By Barbara Slavin
Canadians voted out a conservative prime minister on Monday in a record turnout of nearly 70 percent that underlined the legitimacy of the process.
Egypt also held parliamentary elections this week. But the participation rate reflected an absence of legitimacy and the lack of any suspense about the results or their impact on Egyptians’ daily lives.
Turnout in the first round of voting in half of Egypt’s provinces was so anemic — 16 percent at best — that the government gave employees a half day off on Monday as an added incentive for them to take part. It didn’t work. Some judges say the turnout rose to 20 percent. Participation in a second round next month is likely to be equally unimpressive.
Even the sycophantic Egyptian press could not hide the embarrassing showing. A local television station Abdullah Fathy, head of the association of judges monitoring the vote, as saying “There are no violations because of the weak participation… no incidences, no violations, no excesses — no voters!”
Since a coup against Egypt’s only freely elected president two years ago, authorities have suppressed independent political life in the Arab world’s most populous state. Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who became president in 2014 after another lackluster vote, has outlawed the only viable opposition political force – the Muslim Brotherhood – and clamped down on secular opponents as well.
Governing by decree in the absence of a parliament – the last one was dissolved in 2013 – Sissi has repeatedly postponed elections. When the voting was finally scheduled this fall, the government rejiggered the system to allot 448 of 568 elected seats on an individual, rather than party basis. That favors wealthy, well-known candidates – many of them affiliated with the old National Democratic Party of former president Hosni Mubarak. Meanwhile, a pro-government group calling itself “For the Love of Egypt” is favored to take most of the other elected 120 seats, which will be awarded according to party lists.
Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert on Egypt, told VOA that the exercise reminded her of the last elections of the Mubarak era in November 2010.
“Much of the political spectrum is excluded and the system is set up to minimize the chances of even the most tame of political parties,” she said. “The only reason to be interested is to see what the elections can tell us about the relations between President Sissi and some key factions within the pro-government camp, such as the business community, parts of the security apparatus, and those formerly active in Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.”
As for the low voter turnout so far, Dunne noted, “voters show up to the polls either because they think their vote will make a difference in the outcome, or because someone has mobilized them to show up. It doesn’t seem that either of those applied to the first round of the current elections.”
Given the lack of choice – and the likely limits on power for the new parliament – it’s a wonder that anyone bothered to vote at all.
Contrast this with Canada’s spirited competition between three major parties and two smaller ones. The campaign featured a debate about pressing issues including the economy and immigration and was a cliffhanger until the end.
Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was discarded by the voters after nearly a decade in power. The new prime minister will be Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau, son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. The young Trudeau promised to raise taxes on the wealthy and cut them for the middle class, spend more on infrastructure, take in more Syrian refugees and prioritize the environment. He also promised to withdraw Canadian fighter planes from service in Iraq and Syria as part of the coalition against the so-called Islamic State. Interestingly, a last minute effort by Harper to mobilize anti-Muslim sentiment by forbidding women in full face veils from participating in citizenship ceremonies backfired.
In Egypt, the campaign has been mostly about patriotism and rallying around Sissi, the latest military strongman to monopolize power in a country that invented centralized rule 5000 years ago but seemed headed for a more pluralistic path after Mubarak’s overthrow in 2011.
The following year, Mohamed Morsi, a senior figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected by a narrow margin in a run-off vote. Morsi squandered the democratic opening by seeking to institutionalize power for the Brotherhood. But the punishment – death sentences for Morsi and other top Brotherhood leaders, which fortunately, have yet to be carried out – was excessive and corrosive of Egypt’s current and future stability.
Besides Morsi, thousands of Muslim Brothers and other political activists remain in jail. Sissi freed about 100 prisoners, including several journalists, in a public relations gesture before coming to the UN General Assembly in September, but repression continues, often directed at the press.
The government seeks to justify its actions as necessary to defeat Islamic extremism. However, the crackdown has fanned, not finished political violence in a country that desperately needs stability for its economy to recover.
Overzealous security forces have further depressed Egypt’s key tourism industry with such disastrous acts as bombing a group of Mexican tourists and their guide in the western desert in September, mistaking them for members of the Islamic State (IS).
The Obama administration has restored military aid to Egypt despite its human rights abuses on grounds that the fight against IS trumps other concerns. Preoccupied by wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. doesn’t want to antagonize an old ally that maintains a 36-year-old peace with Israel.
Exhausted by the abrupt political shifts of the last four years, most Egyptians will stick with Sissi for now and resort to their usual consolation — black humor. But without a semblance of political competition, Egypt is hobbling into an uncertain future. Better for Sissi to have had no elections at all than to stage a process that is only window dressing for authoritarian rule.