Journal Essay

Constituting Institutions: The Electoral System in Egypt

David M. Faris

Spring 2012, Volume XIX, Number 1

Dr. Faris is an assistant professor of political science at Roosevelt University. He would like to thank Amel Ahmed for her input and suggestions on drafts of this manuscript, as well as Todor Enev for his input on the conceptual framework.

On November 28, 2011, Egyptians went to the polls to begin electing a new parliament in three stages. It was in many respects the first genuine democratic election ever to be held in the country. Yet a number of momentous institutional decisions remain to be made that may affect the direction of Egyptian politics and society for years to come. Many of these will be foundational constitutional questions about the relationship between religion and state, particularly the degree to which Islamic law will be the source of legislation. But Egypt must also settle on a method for electing its representatives, and the universe of electoral laws is quite large.

For students and scholars of the Middle East, this is also a time of transition. Most scholars cut their teeth analyzing an undemocratic region, and, while there are still many authoritarian countries to be studied, the new democratic politics will require reaching deep into the scholarship of other regions — particularly Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia — where transitions to genuine democratic politics have taken place over the past 30 years. Fortunately for the designers of Egypt's electoral system, there has been much experimentation with electoral systems across the democratic world, yielding knowledge about arrangements that work and under what circumstances.

This article addresses those choices at the level of the electoral system, and the ways that those systems might mitigate the social cleavages characteristic of the later Mubarak regime and foster conciliation across religious lines. Egypt also has the opportunity to institutionalize opportunities for women's representation, and to take the lead in the Arab and Muslim worlds on issues of gender equality by deepening existing mechanisms of representation. Prominent observers have taken a rather dim view of the system designed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and implemented starting November 28. Elliott Abrams argued, "It would confuse a bunch of PhD statisticians, much less an electorate that is about 30 percent illiterate."1 Eric Trager of The Washington Institute on Near East Policy claimed that "the details of the new voting system suggest an effort to reconstitute authoritarian rule."2 And The National's Bradley Hope termed it "one of the most complex electoral systems in the region, if not the world."3 However, while the system featured some questionable elements, it was closer to the consensus views of the political-science community than any of the alternatives on offer. These views are largely unknown in the United States because there exists no organized constituency for electoral reform, and because the hurdles to such a movement would be so high. But, the electoral system implemented by the SCAF needs no wholesale revision, but rather modest tweaks to eliminate some features while enhancing its benefits.

The article will first outline how elections had been run under the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak, and how the electoral law offered by the SCAF structured the recent parliamentary elections. It then draws on the experience of other new democracies and the specialized literature on electoral systems to offer a series of potential modifications to the SCAF's electoral laws. These modifications are designed to enhance proportionality and efficiency as part of a project to strengthen party competition, mitigate inequality and promote religious reconciliation. While Egypt faces deep structural economic and social problems that are beyond the scope of institutional engineering to fix, such structures can nevertheless have a beneficial impact. As Arend Lijphart argues, the electoral system is one of "two fundamental choices that confront architects of new democratic constitutions."4 Now is the best time to consider such changes, before emerging parties and coalitions become enmeshed in the current system and start to view its quirks and idiosyncrasies as critical variables of their election strategies.


Under the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak, elections to Egypt's lower legislative body, the People's Assembly (PA), employed a modified nationwide single-member district (SMD) system, in which two winners were chosen from each district. The particular wrinkle of this system was that one of these winners had to be "a worker or a farmer," a ploy left over from the Nasser era designed to enhance the status of the National Democratic Party (NDP). The other quirk was that the elections were conducted under what is known as a Two-Round System (TRS) that pitted the top two vote-getters against one another in a second election if no one emerged with a majority on the first ballot. The PA was the main legislative decision-making body in the country, and, while its powers were largely symbolic during the long rule of Mubarak, there nevertheless existed institutionalized modes of candidacy, election rules and party competition. An upper body, the Shura Council, was even more powerless than the PA (hereafter, "parliament"), but was mysteriously maintained as an institutional feature of Egyptian political life. The parliament itself elected 508 members to four-year terms, as well as, beginning in 2010, 64 seats set aside for women. There were also 10 "unelected" (appointed) members, a mechanism that has been retained in post-revolutionary Egypt as a SCAF prerogative. The 2010 elections, widely regarded as systemically rigged and falsified,5 do not provide a useful barometer for how post-Mubarak electoral competition may take shape.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with the SMD system, which is used from the United States to many parts of Latin America, the Egyptian iteration of this model left much to be desired. The most substantial flaw in the system was gross and intentional malapportionment. Particularly for a system in which the parliament is to be the sole legislative decision-making body, the kinds of electoral disparities featured in Egypt substantially interfered with the already deeply limited quality of democracy. Rural areas were privileged with small district sizes, whereas large urban areas like Cairo, Alexandria and Aswan were given many fewer representatives per person. As the cities were the focus of support for liberal opposition parties, the regime's malapportionment made a great deal of sense as a regime survival strategy. Even had the opposition scored higher raw-vote totals, district rigging would have ensured large majorities for the NDP.

The Mubarak-era party system could be characterized as hyper-personalized. Politicians were consumed with providing material benefits to their home districts, at the expense of any kind of legislative platform.6 As Samer Shehata has demonstrated, parliamentary elections under the Mubarak regime were geared toward providing jobs and perks to particular localities and almost completely divorced from ideological struggles.7 The NDP itself was non-programmatic, offering voters little other than executive competence and broad stability in the political and economic system. Besides, voters never really felt as if they had much choice in the matter; the regime consistently engineered super-majorities for the NDP at the expense of the few other parties allowed to participate in the system (such as the leftist Tagammu). Many individuals would run in their home districts as independents, campaigning not on ideology but on how they might improve daily life for citizens there, and then join the NDP en masse after the elections. Needless to say, at no point during his 29 years in office were Mubarak's legislative prerogatives ever in peril.

The post-revolutionary period in Egypt featured substantial debate about the shape of the electoral system, reflecting an understanding that election rules will deeply influence outcomes and shape political struggles to come. Revolutionary forces, including the coalition that organized the January 25 protests, held out for a system that would eliminate SMD seats and institute a List Proportional Representation (PR) system based on a single national district. The SCAF, on the other hand, proposed and implemented what is known as a "parallel system." Under the initial proposal, half the members of parliament would be elected under the old modified SMD system, while half would be elected using proportional representation. The elections of November 2011 did indeed feature a combination of SMD and PR, following the adoption of such systems by Germany, Russia and Japan. Unlike those countries, however, the SCAF was pressured by social forces into skewing the distribution of seats heavily towards the List PR end of the scale, with only one-third of the seats reserved for individual candidates in SMD elections. As such, two-thirds of parliament was elected via proportional representation. It was not a national system, but rather — and against the wishes of activists, secularists, and much of the political opposition — a system of regional PR elections conducted in 46 constituencies that elected between four and 12 representatives each.8 The country was divided into 83 districts for the SMD portion, each of which elected two winners, one of whom had to be a worker or farmer. Half of all members of the PA are required to be workers or farmers, meaning some manipulation of the PR results will be necessary as well.9 Initially, the law proposed by the SCAF reserved the SMD seats exclusively for non-party "independents" in a transparent attempt to boost the fortunes of former members of the ruling party. However, as has happened repeatedly since the revolution, the military backed down under sustained popular pressure and a threatened boycott by political forces.

As of this writing, the third round of these elections has been completed. Final totals are not yet in, but some broad trends are visible. As expected, the Muslim Brotherhood's newly-legalized Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) was dominant, taking approximately 47 percent of the total seats in the first two rounds. The Nour party, the vehicle of the even more conservative Salafists, took 24.22 percent.10 The Wafd and the Egyptian Bloc (which includes the liberal Free Egyptians party and is widely seen as the electoral vehicle of the Copts) both won slightly above 7 percent of the seats.11 The Wasat Party, which struggled unsuccessfully for years to achieve legality under Mubarak, won just over 2 percent, as did the Revolution Continues alliance, whose most notable party member is the Egyptian Current party, formed by disaffected youth from the Muslim Brotherhood. Independent candidates affiliated with the ancien régime appear to have performed quite poorly, highlighting the danger of assuming that certain electoral mechanisms will benefit certain groups before elections have actually taken place. New parties formed by remnants of the NDP also did poorly.

Much of the political debate since the first round of elections in November has centered around the better than expected performance of both the FJP and the Nour party. This has only deepened fears inside and outside of Egypt about how these groups might govern. Yet it is essential that, instead of focusing on the electoral prospects of political Islamists, we attempt to understand the structural forces likely to be exerted on Egyptian politics by the unusual set of institutions erected by the SCAF. The most puzzling of these features to ordinary Egyptians is the use of two different laws to elect people to the same legislative body.


Many mainstream political scientists seem to concur that "mixed systems" are preferable to both SMD and PR-only systems.12 The first country to use a "mixed system" was West Germany in 1949, after World War II.13 Mixed systems come in two basic varieties. In the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system, the PR seats are used to compensate for inequalities in seat distribution for the parties. The methods of achieving this goal vary — sometimes winning SMD seats are subtracted from parties' PR totals, while in other systems additional seats may be added to the legislature.14 The other system is known as a Parallel System, in which the two sets of legislators are elected independently of one another, but "unlike MMP systems, the PR component of a parallel system does not compensate for any disproportionality within the plurality/majority districts."15 The latter system is the one adopted by the SCAF, for reasons that remain rather opaque, since Egypt's transitional military rulers have been poor explainers of their own decision-making processes. It appears that the system was a genuine attempt to undermine the local-level cronyism of the NDP era and to meet the demands of activists without completely forsaking the opportunity to manipulate matters in individual districts. Parallel systems are in use in, among other places, Russia, Japan and Mexico, while the MMP system is used most prominently in Germany.

Research on mixed systems has thus far focused largely on Europe,16 and Egypt's decision to move forward with a mixed-member system offers a unique opportunity to study its effects in a newly democratized state. Mixed systems began to be adopted widely in the 1990s, either by new democratic states like Russia or by longstanding democracies like Japan, to remedy perceived imbalances in existing systems. Pure SMD systems like that of the United States tend to create legislators whose concerns are focused at the local level, leading inevitably to pork-barrel politics in which legislators are expected to create jobs, infrastructure and other economic opportunities in their home districts. In the United States, incumbents are largely invulnerable to electoral challenge, are known well in their districts, and are frequently led to challenge party orthodoxy in the interest of local concerns. At the opposite end of the spectrum, national party-list systems like those in Sweden are thought to privilege national interests and party concerns at the expense of local representation and issues.17

Thus, the debate over mixed systems has tended to sort itself into a "best of both worlds"18 scenario, in which mixed systems remedy the shortcomings of both PR and SMD systems, versus a "worst of both worlds" interpretation. In the first scenario, legislators elected under the different systems attend to very different legislative priorities, the PR legislators concerning themselves with national matters and the SMD lawmakers with local concerns and representation. There appears to be little support for this interpretation; experiences in places like Mexico suggest that the PR legislators become much more powerful and initiate more legislation.19 The more pessimistic interpretation holds that, in countries with mixed systems, "reform provided no panacea after all."20 It is not obvious from the literature, however, that these behaviors in any way impact democratic performance, broadly interpreted. What is clear is that even more seemingly arcane rules, such as the ability of candidates to run simultaneously in both the PR and SMD portions of the vote, can have a substantial impact on both electoral outcomes and intra-elite competition.

Egypt headed into its November elections with no clear majority party, nor really any longstanding party with substantial support or legislative experience outside of the Muslim Brotherhood. The SCAF disbanded the NDP and refused to allow it to reconstitute itself under a different name. The absence of a surviving ruling party distinguishes the Egyptian transitional moment from the cases of Mexico and Russia. In the former, the Institutional Party of the Revolution (PRI) continued to compete for seats in a gradual transition to democratic rule that featured the emergence of today's leading opposition parties — the PAN and the PRD — long before politics was fully democratized. The Mexican system thus entered its democratic era with more or less institutionalized party structures and patterns of interparty competition. In Russia, the Yeltsin government inherited a strong bloc of communist legislators who were permitted to organize themselves as such and compete on equal footing with new parties and candidates. In Egypt, the group best positioned to capture votes after the revolution was the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. The Brotherhood was never allowed to legally form a party under Mubarak, but its candidates were allowed to run as independents. In the 2005 elections, those independents captured 88 seats and would likely have won even more absent regime interference. The drastic drop in seats for the Brotherhood in 2010 reflected not a decline in support but rather a determined regime effort, launched immediately after its strong showing in 2005, to discredit the group and expunge their delegation. No matter what electoral system is put into place, the FJP is going to serve as the core party for some time. The question is whether what emerges will be a two-party system featuring the FJP and some other party or a more inclusive and representative party system.

One of the most robust tenets of political science is known as Duverger's Law: SMD electoral rules tend to produce two-party systems.21 PR systems, on the other hand, tend to produce party systems with many "relevant" parties (parties that might be included in a coalition government).22 It was thought, or hoped, that mixed-member systems would produce intermediate systems. Indeed, one of the more consistent findings on mixed systems is known as the "contamination effect." Parties that run more candidates in the SMD portion of the ballot tend to do better in the PR balloting as well; the SMD tier "contaminates" the PR tier.23 Particularly in parallel systems, where there is no attempt to compensate for disproportionality, voters will tend to vote strategically and ignore smaller parties in the SMD tier.

The ultimate effect of that contamination (as in Japan) may be to push mixed systems toward having two major parties.24 What seems true is that even in a parallel system, the two "separate" systems have some effect on one another, based on particular strategies of the parties. Other scholars have disputed this finding,25 and it is certainly possible that context is more important than any general law of mixed systems. The Egyptian case should eventually contribute to this debate and help scholars understand the interactive effects between the SMD and PR components of mixed systems.

A very basic choice facing the Egyptian polity concerns the goals of the party system in relation to societal cleavages. Scholars have typically divided these goals into translation, aggregation and blocking.26 Systems that translate cleavages will foster party systems that graft existing divisions onto the party system, for instance, by allowing the creation of Muslim and Coptic political parties. Systems that aggregate differences will, instead of fostering mobilization along ethnic, national or religious lines, forge institutions designed to build ties across ethnic and religious divisions. Nigeria, for instance, experimented with requiring parties to demonstrate a national presence before they could be licensed (this requirement has since been discarded).27 Finally, blocking occurs when institutional designers explicitly ban certain kinds of parties from forming. Egypt is most familiar with this last process, as religious parties were banned under the regimes of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. However, this religious blocking was not related to lofty ideals of democratic theory, but rather designed to reinforce the power of the catch-all National Democratic Party and thwart the potential electoral clout of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.

The special danger of designing institutions in the new Egypt is that decisions will be made on the basis of short-run calculations of narrow political interest, rather than any long-term benefit. As should be clear from the dominant performance of the FJP, in both the party list and district-level elections, there is very little that institutional designers in Egypt can do to undermine its dominance. Furthermore, were elites to sit down and design such a system, they would find that it ends up protecting the FJP against challengers, should the Islamists lose support before the next round of parliamentary elections. Instead of focusing on the existing political and social divisions between Islamists and secular liberals, institutional designers should concentrate on issues of justice, equity and governability. A mixed system does seem appropriate, in that it represents a middle ground between the likely fractionalization that would probably result from a pure national List PR system, and the duopoly between the FJP and Nour that would be the likely result of an SMD system.

Why would Egypt choose a mixed system instead of a U.S.-style SMD? SMD systems produce systemic shortfalls in representativeness in lieu of increased governability. Because the winner of each district needs only a plurality, it is possible for certain parties to hold system-wide support and yet have almost nothing to show for it at the level of parliamentary representation. Such has been the fate of the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom, who until their recent coalition with the Tories consistently polled much higher than their seat share in Westminster. This would almost certainly be the case in Egypt for the Wafd and the Egyptian Bloc, who now have strong representation because of Egypt's electoral system but would likely almost disappear under an SMD system.

Political-science research also supports the idea that the system should be weighted heavily toward proportional representation for a number of additional reasons. First, PR systems tend to have higher turnout28 than SMD systems, although this appears to be less robust in new than in established democracies.29 For the latter, the turnout boost for PR systems has been found to be eight percent.30 Scholars do not agree on why PR systems tend to have higher turnout than SMD's, but, due to the magnitude of the economic and social challenges likely to be faced by new Egyptian governments in the coming years, it is essential that elections be seen as legitimate. As Chen argues, "Normatively, turnout represents the most direct form of political participation, and low turnout reflects disenchantment among citizens."31 Choosing an electoral system that boosts turnout and enthusiasm is one direct (and simple) way to accomplish this important goal. Overall turnout in recent elections was in excess of 62 percent, a very good sign that supports the general design offered by the SCAF. Scholars have also found that PR systems tend to produce more robust economic growth than plurality systems. As Knutsen argues, "PR systems are likely to produce higher growth because they promote broad-interest, rather than special-interest, policies, and perhaps because PR systems produce more stable and thus credible economic policies."32 Finally, PR systems have been shown to be better at wealth redistribution (because they enable multiple-party systems that foster coalitions of middle- and working-class voters against the rich) and thus likely to be more equitable.33 In a country like Egypt, where poverty is widespread and the wealthy appear to be above the law, creating a system that leads to greater equality should be a major goal of institutional designers.


The most politically salient and potentially combustible division in Egyptian society is that between Muslims, who form an overwhelming majority of at least 85 percent, and the Coptic Christian minority, 10-15 percent of the population. Christians are also not dispersed equally across Egypt's 18 provinces, instead forming more substantial minorities in some areas than in others. Copts make up approximately 20 percent of the El-Minya province and, for reasons of historical persecution, have much higher population percentages in Upper Egypt than in the Delta, where their numbers are few.34 However, Copts do not appear to be the majority in any province, and asking the system to produce Coptic representatives based on district-level elections is unwise. This reality makes institutional solutions designed for evenly dispersed minorities (as in the United States) less appropriate for Egypt. Christians in Egypt (not all of whom belong to the Coptic Church but are nonetheless referred to as Copts) face institutionalized discrimination in jobs, housing, and other areas, including the building of churches.35 Nonetheless, differences between Copts and Muslims are less immediately salient than one might imagine. Because Egypt was Christian prior to the Arab conquest, there are no obvious racial, national or linguistic differences between the two populations.36 Over time, cultural differences have arisen, such as the use of distinctive Christian names, and those differences have been exacerbated since the Sadat era. Sadat infamously courted the Islamist movement in the 1970s as a counterweight to Nasser loyalists in his administration, even going so far as to pass a number of laws, including one on apostasy, that were regarded with horror by the Coptic community.

Over time, the ruling NDP seemed less and less interested in Coptic representation, despite the well-known political closeness between President Mubarak and Pope Shenouda III. In the brazenly rigged parliamentary elections of November 2010, the NDP included just 10 Copts on its electoral list of 780 candidates.37 While that parliament had a very short life, with fewer than five Coptic representatives elected, it certainly marked the nadir of communal representation. Coptic representation in elections, while it has never matched the community's actual share of the population, dropped to levels that threatened to erase any remaining legitimacy for the regime in the eyes of the Copts. For there to be any hope of communal co-existence in post-Mubarak Egypt, the country must seek to address this problem at the level of institutions. While the FJP very publicly placed a handful of Copts on its lists, we should not confuse what was effectively a publicity stunt with the reality of parties that are sorted according to religion.

A string of violent incidents between Muslims and Copts in the years prior to the January 25 uprising gives special urgency to intercommunal relations. On Christmas Eve 2009, a gunman in Nagaa Hamadi opened fire outside a church, killing six Coptic men and a Muslim guard. The killings were rumored to be political rather than communal in nature,38 but that distinction was lost on the Coptic community, which feels increasingly threatened. More ominous was the bombing of the Church of Saint Mark and Pope Peter in the Sidi Bishr district of Alexandria. A bomb was detonated outside the church, killing 21 people and injuring 96. It was perhaps the worst instance of religious violence in Egypt's modern history, and the attendant controversies and soul-searching were swept aside by events a few weeks later, when national unity against the Mubarak regime took precedence over sectarian tensions. Such unity, however, is unlikely to survive the period of post-transition politics. As the experience of Iraq shows, grievances and differences that were long suppressed under authoritarianism can cripple new democratic institutions and lead to even greater violence if they are not dealt with honestly.

Unfortunately, there are no obvious institutional mechanisms of redress for the problem of Coptic representation. The first barrier is cultural — the very act of designating the Copts a "minority" in the Egyptian polity is quite controversial. Copts see themselves, and are often seen by the Muslim community, not as a minority, but as an essential piece of the Egyptian national "fabric." Prior efforts to highlight discrimination against Copts have bumped up against deeply entrenched fears of foreign interference in Egyptian affairs.39 However, in light of the potential for communal violence, pursuing legitimate institutional remedies for this problem would seem to take precedence over fears of offending sensibilities or arousing resentment.

There are two possible paths toward increasing Coptic representation and hence attention to issues of Coptic-Muslim relations. The first, which appears to be the preference of the Egyptian political class, is to effectively do nothing and hope for the emergence of political parties that are explicitly cross-sectarian in nature so that communal representation would be achieved through internal party dynamics. Parties would obtain certain levels of Coptic support and put forth an appropriate number of Coptic candidates in district-level elections. The problem with this approach is that there is no evidence to suggest it would succeed; Egypt's two best-organized and mobilized parties, the new Salafist Nour Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, have no history of inclusive policies at the party or organizational level. Even the secular parties do not appear to have placed enough Copts on their lists or placed them high enough. To rely on the goodwill of these parties might be to court intercommunal disaster come election time. The other approach is to tweak the institutions to increase Coptic representation, which will be discussed below.

Among pertinent Egyptian political coalitions, opinion on these questions differs in the current climate according to perceived political interest. The Muslim Brotherhood and its new FJP express indifference to the ultimate shape of the electoral system, believing they would score substantial victories no matter the arrangement, due to their longstanding ties to numerous Egyptian communities at the local level. These ties have been built over the decades through extensive social-welfare networks that effectively filled the void left by the weakness of the state and its inability to consistently provide public goods. Groups like the April Sixth Youth Movement, which played a leading role in organizing the protests that brought down the regime, insist on a pure party-list system, arguing that what Egypt really needs is to move as far away as possible from the old personalistic system, even at the temporary cost of responsiveness at the local level. As political organizer Bassem Fathy argues,

If there is personalization of the elections, you have to change your system to the proportional system; if you have a country where the parties are too strong and are harming politics, you have to switch to the other side. In Egypt it was very personalized. Our parliament works like it's a local council, and they are serving very local interests, not necessarily legitimate interests. Helping people get jobs, this was the main work of the MPs before the revolution.40


The moment of constitutional design is also a unique opportunity for Egypt to exert its leadership in the Arab world on the issue of women's rights and representation. There are generally three components to the status of women in democracies. First, there is formal equality, the right to vote and run for office. Egyptian women's-rights activists fought for and won these rights long ago, although informal mechanisms of gender inequality remain pervasive in Egyptian society. Descriptive representation, on the other hand, goes beyond formal equality. To achieve this, women should hold legislative offices in proportion to their share of the population. Countries around the world have chosen to approach the problem of women's representation through the prism of institutional design. Just over the past 15 years alone, at least 50 countries have instituted electoral reforms to increase women's representation in legislative bodies.41 Some have "reserved seats" for women, ranging from three percent in Kenya to 30 percent in Eritrea and Tanzania.42 Alternatively, many countries have set what are known as "legislative quotas" that require law-making bodies include a certain number of female legislators, by requiring the parties themselves to nominate sufficient numbers of women. Both types of laws are "redistributive," intended to alter the balance of power between men and women in the formal political sphere, under the assumption that such redistribution would not happen on its own.43 While most of these provisions are new enough that there is little data on whether they achieve substantive changes in gender equality at the micro or macro level, increasing gender representation has become a broadly shared goal of international policy makers.

While the November 2010 elections in Egypt will forever be remembered as corrupt and rigged, they did include one positive feature: they were the first to be conducted under a law that set aside a quota of 64 seats for women candidates.44 This short-lived parliament, therefore, was both the least democratic and simultaneously the most gender-balanced of the Mubarak era. In setting aside so many seats for women, Egypt could plausibly claim to have been leading the charge for gender-balanced representation in Muslim countries, the least balanced in the world. Unfortunately, the SCAF's electoral law abandoned the relatively progressive gender features of the previous parliament in favor of a system requiring only that parties nominate at least one woman in their electoral lists.45 While some parties of course put forth more than one woman, the new parliament is likely to have substantially fewer than 64 women representatives, a result that can only be seen as a major setback for gender equality. While gender quota laws are likely to be controversial in an Egypt, where traditional opinions about women's role in public life prevail, there is still an opportunity for the next parliament to rectify the SCAF's oversight in this regard.


Moving forward, Egypt would be better off not abandoning the system used to elect the current parliament, but rather simplifying and streamlining some of its more confusing aspects as well as adding relatively minor features to boost the representation of women and Copts in future parliaments. First, dividing the country into two distinct sets of districts, one for PR elections and one for SMD elections, introduced needless confusion and led many Egyptians to spoil their ballots. It also had the effect of dampening the proportionality of the PR seats. Most problematic, the way districts were drawn meant that some Egyptians were forced to vote in two separate districts. Institutional designers would be well advised to adopt a single national district for the PR elections. This would allow for a proper division between local concerns and national affairs. Transforming the regional blocs into a single national district would also give smaller parties a better chance at cracking the new parliament. As Willy Jou notes, "Small parties are disadvantaged by the use of regional blocs rather than a nationwide constituency as the unit of PR seat distribution."46 Since the smaller the regional district, the larger the vote share needed to obtain a seat, Egypt would be well advised to implement reforms designed to lower the vote threshold needed to achieve representation, lest its politics harden into the current three competing blocs. This modest reform would go quite a long way toward meeting the demands of activists and would give a boost to smaller parties trying to emerge on the national scene. This reform might give greater control to central-party elites, but the benefits of simplifying the system in this way and increasing proportionality overall outweigh this concern. Egypt would also benefit from adopting compensation rules and moving from a parallel system to a Mixed-Member Proportional system, both to avoid the contamination effect and to further ensure robust multiparty competition. There is a broad consensus in the field of electoral studies that MMP systems are not only superior to parallel systems, but that parallel systems may be worse than either pure SMD or PR systems.

Egypt would also benefit from eliminating the Two-Round System (TRS) used in the SMD elections. Under this system, if no candidate earns a majority on the first ballot, the top two candidates square off in a second election. While this system eventually engineers a "majority" for the winning candidate and avoids the common flaw of SMD elections that see candidates elected with relatively small pluralities, it also comes with significant drawbacks. Under current rules, voters have to make yet another trip to the polls. This dampens turnout for the runoff election and requires cash-strapped election authorities to expend precious resources managing yet another election day in each district where they are necessary. The TRS would be better replaced by one of the Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) systems now in use around the world. In districts with a single winner, the best system is likely the Alternative Vote, in which voters rank-order the candidates on the ballot. When the lowest vote-getter is eliminated, the voter's second preferences are redistributed to remaining candidates until one has a majority. This happens instantaneously and effectively reproduces a runoff without having a separate election — a time and energy saver in a country with huge problems to tackle. It also forces parties to engage in pre-election deal making and coalition building that can only be beneficial in the context of Egyptian politics.47 This reform could even be implemented without discarding the arcane "worker or farmer" rule.

Furthermore, the provisions for women's representation should clearly be scrapped in favor of either reserved seats or legislative quotas. While election results are not final as of this writing, the new parliament has only eight women.48 While pushing for 30 percent may run afoul of cultural norms, the number needs to be higher than one woman per party list. This provision was expected to be inadequate when it was announced and has proven so in practice. Putting more women into office would not immediately resolve the demands of activist groups, nor would it lead to easy solutions to problems of gender discrimination, harassment and violence, but it would be a strong first step that would demonstrate the commitment of Egypt's new leaders to women's rights. It is worth noting that at least one researcher has found that EU countries with mixed electoral systems tend to have lower women's representation, a potential wrinkle that is worth continued close observation.49

The issue of Coptic representation is trickier and less amenable to manipulation at the level of elections. First, the group now has its own electoral vehicle, the Egyptian Bloc, which, while not explicitly Coptic, contains parties that have captured a clear majority of Coptic votes and embody the values of the community. Unfortunately, not even the secular parties appear to have included significant numbers of Copts on their lists; only two Copts were directly elected to the PA.50 While Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi added five Copts to parliament as part of the SCAF's 10-seat appointment prerogative, this still leaves the numbers unsatisfactory.51 This is a deeply troubling result for the community, which absolutely must have representation greater than three of 498 seats (or seven of 508). If institutional designers wanted to mitigate the salience of religion in Egyptian politics, the best way to do so would be to require mixed lists to include a certain number of Coptic Christians high enough on lists to achieve representation. This would make the parties themselves do the heavy lifting and avoid the appearance of favoritism toward Copts that might result from the use of reserved seats. Of course, this effectively means that Egypt will be translating cleavages into politics, rather than blocking or aggregating them. But that would appear to be the country's only short-term option. A more immediate challenge is to increase the visibility and representation of Coptic Christians in other walks of life. Some estimates suggest that Copts are prevented from achieving greater than one or two percent of the posts in institutions ranging from the military to university teaching positions.52 This exclusion of Copts from public life must also be remedied outside the electoral system; it stands as one of the major challenges for Egypt's new democracy.

Finally, the continued lack of proportionality in both the List PR districts and the SMD constituencies is indefensible from the standpoint of democratic theory. Unsurprisingly, the citizens most disadvantaged by the lack of proportionality live in Cairo. Districts like Al-Sharqia 2 and Helwan, for instance, have 1.15-1.4 million voters per representative, while the Upper Egyptian district of Beni Sweif, to choose a random example, has 473,133 in the SMD portion of the system.53 While it is possible to justify one malapportioned body in a democratic state, as for example with the United States Senate, there is no legitimate justification for this practice in the lower half of Egypt's parliament. Post-revolutionary districting was a desultory affair that only worsened once the parties got their hands on the law. It must be left to a nonpartisan body committed to producing proportional districts, thus ensuring that every Egyptian has the same level of representation in parliament.


It would be easy for American policy makers to look at the complexity of Egypt's electoral system and recommend a conversion to U.S.-style SMD elections. But single-winner districts would inevitably lead to a calcifying of Egypt's party system into the FJP versus the Nour; in most locales, parties like the Free Egyptians would be systematically squeezed out. While the showing of the secular groups at first glance appears to be a bit of a catastrophe, the electoral system itself actually prevented an even greater Islamist landslide. The best course of action is to encourage Egypt's constitution writers to keep the best aspects of the system that have been chosen and modify those aspects that are most confusing, unfair and regressive. A mixed system continuing to be tilted toward List PR will likely lead to a representative multi-party system that can serve as one tool to help mitigate gender, religious and economic divides. Egypt has a unique opportunity to use its moment of institutional design to beneficially impact future elections, to encourage a more pluralistic and cross-religious party system, and to make women electoral stakeholders in future elections. The mixed electoral system chosen by the SCAF is, with the minor modifications suggested above, the best possible vehicle to ensure a balance of local, regional and national interests and to create new and dynamic political parties that might move the country beyond debates about Islam and politics toward a more inclusive and prosperous future for all.


1 Elliott Abrams, "Egypt's Election Law: Too Complicated for a New Democracy," Pressure Points, Council on Foreign Relations, November 6, 2011,

2 Eric Trager, "Egypt's New Election Laws Are Yet Another Setback for Democracy," Washington Institute for Near East Policy, October 3, 2011. It should be noted that Trager presciently identifies many of the problems with the system.

3 Bradley Hope, "Egypt's Complex Electoral System," The National, November 28, 2011.

4 Arend Lijphart, "Constitutional Choices for New Democracies," in The Global Resurgence of Democracy, eds. Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 162-174.

5 Mona Ghobashy, "The Liquidation of Egypt's Illiberal Experiment," Middle East Report Online, December 29, 2010.

6 Matthew S. Shugart, "Electoral ‘Efficiency' and the Move to Mixed-Member Systems," Electoral Studies 20 (2001): 173-193.

7 Samer Shehata, "Inside an Egyptian Parliamentary Campaign," in Political Participation in the Middle East, eds. Ellen Lust-Okar and Saloua Zerhouni (Lynn Rienner Publishers 2008).

8 Egypt Elections,

9 "Elections in Egypt: Analysis of the 2011 Parliamentary Electoral System," International Foundation For Electoral Systems Briefing Paper, November 2011.

10 "Egyptian Elections: Preliminary Results," Jadaliyya, last updated January 4, 2012,

11 Unofficial results suggest that both the Wafd and the Egyptian Bloc may have slightly increased their overall tallies in the third round.

12 Shaun Bowler and David M. Farrell, "We Know Which One We Prefer, But We Don't Really Know Why: The Curious Case of Mixed Member Proportional Systems," British Journal of Politics and International Relations 8 (2006): 545-560.

13 Michael Krennerich, "Germany: The Original Mixed-Member Proportional System," International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

14 Robert G. Moser and Ethan Scheiner, "Mixed Electoral Systems and Electoral System Effects: Controlled Comparison and Cross-National Analysis," Electoral Studies 23, no. 4 (December 2004): 575-599.

15 "Parallel Systems," ACE: The Electoral Knowledge Network, accessed January 5, 2012,

16 Yann Kerevel, "The Legislative Consequences of Mexico's Mixed-Member Electoral System, 2000-2009," Electoral Studies 29 (2010): 691-703.

17 Matthew Soberg Shugart and Martin P. Wattenberg, Mixed-Member Electoral Systems: The Best of Both Worlds? (Oxford University Press, 2001).

18 Ibid.

19 Kerevel, "The Legislative Consequences," 692.

20 Kathleen Bawn and Michael F. Thies, "A Comparative Theory of Electoral Incentives: Representing the Unorganized under PR, Plurality and Mixed-Member Electoral Systems," Journal of Theoretical Politics 15, no. 1 (2003): 5–32.

21 Maurice Duverger, Political Parties: Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State (Wiley, 1954).

22 Giovanni Sartori, Parties and Party Systems: A Framework for Analysis (Cambridge University Press, 1976).

23 Ko Maeda, "Re-examining the Contamination Effect of Japan's Mixed Electoral System Using the Treatment-Effects Model," Electoral Studies 27 (2008): 723-731.

24 Erik S. Herron and Misa Nishikawa, "Contamination Effects and the Number of Parties in Mixed-Superposition Electoral Systems,." Electoral Studies 20, no. 1 (March 2001): 63-86.

25 F. Ferrara, E.S. Herron, and M. Nishikawa, Mixed Electoral Systems: Contamination and Its Consequences (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

26 Matthijs Bogaards, "Ethnic Party Bans and Institutional Engineering in Nigeria," Democratization 17, no. 4 (2010): 730-749.

27 Ibid.

28 Tse-hsin Chen, "Uncovering the Micro-Foundations of Turnout and Electoral Systems," Electoral Studies 30, no. 2 (2011): 295-308.

29 A. Blais and K. Aarts, "Electoral Systems and Turnout," Acta Politica 41, no. 2 (2006): 180–196.

30 James W Endersby and Jonathan T. Krieckhaus, "Turnout around the Globe: The Influence of Electoral Institutions on National Voter Participation, 1972–2000." Electoral Studies 27, no. 4 (2008): 601-610.

31 Ibid., 295.

32 Carl Henrik Knutsen, "Which Democracies Prosper? Electoral Rules, Form of Government and Economic Growth," Electoral Studies 30, no. 1 (2011): 83-90.

33 Torben Iversen and David Soskice, "Electoral Institutions and the Politics of Coalitions: Why Some Democracies Redistribute More Than Others," The American Political Science Review 100, no. 2 (2006): 165-181.

34 Fouad Ibrahim and Barbara Ibrahim, An Economic Geography of Egypt (I.B. Tauris, 2003), 26.

35 Paul Rowe, "Building Coptic Christian Civil Society: Christian Groups and the State in Mubarak's Egypt," Middle Eastern Studies 45, no. 1 (2009): 111-126.

36 Meir Hatina. "In Search of Authenticity: A Coptic Perception." Middle Eastern Studies 42, no.1 (2006): 49-65.

37 Yasmine El-Rashidi, "Egypt Elections Obliterate Coptic Voice," Ahramonline, December 5, 2010,

38 Dina Ezzat, "In Qena, Copts Opt For Electoral Silence," Ahramonline, November 26, 2010.

39 Karim Al-Gawhary, "Copts in the Egyptian Fabric," Middle East Report, no. 200 (2006): 21-22.

40 Interview with Bassem Fathy, Cairo, Egypt, June 25, 2011.

41 Karen Celis, Mona Lena Brook and Petra Meier, "The Rise of Gender Quota Laws: Expanding the Spectrum of Determinants for Electoral Reform," West European Politics 34, no.3 (2011): 514-530.

42 Ibid., 518.

43 Petra Meier, "A Gender Gap Not Closed by Quotas: The Renegotiation of the Public Sphere," International Journal of Feminist Politics 10, no. 3 (2008): 329-347.

44 Evan Hill, "Women Make Leap in Egypt Parliament," Al-Jazeera English, November 29, 2010,

45 Yasmine Fathi, "Will Women Make It into Egypt's Upcoming Parliament?" Ahram Online, October 20, 2011,

46 Willy Jou, "Electoral Reform and Party System Development in Japan and Taiwan: A Comparative Study," Asian Survey 49, no. 5 (2009): 759-785.

47 David Horowitz, "Electoral Systems: A Primer for Decision Makers," Journal of Democracy 14, no. 4 (2003): 115-127.

48 Ibitsam Barakat, "Welcome to the New Egyptian ParliaMENt," Jadaliyya, January 25, 2012,

49 Beate Hoecker, "Political Representation of Women in EU Member States," Zeitschrift für Parlamentsfragen 42, no. 1 (2011).

50 "Tantawi Directly Appoints Five Copts to Parliament," Egypt Independent, January 22, 2012,

51 Leila Fadel, "Final Results Confirm Islamists Winners in Egypt's Elections," Washington Post, January 21, 2012.

52 Adel Guindy, "The Islamization of Egypt," Middle East Review of International Affairs 10, no. 3 (2006).

53 Egypt Elections,