Elections for 60 of the bloc-list and 226 of the independent seats in Egypt’s new 596-seat unicameral parliament concluded on October 19. As it stands, 448 seats will be elected through independent candidate lists, another 120 seats will be elected through closed bloc or party lists, and the remainder appointed by the president. The remaining seats will be contested between November 30 and December 2. However, the Egyptian political system is overwhelmed by too many political parties, particularly secular ones of leftist and nationalist leanings. Most of these parties face serious hurdles in financing their candidates’ campaigning and establishing wider support bases while still maintaining distinct electoral platforms.
This can be resolved either by merging ideologically likeminded parties or forming alliances. Significant mergers have not happened since late 2013, when the Free Egyptians Party (FEP) successfully absorbed the Democratic Popular Front. Naturally, mergers can be difficult to forge when party leaders are opposed to ceding complete control. And alliances, which allow smaller parties to maximize gains by pooling resources and joint campaigning, have been tenuous at best in Egypt. Inter-party rivalries, disputes over electoral strategies and programs, and opposition within parties’ rank-and-file support bases also hamper cooperation.
Back in 2011 and 2012 several parties were successful in forging alliances such as the Democratic Alliance, Islamist Bloc, Egyptian Bloc, and the Revolution Continues. As with most electoral alliances, they have not endured between electoral cycles, but new ones have emerged to contest the 2015 polls. For instance, the For the Love of Egypt (FLE) coalition consists primarily of the Wafd Party, the FEP, and the Conservative Party, all center-right liberal forces. Likewise, the Leftist Alliance channels the more center-left socialist forces like Tagammu and the Socialist Popular Alliance Party.
However, underneath this superficial unity, most coalitions continue to suffer from accusations that some coalition members are dominating others or include Mubarak-era (felool) officials. Attempted coalitions, especially among smaller parties, have been further hampered by some party leaders putting principles before pragmatism and failing to realize the opportunity alliances present for them. For example, Ahmed Fawzy of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP), argued bloc-list alliances are a “violation of the equal opportunity concept” and stifle true competition.
During the registration period, which ran from September 1 to 15, a proposed unification between the FLE and Egyptian Front alliances fell through due to early disagreements over candidate selection and accusations of partisan domineering. Both these alliances will now run separately, with the Egyptian Front cooperating with the much smaller Egypt List alliance, which consists of minor Nasserist parties. Additionally, the Tagammu party left the FLE after it was excluded at the last minute from the candidate selection. Such last-minute switching of alliances indicates that some parties are not wholly committed. This further damages their chances, as voters may become confused when looking up the alliances on the closed list ballots.
But these coalitions are also divided over structural issues, most notably how different-sized parties approach campaign financing. A key example is the withdrawal of the Egypt’s Awakening (Sahwet Misr) alliance from the elections following a failed lawsuit to the Higher Election Committee. They opposed candidacy registration laws that dictated prospective candidates must undergo official medical examinations. As many members of Egypt’s Awakening had already undergone tests in February in preparation for the postponed March election, they considered new tests—which would cost approximately 3,000 EGP ($375) per candidate—an unnecessary financial hurdle. The withdrawal of this alliance was a particular blow for the elections, as many of its members are viewed as more progressive and have greater grassroots ties to youth.
Likewise, former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, cofounder of the Egyptian Popular Current, has long stressed the difficulty his party—and others like Karama and Dostour (which at the last minute pulled out and decided to boycott the current elections)—would have in financing candidates to contest the majority independent-list seats in Egypt’s 205 electoral districts. He says they face an agonizing uphill struggle against stronger, richer parties like the FEP and Wafd, which include many Egyptian businessmen, such as Naguib Sawiris, who can finance their own independent campaigns.
These differences have further exacerbated inter-party divisions regarding the 2014 Electoral Law. Stronger parties like Wafd favor the current independent-to-closed-list ratio. However, smaller ones like those in the Egypt’s Awakening alliance favored increasing the number of bloc-list seats from 120 to 180—given financing individual campaigns for independent seats would be more costly. This has further hampered coalition building between smaller parties and a larger, resource-rich one (like Wafd and the FEP), a format that generally makes electoral alliances more effective.
This is reflected in the parties’ commitment to the bloc: Wafd and the FEP are fielding only thirteen and nine candidates toward the For the Love of Egypt list, respectively. By contrast, Wafd is fielding 260 independents nationwide, with the FEP fielding 227. If the FLE alliance collapsed, it would have had little impact on their overall ability to contest the parliamentary elections. But smaller parties would have been hit harder, especially in their ability to meet minority candidacy quotas for closed-list seats. Electoral laws reserve a number of list seats for women (56 seats), Copts (24), workers and farmers (16), the youth (16), Egyptians abroad (8) and those with disabilities (8)—and alliances make it easier for small parties to meet candidacy quotas. Because of these parties’ difficulties contesting the independent seats or meeting quotas on their own, the bloc-list alliances became the only viable route for them to maximize their electoral gains.
Moreover, most of the alliances are designed solely to contest the minority of seats set aside for closed lists and do not address the greater challenge of fielding independent candidates. An alliance designed for independent districts—a staggering 448 seats nationwide—would need greater commitment and direct coordination in campaigning and distributing resources evenly among candidates. Deciding on which members should put forth a candidate for a “winnable” district could prove problematic. For example, major urban districts like Giza and Cairo have more seats per district, but such areas have traditionally been where stronger parties like Wafd focus their efforts. Other parties might consider campaigning in these areas less effective and a waste of resources. In the smaller and arguably more-winnable districts, like some in Upper Egypt, smaller parties are more likely to bicker over which of their candidates to field. The Leftist Alliance is the only one designed to focus on independent seats, in which Tagammu is fielding 24 candidates and the Socialist Popular Alliance Party twelve.
Many fear that the next parliament will be dominated by businessmen from parties like Wafd and the FEP, reminiscent of the Mubarak days of the ruling National Democratic Party. As the smaller parties remain divided and struggle to contest many seats, likely only a handful of their candidates will appear in the next parliament.
Christopher J. Cox is a freelance researcher and writer on Middle East affairs.