelines and accept the preordained outcome. The majority has grown inured to having no say in the course of events, and they are left to follow attentively as the predetermined outcome unfolds. The outcome of this elections reconfirms that the regime has no desire to take the national will into consideration.