Those elusive constituencies

22-10-2014 04:41 PM

Sheri Abdel-Massih

When Egyptians achieved the near-impossible feat of overthrowing the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime on 3 July 2013 following its one year in power, they regained the ‘Egyptianness’ the Islamists had attempted to obliterate in favour of Islamism and won the opportunity to build the modern democratic State the MB had failed so miserably at. The urgent question, however, was: what next? Representatives of the various sectors of the Egyptian community teamed up with the military and set a three-point Roadmap for the country to attain a civil, democratic State.
So far, Egypt has fulfilled two of the three points: a Constitution that is seen as the best ever in the history of Egyptian constitutions, and the election of the moderate Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi as President. Both of these were voted in through fair—and landslide—votes, meaning they have the solid support of the masses. Now Egypt is eagerly awaiting the implementation of the third and most critical provision, the election of a parliament.

Parties and individuals
The parliamentary elections were not the last step on the Roadmap; they were in fact scheduled to come before the presidential elections. The various political forces saw, however, that in view of the precarious security situation in the country owing to MB terrorism, the presidential elections should come first. Interim President Adly Mansour accordingly issued a decision that presidential elections should be held in May 2014, and the parliamentary elections should follow before the end of the year. Once Mr Sisi became President, he in turn ordered the process of electing a new parliament to take off.
The current House of Representatives Law stipulates a 567-seat parliament, with 420 seats reserved for independent candidates and 120 for party candidates who will be drawn from closed lists. The remaining 27 seats go to presidential appointees.
The law has rankled the political parties. They say it weakens their position in favour of the ‘independents’ who use local patronage networks and money to obtain a seat in parliament.
Egypt’s last parliament was voted in on the basis of two-thirds of the seats to party candidates and one-third to individuals. This was in the heyday of the Islamists in 2012, when their parties managed to win some 70 per cent of the seats. This parliament, however, was dissolved by a court ruling that claimed the law curtailed the right of individuals to run and favoured the parties.
The current law reverses the situation. While the parties cry foul, the mainstream public are of the opinion that the parties have no right to complain since they have next to no influence on the ground. And with 125 parties on the scene, and the public comfortable with the law, it will stand as it is.

Urgent problem
The urgent problem is that the law defining the electoral constituencies has not yet been issued, so candidates and parties cannot get down to planning or campaigning. The law was expected months ago, and the delay has led politicians to accuse the government of procrastinating, especially when Justice Minister Mahfouz Saber declared recently that the law will not be issued before the new governorate map of Egypt is drawn. Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab directly countered this assertion by announcing the formation of a committee of legal experts to set the law. The committee has already begun work.

Fair franchise
The 2014 Constitution stipulates that constituencies should be defined according to fair, international standards that take into account population density and distribution. The Constitution also stresses the importance of fair representation of marginalised groups, but does not define any figures or groups: that task is left to the lawmakers.
Until the 2010 parliament Egypt was divided into constituencies represented by 444 parliamentary seats, among them 10 appointed by the president of the republic. The National Democratic Party (NDP), the majority party in Egypt before the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, succeeded in passing reforms which increased the number of seats in the 2010 parliament to 508 by adding 64 seats allocated to women.
Before the Arab Spring there was practically no problem with electoral constituencies. The political scene was dominated by the NDP; the MB ran as independents since religion-based parties were banned. Even before the NDP, which came into existence together with other parties in the 1970s, Egypt was a one-party State, that party being the Socialist Union. After the Arab Spring, religious-based parties became legal and the formation of political parties became a very simple, straightforward process. Hence the some 125 parties today on the scene, among them Islamic parties.

Manipulating the seats
The issue of electoral constituencies is a complicated one that led to problems during Egypt’s only Islamist-majority Parliament in 2012, which came in the wake of the Arab Spring. At the time the MB realised that their once-sweeping popularity had begun a downward slide, and pressed to have several constituencies redefined so as to guarantee that the new ones included a majority Islamist electorate.
Abdallah al-Mughazi, professor of constitutional law and a former MP, believes it is not possible to define constituencies until the new governorate boundaries have been drawn. This is a process the relevant authorities are currently working on, with talk about three new governorates and the redefining of borders for a number of existing ones.
Dr Mughazi says demographics and population density should be important factors when constituencies are drawn. “Some areas have high populations whereas others have quite low and widely scattered populations, as in case of desert areas,” he says. Constituencies must be sufficiently small so that politicians and representatives can enjoy close, interactive relations. Regions such as Sinai on the eastern border and Marsa Matrouh on the west have social and security problems specific to them, and all this must be taken into consideration when defining constituencies.
“The issue is more about technical, administrative, strategic and social factors; the legal part can only come in when all these factors are played out,” Dr Mughazi adds.

Watani International
22 October 2014


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