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