How Bad Election Law Could Crash Egypt's Revolution

The country's intricate new rules for voting pose a real risk for its transition to democracy

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Members of the military try to stop clashes between demonstrators and loyalists of the ruling military council in Abbasiya district in Cairo / Reuters


When it comes to revolutions, election law reform is just not as exciting as, say, toppling a brutal dictator through non-violent protest; nor is the threat of bad election law reform quite as scary as, for example, the threat of a military junta taking that dictator's place. But one of the more auspicious lessons from the past two centuries of democratic revolutions is that the esoteric details of how a country holds its first legitimate election can sometimes be just as important, and just as dangerous, as, for example, whether that country's military decides to turn its guns on a pro-democracy movement, as it is doing now in Syria, or to stand them down, as it did in Egypt. That latter country might have gotten closer to democracy than nearly any other Arab state so far, but the new election rules it released this week could undo it all.

The Democracy ReportThe revamped electoral laws, announced Thursday by Egypt's interim (maybe!) military government, are a confusing mish-mash of a few different electoral systems. They include a whole new delineation of 184 districts, voters in which will choose between, depending on the district, some combination of individual candidates and party lists. The rules, designed for the upcoming November elections, which will set the standard for Egyptian democracy, repeat what may be the biggest mistake that nascent democracies make: something called "first past the post." It's the system we use in the U.S., where every election has a list of candidates, and the candidate who gets the most votes in that particular election wins the seat. Why is that so bad? It's complicated, but the video below provides a compelling and surprisingly entertaining (it uses jungle animals) explanation:



Actually, it's much worse than that. The video above has "cheetah" winning the national election with only 20 percent, the most of the seven candidates. The other 80 percent of the electorate that did not support "cheetah" glumly accepts the results. But, often, that's not what happens. In a country with little tradition of democracy and widespread anxiety about whether a democratic system is really right for them, watching a minority take power can often lead people to reject the idea of democracy or to consider the new government illegitimate.

Or worse. The country that no one in Egypt wants to talk about right now is Algeria. In 1991, Algeria's government, bowing to outside pressure and internal pro-democracy activism (sound familiar?), held the country's first-ever real democratic elections. They set the system as first past the post: voters in each district chose between a list of parties, and the party that got the most votes in that district would represent it in the parliament. But because the democratic system was so new, there were dozens of political parties, some with overlapping ideologies, few very experienced in campaigning. Though Algerian society was not particularly Islamist for an Arab state, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an Islamist party, was able to use its access to preexisting religious institutions to campaign and organize. On election day, Algeria's many liberals and socialists and centrists split their votes among the many liberal, socialist, and centrist parties. The FIS swept elections, winning districts with often less than a quarter of its votes. The Islamist party was poised to dominate the government, though most people had voted against it. The Algerian military, which is staunchly secular and socialist, cancelled the elections and staged a coup. The civil war this started lasted a decade and killed a quarter of a million Algerians.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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