Egypt’s parliamentary elections scheduled to begin Oct. 18 are more political circus than a step on the path to democracy. It is intended to entertain, distract and recruit some new political performers, rather than decide — or even influence — the country’s future. It is nonetheless highly revealing about the intentions and the underlying nature of the political system emerging under President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. Sissi’s solo performance is remarkably similar to that of various Latin American presidents, described by the Argentinian scholar Guillermo O’Donnell in an influential 1994 Journal of Democracy article as “delegative democracy.”
Contrasted to representative democracy, delegative democracy is a stalled phase of democratic transition, in which an elected president feels “entitled to govern as he or she sees fit, constrained only by the hard facts of existing power relations.” Voters delegate their authority to the president, who rules unconstrained by a balance of institutional powers. O’Donell notes that the characteristics of delegative democracy are also those of “authoritarianism under such names as caesarism, bonapartism, caudillismo, populism, and the like.”
So what then are these characteristics and do they accurately describe “Sissi-ism?” The primary features of delegative authoritarianism are those of its key figure, the president, who is typically portrayed as “the embodiment of the nation and the main custodian and definer of its interests.” Because the body politic is in disarray, the “delegative” president has the right and the duty to administer “unpleasant medicines that will restore the health of the nation.”
This description seems to aptly describe Sissi. His lofty self-image, suffused with religion and associated with his duty to lead the nation, were reflected in the December 2013, leaked interview in which he declared: “I have a long history with visions. For example, I once saw myself carrying a sword with ‘No God but Allah’ engraved on it in red … In another, I saw President [Anwar] Sadat, and he told me that he knew he would be President of Egypt, so I responded that I know I will be President too.” This should not be mistaken for personal megalomania, but rather as a key to a distinctive political style characteristic of the delegative authoritarian, conflating the nation with himself while arrogating to himself the role of doctor to cure the ills he has diagnosed.
The marginal political role assigned to democratic representation can be seen in the erratic, dilatory process by which the electoral rules were established. Historic constituency borders have not just been gerrymandered, but entirely elided in favor of sprawling, multi-governorate constituencies that will guarantee success for those with material resources and regime connections, while ensuring failure for small parties and true independents. Many of these latter potential candidates have in any case already been filtered out by the Higher Election Committee, through such means as requiring not one, but two bizarre, costly and intrusive health and psychiatric examinations.
The ban on religiously based parties and limits on campaign expenditures have been selectively enforced to keep candidates and parties off-balance and to provide pretexts for post-election overturning of results. The novel ratio of roughly 80 to 20 in seats contested by independents as opposed to those by party lists, designed to minimize seats won by potential opposition parties, is probably also of intentionally dubious constitutionality, thereby handing the Supreme Constitutional Court, now under strong executive influence, a veritable sword of Damocles over the newly elected parliament.
Once elected, that parliament faces the Herculean task of considering, in only a few weeks, the many highly important executive decrees issued over the past two years. Presumably to ensure the acceptance of those decrees and the broader subordination of parliament to the executive, earlier this year the government installed a retired army general as secretary general, who, from that commanding height, can deploy as he sees fit all but the most opposition inclined deputies.
Small surprise that in the face of these profound constraints on the election and on the parliament to emerge from them, the forces contesting for seats have dissolved into political incoherence, precisely the outcome those constraints were designed to achieve. The Muslim Brotherhood has been criminalized and thousands of its members imprisoned, removing one powerful electoral bloc from the equation. True oppositionists who emerged as a result of the 2011 uprising have divided over the issue as to whether to boycott or participate in the elections and, if the latter, under which banner or banners to contest them. The long-standing “party-lets” nurtured by the regimes of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and now Sissi to provide democratic window dressing, have struggled to define their positions as either out-and-out champions of the new president or mild critics of him.
The only “party” large and capable enough to offer a full slate of candidates nationally, “For the Love of Egypt,” is essentially a creation of the military high command, but it is not the official regime party in the same fashion in which its predecessor, the National Democratic Party, was under former president Anwar Sadat and Mubarak. To round out this bleak picture, coteries of retired generals have formed their own parties, one seeking to attract Mubarak loyalists skeptical of Sissi, while another is cheerleading for him and denigrating the Muslim Brotherhood.
This display suits the interests of a delegative authoritarian such as Sissi just fine. The president has notably desisted from associating himself and his regime from any political party, thus exemplifying O’Donell’s “paternal figure” having to “take care of the whole nation” and so avoid “the factionalism and conflicts associated with parties.”
Sissi has consistently denigrated any resistance to his initiatives, for which he has sought no organized support, ruling without a parliament for the longest period in the history of republican Egypt. The Sissi regime presents itself as an anonymous, apolitical one: the identities of his close advisers remain unknown and inputs from public political actors, who lack access to channels of participation, are rare to non-existent.
Unlike representative democracies, in which decision-making is slow and incremental because policies are made and carried out by relatively autonomous institutions, delegative systems have the dubious advantage of the flexibility to make rapid policy shifts. Sissi’s Egypt again follows this model. Immediately following his election Sissi began to announce a string of bold new initiatives. These proposed projects were either entirely fanciful or of marginal utility, either for technical or financial reasons, and most of the high profile, pie in the sky projects have stalled and presumably been abandoned to little public outcry. Not anchored in any class or constituency, the regime floats above them all, desperately trying to appease the poor and middle class, and indeed, even the wealthy, but not really knowing how to do so given the limited resources available.
Sissi’s high-wire act has had all of the expected consequences of erratic, inconsistent and ineffective, president-centered policy-making. They further accentuate the magnitude of policy swings, isolate the president yet more from institutions and political forces, and cause the entire polity to be suffused with a deep cynicism. The Egyptian electorate, in awe of the president in the center ring, has scant interest in the present election sideshow. Even most of those performing in it seem to be going through the motions rather than really trying to impress voters. All eyes are on the man on the wire, waiting to see if he can carry the nation to the other side or if he and it will fall.
Robert Springborg is Professor (ret) of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and a visiting professor in the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London.