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Elections in Egypt and Syria: two tales of hollow democracy

One of the first lessons of a law student is that not only must justice be done; it must be seen to be done. It seems that in recent times this principle has been hijacked by regimes hungry for legitimacy; to create an outward projection of democracy, citizens are asked to vote, thereby putting the regime beyond reproach. Voting and democracy are inextricably linked in the minds of many; yet often we have one without the other. Egypt and Syria are two recent examples of this. Undeniably citizens voted; democracy was seen to be done. However, when we examine events preceding election day and the elections themselves in a broader context, it is clear that there was little democratic about these elections.

In 2013 violence once again broke out on the streets of Cairo in protests against President Morsi, Egypt’s first president after the initial Arab Spring protests. Army General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi delivered an ultimatum to President Morsi’s government in July 2013 that unless reforms were delivered in 48 hours it would be removed. When he deemed them incompliant, al-Sisi removed the government, Morsi supporters were violently repressed and al-Sisi appointed an interim president. The army once again intervened to successfully manoeuvre its candidate into the position of president. Jumping on al-Sisi’s popularity, presidential elections were brought forward and held before parliamentary elections contrary to the programme of Morsi’s government. Al-Sisi and the army sought ‘revolutionary legitimacy’ from a democratic election.

This intervention in 2013 was similar to the army’s intervention in 2011 which was pivotal in toppling the Mubarak regime. These interventions were motivated by self-preservation of the army’s status and position in Egyptian society, not by any sympathy for the demands of the protesters. The Egyptian army has been part of the ruling class since the foundation of the state. It presides over an economic empire of its own, financing and managing major projects in areas such as tourism and agriculture. The election was held at the end of May 2014, originally polling was to take place over two days but the polls were extended to three days when the turnout was lower than desired, thereby jeopardising the army’s quest for legitimacy and democracy.

Observers all report that people were intimidated into voting, threatened with fines and charges of treason if they did not go to a polling station. Al-Sisi was declared the victor of a ‘free but not always fair’ election according to EU observers; he had greater campaign resources and media coverage. Democracy International and the European External Action Service found that state-owned and private media coverage overwhelmingly favoured al-Sisi and real debate was stifled; in fact several journalists were imprisoned in the lead up to the election. With 93% of the vote al-Sisi came in well ahead of his only competitor, Hamdeen Sabahi, who received 3% of the vote. Sabahi previously came third in the presidential elections in 2012 that brought Morsi to office. He has lodged a complaint to the elections committee disputing the votes cast on the third day as well as campaigning at polling stations by al-Sisi’s supporters.

Elections were held in Syria with the same lip service to democracy as in Egypt. The Arab Spring in Syria has led to a complex and multi-strand conflict. The unrest in Syria ranges from calls for greater democracy to all out civil war and the ISIS separatist campaign in the north; the only thing in common is the desire for change from President Bashar al Assad’s government. Voters went to the polls as the government dropped bombs from the sky. As a result of the current conflict millions of Syrians have been internally displaced, over 100,000 have been killed and millions more are in camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. This is the first multi-candidate election in Syria in decades. Before this al Assad and his father before him renewed their mandate in single candidate referendums. However, the other candidates in June 2014 were vetted by the government and had expressed support for al Assad in the past— – hardly a competitive election. Al Assad was elected with 88.7% of the votes cast. After his election, he said that his government was given fresh legitimacy by the vote and a message was delivered to the West; proof that the aim of holding the election was to put the administration beyond criticism.

The election was packaged as the route to peace and stability in Syria. Here again, the act of voting was used to create the illusion of democracy; how can a vote bring peace and stability to such a volatile situation? A change in leadership must happen. The US and the EU condemned the Syrian election. In April the UN urged the Syrian government not to hold an election as to do so would go against the spirit of the Geneva Communiqué which calls for a transitional government to lead free and fair elections. Voting only took place in regions under government control. Many displaced people were unable to vote and neither were people in rebel-held areas. The election of al Assad was a foregone conclusion; much like in Egypt, voters were asked only to confirm a decision made by elites to create the image of a legitimate democratic government. In Syria this decision was made by the ruling ethnic group, the Alawites, while in Egypt it is the result of an internal power struggle between many actors where the military currently hold the upper hand.

For Egypt and Syria these elections are just the latest development in their long Arab Spring. Though they can be distinguished by different domestic circumstances in both cases an appearance of democracy was created to quieten protesters. The very ideal they seek was used to appease them and maintain the status quo. The ordinary citizens that called for democracy have themselves become disillusioned; why vote when the outcome is predetermined? The promotion of democracy and human rights are founding principles of the EU and play a central role in its external relations policy. The role and use of soft power by the EU is regularly commented on, but when regimes strive to create the illusion of democracy where there is none, it can be argued that this is an impact of the EU’s soft power.

However, the EU can be criticised for a haphazard approach to the effective promotion of democracy, an example of this is an over emphasis on the importance of elections at the expense of, for example, the importance of political pluralism. If we are to pursue this policy direction in external relations then it must be done in a more even-handed manner with equal focus on all the constituent parts of democracy, as proposed in the 2012 EU Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy. Events in Egypt and Syria prove that elements in isolation are not enough to ensure a democracy.