05/19/2011 06:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Egyptian Elections Report: Challenges With Democracy

Note: For the last year and a half, I have been working on-and-off with Egyptian political parties and youth activists. Below is the first blog post in a series of reports on the upcoming Egyptian elections. This series represents my views from interactions with activists, party leaders, and candidates on the ground in Egypt. I am currently in Cairo after a week of traveling around Egypt meeting with eager activists.

I am a week into my efforts to train Egyptian political activists on how Americans campaign, and it is clear the challenges facing political parties and youth activists here are daunting. In addition to high illiteracy rates, limitations on election resources, and a politically-uninitiated populace, Egypt's troubles are mounting as its parliamentary elections draw near.

Party Foul

Since the Egyptian revolution first materialized on Jan. 25 and the March 19 referendum that resulted, political parties have been organizing internally to prepare for campaign and party-building efforts.The time it is taking to organize the parties has left little time for actual public campaigning, which leaves many Jan. 25 activists without a clear voice and party to rally behind. The referendum results (77.2 percent in favor and 22.8 percent against) are evidence of the lack of outreach from the pro-democracy community. Every political party and presidential candidate denounced the measures, yet the country voted overwhelmingly in favor.

While the message is clear -- there is a new Egypt -- it remains to be seen whether this revolution will extend to campaign guidelines and practices. Three critical barriers to effective elections presently stand:

  • Many of the political party activists are not representative of the typical Egyptian mindset.
  • Political parties are primarily campaigning as a reaction to their fear of the well-organized, minority-serving Muslim Brotherhood.
  • A central voice is absent from just about all of the political parties, new and old alike.
These realities are serious cause for concern; business as usual from the pro-democracy community will only lead to chaotic results in September. Centralized efforts and dispersal of information to voters are desperately needed, especially with regard to the voting process and key issues facing the new parliament.

The Life of the Party

Questions from all interested stakeholders persist, the foremost among them: Who will stand as the voice for the Egyptian revolution?

Amr Moussa appears to be the frontrunner, but consistently bad press and concerns over ties to the old regime plague his campaign. Alternatively, Mohammad ElBaradei's credentials and experience are impressive, but Egyptians view him as an outsider from Vienna. And with none of the parties or presidential candidates presenting a clearly-defined platform outlining their visions for Egypt's next two decades, voters may well have little to consider and by which to be persuaded on Election Day.

Election Rules

As of today, there exist no official rules governing the September election process and thus there is a high risk of confusion and unrest for new voters and candidates.

Egypt"s military council has yet to determine the format of elections and government representation. It remains unclear whether candidates and political parties will be allowed to accept contributions from corporate or foreign entities. While it was recently confirmed that Egyptians living abroad will be permitted to vote in the September elections, there is no consensus yet as to how their ballots will be cast. In addition to concerns over the electoral process, parties and candidates continue to seek information on campaign requirements and parameters.

Currently, Egypt is a majority-representation country like the U.S.. Each Assembly district is represented by two members on the People's Assembly; one representing the urban population and the other rural. Reports suggest that the military council is considering changing the elections process to a proportional representation system like Italy, Greece, and the UK. This would result in voters selecting among competing parties and the parties selecting the representatives. Once the percentage of each political party's vote is determined, seats would be assigned accordingly. With new political parties popping up every day in Cairo, it seems difficult to imagine this system working without an effort to build coalitions among like parties. A few of the more liberal parties in Egypt are in the very early stages of forming a coalition, but it is unclear as to when they will finalize an agreement.

While the military council decides on when, where and how the election will take place, parties are feverishly collecting signatures to qualify as an official party in Egypt. To become official, an Egyptian party must collect 5,000 signatures with a notary present. Of the 5,000 signatures, 3,000 must be equally collected from 10 of the 27 provinces (called "governorates"), obtaining at least 300 from each governate. Signatures qualify as official once the signatory pays the notary to validate their form; this presents a problem as it is not customary to contribute to a political entity or movement.

Activists' Most-Pressing Questions for the Election

Here are some of the open questions I see that need to be answered before Egypt can effectively conduct a national election:
  1. Who will be allowed to seek election for the People's Assembly and what are the requirements for candidates?
  2. How are decisions within the military council on the electoral process being made?
  3. With the districts for the People's Assembly being redrawn, when will they be presented to the public to recruit candidates?
  4. On which dates will the parliamentary and presidential elections take place? Given the lack of resources, will the elections take place over multiple days?
  5. For which form of government will the public be voting? Proportional? Winner-take-all?
  6. Who will be allowed to vote, registered voters or all citizens with a national I.D.?
  7. Who will oversee the election?
  8. Will the 64 districts created for the representation of women be on the ballot in September? Will these districts remain in existence in the years to come?