“The success of our efforts to devise a thoroughly Egyptian model for reform will depend to a large extent on the ability of our political parties to mould themselves into dynamic grassroots forces, thereby stimulating broader public participation in the political process,” wrote Ibrahim Nafie, a columnist for the Al-Ahram weekly newspaper, referring to Egypt’s first multi-candidate elections in 2005. But this comment could not be more relevant to Egypt’s political climate today. Now that Hosni Mubarak has been removed from power and Mohamed Morsi has been elected through a fair and free election, Egypt seems to be on its way to democracy.
In the United States, the two-party system has emerged as the accepted paradigm. As a result of this model, however, many citizens are under the false impression that they must choose between only two candidates. This system traps us in the mindset that there can only be two possible winners. When presidential elections began in Egypt, 14 candidates ran, reflecting a diverse society. But the 14 candidates were functionally whittled down to two by the High Commission for Elections’ decision to establish a first-past-the-post system, where the candidate with the most votes in the election wins, even without a majority of votes. The system left two viable candidates: Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and Ahmed Shafiq, former Minister of Aviation, running as an independent.
This first-past-the-post system will ensure a two-party system in Egypt. Egyptians should eliminate the first-past-the-post system to move away from an era of thinking between Mubarak cronies and the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood, and to make way for cooperation that transcends this binary.
Given the original candidates, a final choice between Shafiq and Morsi – while not as polar as a choice between potential Salafi candidate Abu Ismail and Mubarak’s Vice President Omar Suleiman, would have left Egyptians with a bittersweet taste of democracy. It is only hoped that Egypt will not go down a road where citizens’ interests are seen as binary. It is ironic that as much as this system seems to pit two extremes against each other – figments of the old Mubarak regime versus the Brotherhood – the parties are actually identical in their ability to address Egypt’s employment, education, and healthcare crises. An expansion of the political space through an institutional change in the electoral system would move the country forward. To begin this, the most important change is a reform of the political attitude into one that does not lead into this political polarization.
In the current Egyptian political climate, citizens think either in a pro-Morsi or anti-Morsi mindset. Violent clashes occur on the ground between those who deem Morsi democratically elected and thus worthy of obeisance, and those against his power grab. This is reflective of the political climate during the elections between Morsi and Shafiq, where voting for Morsi was considered tantamount to voting for a puppet of the Brotherhood, and those supporting Shafiq were categorized as felool, or Mubarak supporters. Perhaps it is because Egyptians have never had a free election between multiple parties under Mubarak, Sadat, and Nasser, that they are currently struggling with the concept of political difference and pluralism.
The Egyptian Republic under Gamal Abdel Nasser started with a one-party system. In 1978, Sadat formed the National Democratic Party (NDP) and ended the one-party ideology. Despite this reform, the electoral system continued to be dominated by the NDP, which would “win” each election with a sweeping majority. Per the 1971 constitution, the president would be re-elected every six years, functionally serving for life in a one-party system. In 2005, the first multi-party elections occurred, but they proved to be a farce. Ayman Nour of the al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party won only 8.8 percent of the vote, and was immediately accused of signature rigging. As a result, Mubarak held the presidency, and Nour was imprisoned. It is this with-us-or-against-us mindset that has placed Egyptians into a hole that can only be escaped through gradual trust in elected politicians.
This polarized mindset was present even before Egyptians had the chance to engage in the first free and fair elections in May 2012. In discussion with Western allies, Mubarak would strengthen his autocratic position by presenting his Islamist opponents as destabilizing. If anything, there are more similarities than differences between rule under the NDP’s Mubarak and the FJP’s Morsi in terms of power consolidation, use of emergency laws, and calling opposition figures threats to the nation’s interests. This Mubarak-versus-Brotherhood mindset continues to divide the country, as Morsi focuses his efforts on suspending the financial assets of Ahmed Shafiq and calling for a retrial of Mubarak, two acts that, unfortunately, have gained him popular support.
The defeat of this with-or-against-me notion will not only take time, but will require continuous efforts toward establishing a new discourse. For decades, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned from political activity; only in March 2011 did it establish its own party, the Freedom and Justice Party. Over the seventy years of their political exclusion, the Islamists had stepped in to help the poor when the government was unable to provide services, and thus with a broad appeal, it was able to more easily mobilize support during the elections. While liberal and secular parties would not as easily appeal to the uneducated masses, they must find an alternative to boycotting so as to include themselves in the political process, even with its current flaws.
Currently, there is evidence of progress. But the impasse in approving a constitution that reflects more than just the Islamist interests of the populace, the struggle for Morsi to effect change without feeling the need to reopen unhealed wounds, and Morsi’s expansion of his unchecked use of political powers, will pass as soon as the country’s institutions are put in place. Overcoming the two-party system mindset, however, is not a change that will come with the new institutions. Rather, a new system must be put in place that can allow for a wider variety of opinions in future elections.
While no electoral system can completely avoid political polarization, there is still a way to have a two-party system whereby voters rank their candidates in a preferential voting system. Had candidates been ranked in the first Egyptian election, either Abol Fotoh or Hamdeen Sabahi would have been one of the final contenders, as they were the most commonly favored candidates across a large span of voters according to polls from the Egypt Independent. Australia, for example, has preferential voting, a ranking system in which candidates favorable to a large base are successful. As voters pick their second and third choice candidates, a common consensus can be reached, and a shift from the duopoly can be achieved. This electoral system allows for more space for third parties in that the winner does not need a majority of the vote in order to win. In this way, third parties have a better chance, and voters will learn to think in terms of their personal preferences for specific ideas of each individual candidate.
Keeping Egypt’s plurality system provides a low-risk model for future political movement, but the revolution was not started to achieve low-risk results. In order for Egypt to avoid establishing this problematic precedent, an institutional change accompanied by a more important societal shift from the two-party paradigm is necessary. This means efforts should be made to effect institutional change. Given the frustration and impatience surrounding the unchecked powers of the “democratically” elected president, this may not be easy. Since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces-appointed High Commission of Elections, not the president, put this electoral system into place, there remains room for innovation.
Unlike prior presidents, Morsi’s mandate is derived from his legitimate election. With time, the genuinely democratic election of presidents will become the norm in Egypt. To maintain legitimacy, they will need to prove they are abiding by their party’s platform. As the Freedom and Justice Party’s platform states, “We also stress the need that the Egyptian people should be the ones who draft the Egyptian Constitution, in a way that reflects the identity and will of the nation.” The current climate, however, in which liberals and secularists withdrew from the constitutional committee, left the constitution to be drafted in a way that does not respect pluralism. As Morsi claims, his power grab is temporary until Egyptians approve the new constitution.
At present, the Egyptian political scene sees the negotiations over its constitution as its primary struggle for the future. The political climate, nonetheless, that will emerge is not bound by new laws: It is an ethos that will characterize how the country expresses its pluralistic interests for years to come. If the choices in Egyptian elections are seen as being between corruption and supposed purity, or between religion and pragmatism, the emerging debates will only drive the nation backward to the choice that Mubarak had always evoked between an authoritarian leader or chaos. A new system is needed to elect a new, truly representative leader. The current flaws in the democratic system are paving the way for a tyranny of the majority rather than exhibiting the kind of pluralism that the Freedom and Justice Party platform is supposed to ensure.