Egypt Table of Contents

The pluralization of the party system was accompanied by a parallel but limited opening up of the electoral system. Parliamentary elections continued to be held even after the 1952 establishment of an authoritarian system, although they were never truly competitive and played almost no role in recruitment of the top elite, which was selected from above. The elections were not meaningless, however. They were a mechanism by which the regime coopted into parliament politically acceptable local notables, and they served as a safety valve for managing the pressures for participation.

During the period of single-party elections (1957-72), government controls were tight, and candidates were screened for political loyalty by the leading Free Officers who dominated the party. Some choice was permitted among candidates, who normally were authentic local notables, and the personal prestige and resources of rival candidates often decided the outcome. In the 1960s, a dual-member constituency system was introduced, in which one of two seats was reserved for a worker or peasant. As mentioned earlier, this system was a largely unsuccessful attempt to draw the lower classes into the electoral process.

Beginning in 1976, Sadat permitted competition among three proto-parties of the left, center, and right, a major step on the road to a more open political process; scores of independents were also allowed to run. The 1979 elections, in which antigovernment candidates running against the peace treaty with Israel encountered a wall of government harassment and fraud, represented a step backward from liberalization.

The 1984 and 1987 elections under Mubarak, however, were the most open and competitive elections since 1952. There were more parties, because the New Wafd Party and the NPUP, excluded by Sadat, were readmitted, and the Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to run individual candidates under the auspices of an allied secular party. Because campaigning was freer and more extensive than ever, it was also clearer to more people that party stands on issues were important in the elections. But, as if to counter this, the government's introduction of the 1984 Election Law meant to exclude smaller parties from parliament: no party that received less than 8 percent of the vote would receive seats, and its votes would be added to the party achieving a plurality. Moreover, the dual-member constituency system was replaced with large multimember districts in which party lists competed. This arrangement diluted the influence of local notables vis--vis the government but also reduced the regime's ability to coopt them, because many refused to run for election under these conditions. It also ended the guarantee of half of the seats for workers and peasants. The low turnout for elections indicated that many Egyptians were unconvinced that voting under these conditions made any difference to political outcomes; although officials announced a 47 percent 1987 turnout, the number of voters was actually closer to 25 percent.

Even under the relatively open multiparty elections, the government party continued to have the upper hand and never failed to win a large majority. The government party monopolized the broadcast media, and the government tried to restrict opposition attempts to reach the voters. The Ministry of Interior ran the elections, in which the ballot was not really secret; it mobilized local headmen on the side of government; and it sometimes resorted to outright stuffing of ballot boxes. Ruling-party "toughs" and police often intimidated opposition poll watchers and voters. The government benefited from the tendency of many voters to support the government candidate out of deference to authority, hope for advantage, or realization that the opposition would not be permitted a majority. Many workers and peasants, economically dependent on a government job or agricultural services, dared not antagonize the government.

Because the scope of opposition on issues was so narrow, the personal prestige and patronage resources of candidates played a major role in swaying votes, and the government party typically coopted its candidates from local notables with such resources. Patronage could range from the distribution of chickens at election time, to the promise of government jobs or the delivery of roads and utilities to a village, to the refurbishing of the local mosque. Voters were also influenced by the prestige of wealth and profession, the well-known family name that could forge intricate patterns of family alliances, and the national-level stature that made one a local "favorite son." Only as the electoral process was pluralized did ideologies and issues come to play a role, but this role remained limited; many voters either lacked political consciousness or were unconvinced of the efficacy of issue voting in an authoritarian regime. Urban middle- and working-class voters were most likely to vote on an issue basis, but in the rural areas most people cast their votes for the notables for whom they worked or for those who had the government connections best able to do them favors. Thus, the government could offset the votes of the more politically conscious with a mass of rural votes delivered on a clientage basis.

The outcomes of the four multiparty elections reflected a certain changing balance of power between government and the opposition and among the competing opposition forces. In the first multiparty elections of 1976, the government center faction won 280 of 350 seats; the right (soon-to-be Liberal Party) 12; and the left (soon-to-be NPUP), 4. In addition, there were forty-eight independents, some of whom emerged as leading opposition figures. In 1979 Sadat, having repressed the NPUP and the just-formed New Wafd Party, allowed only one supposedly loyal opposition party, the Socialist Labor Party, to compete, and the government party (the NDP) won all but thirty seats. In the 1984 elections, the New Wafd Party and the Muslim Brotherhood formed a joint ticket. The NDP got 73 percent of the vote and took 390 of 448 seats whereas, the New Wafd Party-Brotherhood alliance captured 58 seats with 15 percent of the vote and emerged as the main opposition force. The smaller parties were excluded from parliament by the 8 percent rule. In 1987 the New Wafd Party ran alone, while the small Liberal and Socialist Labor parties joined with the Muslim Brotherhood in the Islamic Alliance. The New Wafd Party won thirty-five seats and the Islamic Alliance, sixty. Thus, under Mubarak the government majority remained unchallengeable, but it had declined, and the New Wafd Party and the Islamic movement had emerged as a significant opposition presence in parliament. However, the exclusion of the NPUP from parliament, principally through the 1984 Election Law, marginalized Egypt's only unambiguously populist voice, the one force that was free of wealthy patrons or powerful economic interests and that set forth an alternative noncapitalist economic program. Parliament remained almost exclusively a preserve of the bourgeoisie. The 1987 elections marked not only the growing influence of Islam and the decline of the secular left, but also the rise of a new Islamic-secular cleavage cutting across class- based rifts and putting the regime, the NPUP, and the New Wafd Party on the same side. This cross-cutting tended to mute political conflict to the advantage of the regime.

Despite their seeming inability to win power, the opposition parties had a real function as "parties of pressure" in the dominant party system. They articulated the interests and values of sectors of the population ignored by the dominant party. They helped frame the terms of public debate by raising issues that would otherwise have remained off the public agenda. For opposition activists, participation offered the chance to espouse ideas, to shape public opinion, and occasionally even to influence policy because if they threatened to capture enough support, they might force the government to alter its course. The Liberal Party helped advance economic liberalization under Sadat, while the NPUP was a brake on the reversal of populist policies. The Islamists won Islamization concessions from the secular regime, whereas the New Wafd Party helped make partial political liberalization irreversible.

A party of pressure might also act as an interest group advocating particular interests in elite circles or promoting the fortunes of aspirant politicians hoping for cooptation. Mubarak's more consensual style of rule and regular consultation with opposition leaders marginally advanced their ability to influence government policy. For example, in early 1990 Mubarak bowed to an opposition campaign and removed the unpopular minister of interior, Zaki Badr. A tacit understanding existed between government and opposition: the latter knew if it went too far in challenging the regime, it invited repression, whereas the former knew if it were too unresponsive or tightened controls too much, it risked antisystem mobilization.

The primary consequence of the system in the short run was the stabilization of the regime. The divisions in the opposition allowed the regime to play them against each other. Secularists were pitted against Islamists, left against right. The opposition parties channeled much political activity that might otherwise have taken a covert, even violent, antiregime direction into more tame, manageable forms. Opposition elites, in working through the system, brought their followings into it; a sign of the regime's success was the incorporation of the three political formations that had been most independent under Sadat--the New Wafd Party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the NPUP--into the system under Mubarak.

In the longer run, the party experiment was deepening the pluralization of the political arena. That the pluralization begun under Sadat was real was clear from the persistence of all the parties then founded. They proved to be more than personalistic or official factions and either revived some political tradition or were rooted in an underlying social cleavage or dissent on a major issue. The rough correspondence between the ideologies of the parties and their social bases indicated a "blocking out" of the political arena, moving Egyptian politics beyond a mere competition of patrons and shillas without social roots. This pluralization had, however, only begun to seep down to the level of the mass public, much of which remained politically apathetic or attached to traditional client networks. The dominant party system had adapted sufficiently to the level of pluralization in the 1980s to impart a crucial element of stability to the regime.

More about the Government and Politics of Egypt.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress