Egypt is on the eve of the first of two stages in its parliamentary elections, scheduled to begin in the last week of October and ending in the second week of December. The window for nominations has closed, and candidates (many of whom are running as independents) have begun campaigning, under the oversight of the National Elections Authority.

Independents do not belong to a political party; some running in the current elections never have done, while others have left parties to which they previously belonged. Independent candidates are a feature in the political systems of most societies, but their prominence and motivations within each system vary from one to the next. In the context of Egypt, we can talk in general of independent candidates with regard to the political parties, and we can also talk of temporary independents who appear only during elections. This paper will examine the phenomenon of independent candidates in the Egyptian elections and the impact that they have had on elections and the Egyptian parliament.

The development of the independent candidate phenomenon

According to the website of the National Elections Authority, 4,532 original candidates (including back-up candidates on electoral lists) have registered to run in the upcoming elections in Egypt, of whom 568 are running on closed lists for half of the elected seats in the House of Representatives, totaling 284 seats. Most of these candidates are affiliated with a political party. The remaining 3,964 candidates are running for individual seats, which represent the other half of seats in the House of Representatives. Of these, 3,097 are independent candidates, and the remaining 867 are affiliated with a political party; independent candidates therefore represent 78% of those running for individual seats, and 68% of all original candidates.

By comparison, in 2000, 3,957 candidates ran in the parliamentary elections (which used the single-candidate majority system, in which candidates had to receive 50%+1 of the votes to win the seat), competing for 444 seats. Of them, 923 were party-affiliated. In the 2005 elections, which had the same number of seats and used the same system, there were 5,177 candidates, of whom 4,423 were independents. In the 2010 elections, the number of seats increased to 508; there were 5,411 candidates, of whom around 600 were party-affiliated. In the 2011/12 elections, a third of parliamentary seats (i.e. 166) were elected using the individual candidate system, and two thirds (i.e. 332) of seats used closed lists. There were 10,251 candidates, of whom 6,154 ran as independents. Although this included candidates running for individual seats, it represented an unprecedently high rate of competition, with an average of 37 candidates competing for each seat. The 2015 elections also used the majority system, with 79% of seats elected via the individual candidate system (448 of the total 568 seats). There were 5,876 candidates, of whom 5,441 ran as independents; both competition for seats and the level of participation were therefore far lower than during the 2011/12 elections.

Independent candidates have long been a key feature of Egyptian parliamentary elections. The importance of their role varies depending on the nature of the electoral system, the political and legal climate behind the elections, the prevailing model of freedoms, and the level of legal openness or accessibility.

Reasons for the rise in the number of independent candidates

As evidenced by the aforementioned figures, most candidates in the current elections race are running as independents. This may be driven by a number of factors:

  • In Egypt, politics is not seen as a desirable field in which to work. Although politics and public affairs have been discussed openly to varying degrees depending on the political system, such engagement is not structured through membership of recognized political parties or forces.
  • Since the early 20th century, Egyptians have become accustomed to the unwillingness of the authorities to involve them in political affairs. Back when Egypt was a kingdom, to work in politics meant either working on behalf of the King and showing opposition to occupation, or opposing one or both of them. During the Nasser era, Egyptians recognized that political work would not be possible until the occupation had ended. Despite the return of Egypt’s political parties in 1976, the people strongly resented the authorities’ unwillingness to allow them to participate in politics. The political parties were, of course, the authorities’ main tool in this regard. Egyptian TV and film dramas regularly discuss these same issues, which has become a reminder to the Egyptian people that there is safety in keeping their distance from political activity.
  • Egypt suffers from numerous economic and social problems, often linked to failures in the education and healthcare systems, high prices for goods and services, and low incomes, etc. The Egyptian people therefore prioritize their daily needs and see political work as a luxury.
  • The ongoing disagreements, democratic crises, and leadership quarrels within the political parties have alienated many Egyptians and have driven up support for independent candidates.
  • The use of the majority system in Egyptian elections – the most commonly used system since the establishment of the Shura Council of Representatives in 1866, with the exception of a few years – is one of the main reasons why Egyptians are reluctant to engage with political parties. Under this system, Egyptians can stand in elections without needing to belong to a political party or entity.
  • In recent decades, there has been a growing desire among Egyptians to stand for parliament, which some see as a way to gain the upper hand over enemy families and tribes, gain social prestige, and further boost their own strong economic standing.

Consequently, the number of independent candidates far outstrips those affiliated with political parties.

Expected repercussions for the elections and parliament

Parliamentary elections in Egypt tend to represent the narrow interests of certain circles and groups rather than the wider interests of the Egyptian people, meaning that voters are drawn primarily to candidates whom they feel will serve their local and personal interests. This shapes the composition of the House of Representatives, where political parties are disunited, and there is no well formulated framework that would allow for organized, reliable parliamentary work.

The current lists established by political parties are little more than electoral groupings of multi-sectarian forces that will disperse as soon as the elections are over, whether they win or lose. Parliamentary work is therefore dependent to a certain extent on independent, non-partisan representatives. This is evidenced in the high proportion of independent candidates running for individual seat in all 27 governorates: New Valley (62.5%), Aswan (69%), Asyut (77.9%), Alexandria (76.7%), Ismailia (79.6%), Luxor (78.7%), Red Sea (71%), Al-Buhayrah (77.1%), Al-Sharqia (73.6%), Fayoum (70%), Cairo (77.1%), Minya (71.7%), Beni Suef (74.7%), Suhag (71.8%), North Sinai (71%), Qena (72.5%), Matruh (77.8%), Giza (80.6%), Al-Dakahlia (84%), Suez (85.3%), Al-Gharbia (82.4%), Al-Qalyubia (84.3%), Al-Munufia (83.9%), Port Said (80%), South Sinai (80%), Damietta (86.4%), and Kafr el Sheikh (81.3%).

Independent candidates will therefore hold a considerable percentage of seats in the next parliament. Egypt’s political forces and parties, while technically organized groups, are weak, and will not necessarily have an advantage in this regard during the elections. Even in lists in which the political hold parties have a large majority of candidates, independent candidates are expected to win around half the seats.

While this could be a cause of concern for the government, it is unlikely to see independent candidate as much of a threat, as they are isolated and unorganized and usually have very narrow interests. As with the current parliament, it will also become clear that independent representatives have no interest at all in opposing the executive authorities; the next parliament is therefore even more likely to cooperate with the executive authorities than its predecessor.

How might the situation change?

One way to rebalance the situation would be to encourage Egyptians to join a political party before the elections, rather than attempting to push winning candidates to form or join parties after the fact. Perhaps one of the key factors in restoring Egypt’s political parties would be the return of the party proportional list system, under which citizens must join a party if they wish to stand in the elections.

Furthermore, one of the most effective ways to attract Egyptians to political parties would be for the Egyptian State to demonstrate its support for the parties in both word and deed. Another important step is for the State to show an interest in political party affairs and, similarly, in electoral social affairs by introducing quotas for women, disabled people, young people, and other groups.

Lastly, Egypt’s political parties must be reorganized from within so as to overcome their internal conflicts and eliminate the climate of negativity that dissuades so many voters from joining them.

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