Global Freedom of Expression

Military Electoral Authoritarianism in Egypt

Key Details

  • Region
    Middle East and North Africa
  • Themes
    Political Expression

Texas A&M University School of Law

July 18, 2016

Forthcoming, Elections Law Journal (Spring 2017)

Authoritarian regimes hold elections not to democratize, but to maintain the status quo. Egypt is no exception. As far back as the 1970s, Egypt’s multiparty electoral system has been a democratic façade. As President Anwar Sadat shifted Egypt’s external alliance from the Soviet Union to the United States and marginalized Abdel Nasser’s socialist base, he proclaimed his commitment to political liberalization. In holding Egypt’s first multiparty elections – albeit tightly controlled through an electoral scheme that always guaranteed his party’s victory – Sadat transitioned Egypt from one party into multiparty electoral authoritarianism.

The neoliberal business class would dominate Egypt’s political elite for the next forty years, with the military holding sway behind the scenes. In exchange for loyalty to the authoritarian state, this neoliberal elite was allowed to siphon off state resources. Elections became the elite’s mechanism for rent seeking. As such, parliamentarians had privileged access to government ministries to expediently obtain licenses, permits, and public contracts for themselves and their constituents. They engaged in corruption while immune from criminal prosecution due to their elected official status. An interdependency thus arose between the political elite and the executive. President Hosni Mubarak continued Sadat’s legacy with a few key differences. The most important being that the influence of the military in political affairs waned as domestic security forces became the primary coercive arm of the authoritarian state. Moreover, Mubarak pruned his son Gamal to become the next president, and as a result, elevated Gamal’s business cronies to key executive and legislative positions. Over time, the military, while still a key political stakeholder, was marginalized from the center of power.

This Article argues that the current regime under President Abdel Fatah Sisi has established a military electoral authoritarian state with a non-dominant party electoral system. Coupled with Egypt’s long tradition of nepotism, cronyism, and patronage networks, the new election laws perpetuate a fragmented, depoliticized parliament wherein no mobilized opposition can take shape to challenge the military’s dominance. The cause of Egypt’s current depoliticization, however, is not a weak central party beholden to the presidency – as was the case under Sadat and Mubarak – but rather hundreds of rent-seeking parliamentarians with no party affiliation. Sisi intentionally structured the parliament to consist of over four hundred individual, self-interested actors who are vulnerable to bribery or coercion to keep them depoliticized and compliant. This strategy facilitates purging any parliamentary figures that emerge to challenge the executive.

This paper can be downloaded without charge from the Social Science Research Network Electronic Paper Collection


Sahar Aziz

Associate Professor, Texas A&M University School of Law, USA