2020 Egyptian Senate Elections: Outcomes and Challenges to its Role in Politics

Amr Hashem Rabea | 27 Sep 2020

Senate elections were held in Egypt during August and September 2020, and the results of those elections were announced in mid-September 2020. This paper sheds light on the return of the Senate to political life in Egypt and the controversy surrounding its importance, as well as the composition of this council, its electoral system, and the parties participating in its elections, including candidates, voters and the electoral administration. The paper also analyses the most prominent election results of the Senate and how it can enrich political life in Egypt in the near future.

Foundation of the Senate and the controversy over its importance

The Senate was established within the framework of amending the 2012 Constitution in 2019. While this Constitution stipulated the existence of a second chamber of parliament under the name of the Shura (Consultative) Council, which was then part of the Egyptian Parliament which also comprises the House of Representatives, the Committee of Fifty (C50) that was formed after the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood rule in 2013 rejected the continuation of this council. The argument of that committee, which was headed by Amr Moussa, the former Secretary-General of the League of Arab States (Arab League) and former Egyptian Foreign Minister, was that this council did not add anything new to the political life in Egypt, and that its existence is financially costly, not to mention the overlap between its powers and those of the House of Representatives. Ultimately, the C50 held that those second councils exist in particular in federal rather than unitary systems, considering that this council represents provinces or states equally, similar to the US Senate.

However, when the same Constitution was amended in 2019 by the House of Representatives, the prevailing opinion was that it is important to have that council in order to assist the House of Representatives. Besides, considering the policy papers it used to put forward during the Mubarak era (the Council existed in the period 1980-2011 under the name of the Shura (Consultative) Council), the Council then contributed to developing alternatives and solutions to many economic and social problems. While most of the content of those papers was not taken into account due to the nature of the political system at that time, it was felt that its return now would be a revival of what it used to do in the past. It would therefore enrich the Egyptian political life, even if it was merely a consultative council without oversight powers and with only limited legislative powers, which was stipulated in the Constitution after its amendment in 2019.

According to the current founding Constitution, the Senate – which is not stipulated in the Constitution as a second chamber of parliament or as part of the legislative authority – would certainly be consulted in any subsequent constitutional amendments. It would also be consulted on the socio-economic development plan and any treaties of reconciliation, alliance or change of the state’s sovereignty over its territory. The Senate would also be consulted regarding the draft laws and laws complementing the Constitution referred to it by the President of the Republic and the Speaker of Parliament, and any issues related to the state's general policy referred to it by the president of the state.

The Senate has been set for a constitutional term of five years. It did not follow the course of other councils in which there would be a midterm renewal of the members. It would comprise 300 members, two-thirds of whom would be chosen by election, and the remaining third by appointment by the head of state. In all cases, women would have a quota of at least 10 percent of this number in total, i.e. 30 women.

The mechanism for electing the Senate members

The election system for two-thirds of the senators in Egypt is subject to the majority system, so that the winner has to get more than 50 percent of the vote. The law establishing the Senate (Law 141 of 2020) stipulated two methods for this system:

1. The individual system, where half of the elected members, i.e. 100 people, are chosen after dividing the country into 27 constituencies, each of which is one of the Republic’s governorates. Each constituency is represented by a number of elected representatives who have been determined as stipulated in the Constitution in accordance with the fair representation of the population and the governorates. While the designation of the 27 constituencies and the determination of the number of representatives thereof have been marred by some kind of injustice and inequality, a look into how constituencies in Egypt are divided would reveal that it is one of the most difficult distributions of constituencies in the world’s political systems because Egypt is a country where 90 percent of the population live on a plot that does not exceed 20 percent of the area. This constrains the legislator’s manoeuvrability while carrying out the distribution process.

2. The absolute list, or what is scholarly referred to as the party bloc system where one list is elected for each constituency. According to this system, the country has been divided into four major electoral sectors. The first sector is the northern, central and southern Upper Egypt sector. It covers 11 governorates, including the Red Sea and the New Valley (El Wadi El Gedid) governorates. This constituency alone accounts for nearly 60 percent of ​​Egypt’s area. The second constituency/sector is the Cairo and South and Central Delta sector. It comprises six densely-populated governorates. The third constituency/sector is the East Delta sector, comprising seven governorates, including the governorates of Suez, North Sinai and South Sinai. The fourth constituency/sector is the West Delta sector and includes only three governorates. Each constituency/sector was assigned a number of representatives. The first and second sectors were assigned 35 representatives each, and the last two sectors 15 representatives each.

In all cases, the law stipulates that women should constitute 20 percent of the 100 members to be selected based on the absolute lists. The question in this context is: why are the developers of lists compelled to allocate 20 percent rather than 10 percent to women? The answer is that the legislator feared that individual-system nominations might be devoid of women, or that individually running women – assuming their candidacy – may fail to obtain the required number of votes for victory. Therefore, the mandatory percentage for women in the list nominations was set at 20 percent to compensate for that imbalance if it does occur. Accordingly, the legislator forced the compilers of the lists in the first and second constituencies/sectors to place six women in each of them, and in the third and fourth constituencies/sectors to place three women in each of them.

In general, defining the electoral system was the subject of extensive debate and controversy within the Egyptian political arena with many rejecting the absolute list system that has been abandoned by the vast majority of electoral systems in the world because it prevents the opposition from winning any seats and makes those who get more than 50 percent of the votes sweep the seats of the entire constituency or sector. In other words, this system has prevented the issue of proportional representation adopted by the legislator during the People's Assembly elections in 1984 and 1987, whereby the political powers that obtain less than 50 percent of the votes are represented in the Assembly in proportion to those votes.

Controls for appointing the 100 members

There remains the last portion, which is the third related to appointment. After the elections, the head of state appoints 100 members. However, unlike what used to be the case during the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, this appointment is not without controls, the absence of which allowed Mubarak (especially in the second half of his rule) to exercise cronyism to many people by appointing them as members of the council. The Senate Law No. 141 of 2020 laid down five controls for appointing this large number, namely:

1. The appointee shall not be among the losers in the elections.

2. The appointee shall not belong to the party to which the head of state belonged before becoming president.

3. This appointment shall not lead to a state of imbalance in the political balance within the Senate, such as in the case when the appointee belongs to the party that almost got the majority through the elections, thereby allowing this party to be in a more advantageous position thanks to the appointment.

4. The appointee shall meet the same criteria as the elected members, such as age (at least 35 years old), fulfilment of or exemption from military service, and obtaining a university degree.

5. Women shall constitute 10 percent of the appointees.

The Electorate (voter database)

Determining the electorate in Egypt has always been a subject of many problems. This was normal before 25 January 2011. Just before that date, specifically during the People's Assembly elections at the end of 2010, the number of the electorate was 39,380,410 voters. It is known that at that time, the Ministry of the Interior was the body responsible for registering the voters randomly and subjectively. This created a big gap between the number of registered voters and those who were actually eligible to vote. Today, after 25 January 2011, the number of eligible persons has become equal to the number of those actually registered, considering that the electorate is now drawn from the national number database rather than the randomly-prepared Ministry of the Interior records. This shift has resulted in an increase in the number of voters to 50,397,957 voters, which was the case in the House of Representatives elections at the end of 2011.

In other words, reliance on those registered in the national ID database has led to bridging the gap between registered voters and those eligible to vote. The number of registered voters in the 2020 Senate elections became 62,940,165 voters, which is a large number, nearly half of which, according to the data of the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), is comprised of males while the other half of females.

As far as Egyptian voters abroad are concerned, their participation in the voting was organised by returning to postal voting, where they would send letters containing their choice to diplomatic missions. It is worth noting in this context that postal voting had previously been abandoned by the National Election Authority (NEA) due to the defects of mass voting and fraud during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, return to that system this time was associated with significant safety and integrity measures.

Finally, voting in the 2020 Senate elections took place in two rounds, two days each, one abroad, which is the first, and the second at home.

Candidate trends in the elections

The candidate trends in the elections were divided according to the electoral system into two main sections: a section that wanted to participate according to the individual method, and another that wanted to participate through the absolute lists.

  • In the individual segment, according to the data provided by the NEA, 797 candidates competed for the 100 seats, of whom nearly 89 were women, and 38 were Christian males and females (25 and 13 respectively). The majority of these ran for the Cairo constituency, which means that the overall average competition for a single seat was nearly 8:1. The highest levels of competition for a single seat were in Qena Governorate (15:1), and the lowest in the New Valley Governorate (2:1). Politically, the largest trends designating candidates were the Independents category, with  512 candidates, followed by nearly 26 political parties, the five largest of which were: the Nation’s Future Party, which is close to the ruling circles, with nearly 92 candidates; the Homeland Defenders Party, with 54 candidates; the Wafd [Delegation] Party (22); the Conference Party (18); and the Salafi Al-Nour Party (17). Christians included in the lists of the Nation’s Future and the Wafd were one and four respectively. While the list of the Nation’s Future did not include any women, the Wafd nominated two women.
  • In the lists segment, the NEA only accepted the National List for Egypt, which designated candidates in the four aforementioned constituencies/sectors. Two lists were submitted by some political trends in the West Delta constituency/sector, but were rejected for technical reasons. The fact of the matter is that the NEA had to wait a little longer while the two lists completed their nomination papers, so that there would not be only one list running in the elections, leading to winning by acclamation across the Republic, so that the elections in this segment would cease to exist. In any case, the National List for Egypt, whose formation was led by the Nation’s Future Party, included 11 political parties. The shares of the 100 candidates, which were agreed upon with great difficulty, were distributed as follows: 65 candidates for the Nation’s Future, 11 for the Republican People’s (a party comprising mainly supporters of former President Mubarak), 6 for the Wafd, 4 for the Homeland Defenders, 3 for Modern Egypt, 2 for each of the Egyptian Social Democratic, the Patriotic Movement, and the Conference, and 1 for each of the Egyptian Freedom and the Reform and Development.

Conducting the elections

The NEA conducts parliamentary, presidential and local elections and referendums in Egypt. It comprises judges in their judicial capacity. The NEA administered the 2020 Senate elections through numerous decisions that included preparing the day-to-day schedule of the elections, controlling the financial ceiling for electoral propaganda and campaigns, accepting observers of the electoral process from the press, the media, and Egyptian and international civil society organisations, as well as preparing electoral headquarters and committees, preparing ballot boxes, managing the polling day, counting the votes, the process of voting for Egyptians abroad, etc.

The work of the NEA was marred by only a few violations, including, for example, placing the names of those affiliated with the Nation’s Future Party within the individual segment at the top of the ballot paper on polling day, and failure to announce, at the end of the electoral process, detailed results of the electoral process, specifically with regard to participation at the constituency and sector level and the number of votes obtained by each candidate for the individual seats.

Election results

The results of the 2020 Egyptian Senate elections were as follows:

1. Participation in the voting process: according to the ENA statement, the percentage of participation in the voting process was very limited, namely 14.23 percent in the first round, and 10.22 percent in the run-off. Observers linked this limited percentage to several factors, including the Senate’s limited powers, the Covid-19 epidemic that prevented people from participation, and the Egyptian citizens’ preoccupation with the economic and social burdens of life, which prevented them from participating in the voting process, as well as their lack of fear of paying a fine for not attending the voting process, because it has been proved on many previous occasions that those threats have not been carried out.

2. Invalid votes: a lot of attention was given to the invalid votes in the results announced by the NEA. In the first round, they accounted for 15.42 percent of the total attendees; and in the run-off, they accounted for 15.01 percent. Those figures, which exceeded the number of the participants themselves in terms of proportions, were interpreted as expressing people’s dissatisfaction with the Senate’s powers.

3. Results of the list segment: This segment was decided in the first round due to the absence of competing lists. The list almost won by acclamation, after 5 percent of the voters came to vote, which is the condition for winning if there is only one list. Thus, everyone on that list from the aforementioned parties won.

4. Results of the individual segment: the 100 seats were decided as follows: 88 seats went to the Nation’s Future Party (68 in the first round and 20 in the run-off round), 6 seats to the Republican People’s Party (5 in the first round and 1 in the run-off), and 6 seats to the independents (1 in the first round and 5 in the run-off). Thus, all the other 24 participating parties lost those elections, including the Wafd and the Tagammu (the National Progressive Unionist Party), which had previously won the seats that were their share in the National List for Egypt. It is worth noting that these two parties are the oldest in the history of partisan life in Egypt, the first having been founded in 1918 and revived in 1978, and the second having been founded in 1976 with the beginning of the third partisan pluralism in Egypt.

5. Women: the share of women in those elections was reflected in the victory of 20 women, being all the women running manditorily, by force of law, in the prepared lists. That is, women did not win any of the individual seats.

Prospects and challenges of the Senate’s role in the Egyptian political system

Enthusiasts for the return of the Senate to political life count on it to carry out important tasks in the Egyptian political system. The Senate is hoped to show a good performance in the political system in the period ahead, although there are important conditions to achieve this, mainly and most importantly that the Senate extract competencies and powers about which the Constitution has remained silent, although it did not oppose them or seek to prevent them. This may be facilitated by the fact that the Senate is different from the Shura Council when it was established in 1980 in that the members of the first had higher qualifications compared to the latter whose members, according to the law, need only be literate, before basic education was stipulated as a condition for membership in the constitutional amendment that took place in 2007.

In addition, the current Senate, unlike all previous ones, can achieve accumulation in performance. Its term of office is for five consecutive years, so that half of the members need not be changed at midterm. Moreover, the inclusion of a significant elite of appointed specialists in various fields, estimated at one-third of the Senate members, would constitute a new addition to the Senate, helping it play a significant role, especially that the law has sought to improve the selection of appointees through putting many selection criteria, which prevents sessions from turning into ordinary chats and dialogues.

On the other hand, cooperation between the 12 political parties and trends that have been elected and that participate in the Senate (parties of the absolute list and the independents) would also ensure the contribution of the new Senate to the development and progress of the Egyptian political system. In this context, it should be emphasised that the exaggerated party cohesion in a council whose vast majority is composed of a single trend or party contributes to undermining that council’s activity. In other words, allowing members of the Nation’s Future Party that has a large majority in the Senate to act freely would certainly support the Senate’s performance. On the other hand, awareness on the part of the political trends other than the Nation’s Future of an attitude by members of the Nation’s Future aimed at achieving public interest, even if that interest conflicts with partisan cohesion, would enrich debates within the Senate and prevent the frustration of those trends at participating in the Senate’s work. That is, creating new trends with a similar role to the one carried out by the dissolved National Democratic Party would ensure repetition of past experiences. Therefore, cooperation between all political trends within the Senate is inevitable if it is to be a real actor in the Egyptian political system.

The media would certainly have an important role in expanding the powers of the Senate, not only by increasing the visibility of its achievements, but also by demanding that the public authorities allow the Senate to express its opinion on public issues. Only then would the Senate be able to extract new powers that are necessitated by political harmonization and the needs of the Egyptian society and state.

In light of the achievement of the above, the Senate is expected to create additional powers for itself to overcome the current limitations of powers. What is certain is that if the Senate wants to be successful, it is imperative for it to work diligently in a way that makes it put forward unconventional issues for discussion. Through its cooperation with the House of Representatives and through the relationship between the speakers of both institutions, the Senate can put on its agenda many draft laws that complement the Constitution together with the state’s socio-economic development plan projects. It can also discuss important public opinion issues, thus becoming equipped with de facto oversight powers, although the government is not constitutionally accountable to the Senate.

To sum up, in light of the current economic, social and political conditions, the Egyptian society and state will always have domains for research, study and opinion. If the Senate raises the issues of the society and the state in relation to poverty, high prices, low local currency rates, the budget deficit, the tilted trade balance, the incentives policy, industrialisation and investment, land reclamation, water scarcity, human rights, etc., based on its role in proposing general issues for public debate, it would have fulfilled its desired role.

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