. “Whatever it is the Parliament does”: On Egypt’s redundant, theatrical elections | Ceasefire Magazine

Analysis | “Whatever it is the Parliament does”: On Egypt’s redundant, theatrical elections

This month Egypt holds its latest round of parliamentary elections. But what purposes do such elections serve in a military autocracy? Quite a few, actually, writes Hesham Shafick.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, October 10, 2020 10:16 - 0 Comments

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Egyptian president Abdelfatah Sisi casts his ballot in the Senate elections, August 2020. (Source: Nile News Egypt)

After the abrupt and barely recognised elections of a newly created and entirely redundant Senate, Egypt awaits another round of electoral theatre: the People Council elections. As with all post-coup electoral events in Egypt, these elections are marked by a complete lack of competition. The winning candidates are widely perceived to be predetermined, with any potential competitors systematically discredited, and a unified ‘national list’ openly endorsing the ruling military regime is presented as the only ‘correct’ choice for voters.

Party manifestos, ideological sparring, and all other signs of electoral politics are entirely absent. There is nothing whatsoever to signal an effort by the running candidates to appeal to voters. The only serious efforts being exerted are to compel the disinterested public to go and vote through a variety of coercive means, including the imposition of a significant fine on absentees (amounting to 1/3 of the national monthly minimum wage).

Why is the Sisi government so keen on forcing Egyptians to vote in such conspicuously undemocratic elections? This question becomes particularly paradoxical when we consider the government’s parallel reluctance to waste any efforts on presenting these elections as democratic or legitimate. The bizarre decision to add an upper chamber, the Senate, without informing the public of the reasoning for doing so adds to the paradox; for if the Senate elections were not necessary in the first place, why would the Sisi government embarrass itself by creating yet another electoral fiasco? What does a military regime, unabashedly ruling by force, need parliamentary elections for?

Egypt is one of many authoritarian states in which parliament is both insignificant and indispensable. It is insignificant as a branch of government, since it certainly does not fulfill the standard functions of a common parliament, such as legislation, representation, and holding the government to account. But the insistence of consecutive military regimes in Egypt on mobilising the public, often coercively, to vote in parliamentary elections signals its political worth. In a bid to demystify this paradoxical duality, this article invokes the literature on ‘electoral authoritarianism’, which underlines three alternative functions that parliaments perform in authoritarian contexts: political framing, cooptation, and coup-proofing.

Electoral Authoritarianism: Literature review

The origins of the literature on ‘electoral authoritarianism’ can largely be traced to Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way’s theorisation of the global ‘imitation of democracy,’ encouraged by the post-cold war liberal hegemony that had embarrassed and cornered classical autocracies. In one way or other, Levitsky and Way argue, authoritarian regimes were prompted to situate their politics within a democratic frame. What mattered was not the actual practice of domestic politics, but the way it was presented and codified in communications with the international community. On a hierarchised scale ranging from established democracies to absolute autocracies, the mere existence of a parliament situates the country higher in the ladder, as does the increased rate of participation in elections, even if this is attained through undemocratic means (such as imposing fines on absentees).  

As the line of inquiry developed over the years, however, this literature accentuated several other uses of parliamentary elections beyond the mere imitation of a democratic image. On the political ‘framing’ front, Levitsky and Way developed their theory to incorporate various other codes authoritarian regimes signal through the candidates they put forth in theatrical elections; including political agendas and social loyalties. Other scholars emphasised the use of elections to create political divisions within the opposition; on one hand, by creating an incentive for opposition leaders to align with the regime in return for parliamentary seats (as examined by Beatriz Magaloni) and, on the other, by creating an incentive for the public to abandon opposition leaders who do not, by tying the distribution of economic resources among districts to their performed electoral loyalty (as explored in the work of Lisa Blaydes). Others, notably Zoltan Barany, have highlighted the significance of parliament in complicating military coups by extending the base of the political regime beyond the military institution. All these functions apply to the current Egyptian parliamentary elections, as the rest of this article shall briefly demonstrate.

Framing: “An atmosphere of party politics”

The element of framing is the most visible here, as can be seen clearly in the ‘National List’ campaign slogans. The ‘National List’ is the short and commonly used term for the “National List for the benefit of Egypt”, an electoral coalition composed of 11 parties and 5 political-business coalitions, openly endorsed by and openly endorsing the ruling military regime. The list’s core aim, as expressed by three of its main leaders, is to create an “atmosphere of party politics.” The term “atmosphere” makes it clear the aim is not to encourage actual party politics, which the amalgamation of all competitive parties into one list renders impossible, but rather to create a simulacrum of a political life: parties, candidates, voters, and a general atmosphere that mimics democratic politics.

In addition, the list’s main campaign slogan, “empowering the woman and the youth”, echoes the state discourse as expressed in Sisi’s bizarre decision to name the years 2017 and 2018 “the year of the youth” and “the year of the woman”, respectively. There was little, if any, practical value of the naming exercise, except to frame Sisi as an ally of global feminism and champion of the youth. The “National List” reinforces this framing, not only by reproducing the slogans, but by giving them a practical form through the representation of loyalist women and youth on its regime-backed list. The practical insignificance of parliament as a branch of government facilitates its usage to give false signals that the youth and women are fully incorporated into the country’s governance, while the military leadership composed exclusively of sexagenarian males remains in full charge of the state administration.

Co-optation: ‘Good citizens’ versus ‘bad citizens’

The symbolic inclusion of youth and women fulfils another important political function; namely to create divisions within these segments of the population. With parliamentary seats being predetermined through inclusion in the state-sponsored coalition, these seats are exclusively distributed among loyalists. This perhaps explains why the regime decided, suddenly and with no communicated reasoning, to create a second parliamentary chamber. Despite the lack of public interest in either, the two chambers will still provide income, fringe benefits, and prestige to the individuals and parties taking part in them; as well as giving them the opportunity to use state resources to create services and business opportunities for their constituencies. A new chamber, therefore, means new opportunities for clientelist rewards; and, interestingly, ones which will “trickle down” to the public as these parliamentarians use their offices and access to public funds to serve their own clients.

But beyond clientelism, the promotion of individuals to parliamentary offices situates them as representatives of their electoral segments — a model, so to speak, of women, youth, liberals, Islamists, or whatever segments they are framed to represent. In doing so, the regime enacts a division between “good women” and “bad women”, “good youth” and “bad youth”, “good liberals” and “bad liberals”, “good Islamists” and “bad Islamists”, and so on. The “good” are welcomed and empowered, the “bad” are subjected to systematic violence, incarceration, and repression.

By creating this division, the regime neutralises the majority of these segments by framing its repression [of youth, women, liberals, Islamists, etc.] as particular to specific, “bad”, sub-categories within the repressed segments. Overall, it creates an aura of symbolic citizenship that structures society into good citizens, who are allowed and encouraged to participate in political life, and bad citizens who are rejected and ostracized; encouraging shifts from the latter model to the former.

Coup-Proofing: Adding a civilian component

Finally, the creation of the parliament as a symbolic yet persistent state institution distances the ruling de-facto military government from the military institution. This distancing is beneficial to both. On the one hand, it shields the military institution from any accountability to the public, which is instead shifted onto the civilian parliament and government. On the other hand, this enables the regime to expand beyond being an extension to the military, signalling to the public, the international community, and the military itself that it has a civilian political arm too. In doing so, the regime pits the interests of its civilian component in tension with those of its military component, in which the expansion of the powers of the latter takes from the share of the former, and vice versa.

Given the military’s control over much of strategic politics in Egypt, the civilian component is far less powerful. But civilian participation in politics, signified primarily through parliament, sets in place some minimal, yet pivotal, checks on the military’s power over the political regime. More importantly, it pre-empts any coup prospects by framing them as an attack on a civilian (even if partially so) political order. 

Conclusion: Whatever it is the parliament does?

This article was inspired by a call I received from a dear friend — a young and promising scholar of public administration. He called to inform me that he was running as a candidate in these parliamentary elections. Startled, I asked, “what for?” His answer was inspiring: “for whatever it is the parliament does”.

His simultaneous dismissal of the role of the parliament and insistence on running for its office made me think about the worthiness of holding parliamentary elections in Egypt in the first place. What is it that the parliament does? As I have highlighted in this article, parliament in Egypt serves multiple functions, from framing to co-optation to coup-proofing. Everything, in other words, except its official role.

Hesham Shafick

Hesham Shafick is a teaching associate at the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London, where he teaches courses on everyday politics, international relations, and the post-colonial Middle East. He is an associate fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy.

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