Redistricting Matters - How Electoral Districting is Fueling Crisis in Egypt

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Democracy is a complicated business.  That is true anywhere in the world and many of the same issues arise regardless of the continent.  Redistricting I have found in Egypt is every bit as controversial as it is in Texas, in fact more so.

I am currently participating in a U.S. delegation to Egypt hosted by the nonprofits Legacy International and the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.  Joining me on this delegation are two former Members of Congress, Scott Klug, Public Affairs Director at Foley & Lardner and Larry LaRocco, Policy Director at Brownstein/Hyatt/Farber/Shreck, along with Legacy International’s Vice President of Professional Programs, Marlene Ginsberg.

Our delegation is traveling as part of Legacy International’s Legislative Fellows Program, intended to provide delegates with the opportunity to exchange views with Egyptians of different backgrounds and increase our understanding of the governmental systems of Egypt.

The people of Egypt made international headlines two years ago when a popular uprising beginning in January 2011, now known as the Egyptian Revolution, led to the overthrow of the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.  The Egyptian Revolution was part of a wave of popular uprisings throughout the Middle East that became known as the Arab Spring.

Egyptian revolutionaries protested, among other injustices, the lack of free elections and freedom of speech.  In response to the popular uprising, in February 2011, President Mubarak dissolved his government, resigned from office and turned power over to the Egyptian Military, which announced that a parliament would be elected and would then re-write the nation’s constitution.

Hopes were high in the Spring of 2011 that Egypt was on the path to becoming a representative electoral democracy.  But two years later, the nation is in political, economic and social chaos.  The economy is on the verge of collapse.  Violence in the streets is on the rise.  Elections have been held but the legitimacy of the government is questioned by a large segment of the population.  And the parliamentary election scheduled for next month was canceled last week.

During the first three days of our visit to Egypt, our delegation has met with front-line activists from the Egyptian Revolution, political strategists and campaign staff for the second-place candidate in last year’s Presidential election, the Speaker of Egypt’s Shura Council (the upper house of parliament, equivalent to the U.S. Senate), civil society leaders running some of Egypt’s most prominent nonprofit organizations, leading Egyptian political science and economics professors, hundreds of students at Cairo University, the chairman of one of Egypt’s largest newspapers and the journalists who work for him, a deputy chief of the U.S. Embassy, the Chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt and others.

I’ve learned a great deal so far and one thing has stood out—the centrality of electoral districting to Egypt’s current turmoil.  The Campaign Legal Center, together with many other democracy and civil rights advocates in the U.S., recognize the importance of electoral redistricting to democratic governance.  Years ago the Campaign Legal Center helped to launch Americans for Redistricting Reform (ARR), a national nonpartisan umbrella organization committed to raising public awareness of redistricting abuses and promoting solutions that benefit voters and strengthen our democracy.  More recently, the Campaign Legal Center participated in the legal defense of Voting Rights Act provisions that require certain jurisdictions to obtain “preclearance” from the Department of Justice of redistricting plans in order to prevent discrimination against minority groups—provisions under challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder.

Not surprisingly, the drawing of electoral district lines has proven to be an incredibly controversial political issue in Egypt’s transition to democracy.  Egypt held its first post-Revolution parliamentary lower house election from late-November 2011 through early January 2012, with a plan to have the new lower house of parliament appoint a committee to rewrite Egypt’s constitution.  It was widely believed that the rewritten constitution would abolish the long-existing upper house of the parliament, the Shura Council, because that body had been perceived as no more than a rubber stamp for the Mubarak regime.  Nevertheless, soon after the parliamentary election was held, a new Shura Council was elected with  a mere 7% voter turnout and the Muslim Brotherhood won 70% of the seats.  In June 2012, the Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt ruled that the election laws used for the parliamentary lower house election were unconstitutional due to a variety of problems and the parliament was dissolved.  This left the Shura Council—a body elected by only 7% of Egyptian voters and dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood—in charge of rewriting the unconstitutional election law.

The Shura Council rewrote the election law with districts that heavily favored the Muslim Brotherhood.  The redistricting plan, for example, split compact Coptic Christian communities into multiple electoral districts to prevent them from electing representatives to parliament.  An election was then scheduled for April 2013 and the non-Islamist/secular opposition parties announced they would boycott the election because they had no role in drafting the election law and objected to the electoral districts, among other things.  This boycott would seriously undermine the legitimacy of the election, with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties essentially running unopposed.

Last week, Cairo’s Administrative Court ruled that the April election could not be held as scheduled “because the president and the Shura Council failed to abide by the constitution in promulgating the electoral law.”  The court has ordered the Shura Council to redraw the electoral districts once again.

As reported this week in AhramOnline, the non-Islamist liberal parties are skeptical that the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Shura Council will produce a fair redistricting plan, with one liberal party representative explaining: “We would rather wait until all political forces reach a consensus on a new electoral law than rushing to issue a new one reflecting the viewpoint of one political force[.]”  Another commented: “[E]even if we decided to issue a new electoral law, this would take time because the issue of redrawing electoral districts would require long debates.”

Based on conversations with a broad range of Egyptians this week, it seems highly unlikely that this electoral districting controversy will be resolved anytime soon.  And failure to resolve the redistricting problem will have dire consequences for the people of Egypt.  Without parliamentary elections held soon in a manner deemed fair and democratic by the general public, the legitimacy of Egyptian President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government will continue to be called into question.  Many predict—and some even hope—that an economic collapse in the coming months will result in a collapse of the current government, with the Egyptian Military stepping in to restore order.  This is most certainly not the transition to democracy envisioned by most Egyptian people during the celebratory days that followed the Egyptian Revolution.