Thursday, April 14, 2011

Those Pesky Workers and Peasants and Egyptian Election Law

One problem with trying to understand how the legal system interacts with politics in Egypt today is that the relevant law is often extraordinarily precise but also seems to be far from well understood at least by outsiders, within whose ranks I certainly place myself. 

There has long been confusion, especially among foreign observers, of one of the prominent features of Egyptian electoral law: the requirement that half the members of the parliament be workers or peasants.  It has long been presented to outsiders as a significant achievement for democracy in Egypt.  What leftist could object to the idea that half the legislature must be composed of workers and peasants?  And yet, even the late William Buckley, who would have preferred government by the first thousand names in the Boston telephone book to rule by the Harvard faculty of the Government Department, might have been drawn to such a sturdy group of the salt of the earth. Although I've always wondered if he just thought there would have been a lot of Ahearns, and Buckleys, and Boyles.

Egyptian analysts and activists have often complained about this provision but they never manage to make clear exactly what the problem is.  Perhaps it’s just too well known to be worth explaining or perhaps the mechanics behind a rule that clearly works out unfairly in practice are just a bit too complex to explain. 

These rules are complex but they’re there for an undemocratic reason.  They weren’t put in place to establish socialism and they aren’t being retained because they’re a fuzzy holdover from back in the day when socialism was all the rage.  They have a clearly undemocratic aspect both in substance and in form.  And if the rule wasn’t written into the constitution it would probably be unconstitutional.  And it also violates some of Egypt’s international treaty obligations.

The constitution mandates that half the seats in parliament (and I’m going to focus on the lower house here) be held by workers and peasants.  What could be easier to understand than workers and peasants.  They must be what my late landlady and society editor of the West Coast Communist party newspaper called “the horny-handed sons of toil.”  Of course she meant daughters as well; she just neglected to mention them.

Egyptian law is a bit more precise than she was.  In 2007 Democracy Reporting International published (what else?) a report on elections in Egypt.  They do about as well as anyone can in explaining the relevant law that fleshes out the constitutional command.   Who, for purposes of running for parliament, is a worker or peasant?  Surprisingly enough, many people who we might ordinarily think of as workers—such as members of industrial or skilled trade unions—don’t qualify. 

Article 2 of Law 38/1972 defines “worker” as ‘A person who depends mainly on his income from his manual or mental work in agriculture, industry, or services.  He shall not be a member of a trade union, or recorded in the commercial register, or a holder of a high academic qualification.’ 

The Egyptian legislators have saved their country from the danger of being governed by a slew of political science professors.  But also from the danger of ordinary industrial workers or people who own the rather wide range of businesses that require commercial registration (for more on this, see Law 34/1976).   So, in fact, many people we might ordinarily think of as workers actually aren’t in terms of the law.  And very few of the people who are, will have the money or name recognition to win a campaign on their won in an electoral district with possibly hundreds of thousands of voters.  So people without advanced degrees who don’t work with their hands but also aren’t professionals can run as workers.

What about peasants?  A peasant is ‘a person who sole work and main source of living is cultivation, and is residing in the countryside, providing that he, his wife, and minor children shall not own or lease more than ten feddans.’

This definition seems more like what we usually mean by peasant although again such people are likely to be too poor to mount a campaign on their own.  Although I believe that there is no legal barrier to illiterates serving in the legislature, many of the people who might fall into this category may not read or write.  (Just as an aside I have no issue with illiterate or semi-literate people serving in legislatures on the Buckley analogy I mention above.  I realize that they're not lawyers, like most of the people who serve in US legislatures.)  However, it's worth noting that people who live on small (roughly 10-acre) farms in the countryside and who don’t make a living from doing anything else could be considered peasants, even if they are well-connected and relatively well-educated.

If the only issue were that there are some peculiarities in the nomination of workers and peasants then perhaps this provision would not be such a big deal.  But the constitutional mandate is quite clear: half the seats must be held by workers and peasants (as legally defined).  The particular way the law works to ensure this outcome was (and remains) obscure but its impact was (and unless changed will remain) quite clear.  It works by limiting the right of other candidates to compete for office.

Egypt is divided into 222 electoral districts which each elect two representatives.  One of the two must be a worker or peasant.  Skipping over some of the relevant arcana, the Egyptian electoral law requires successive run-offs to accomplish its electoral goals of seating candidates with a majority (engaging, along the way in previous elections, ever diminishing levels of participation from a rather low starting point). 

Basically there are three kinds of candidates: workers, peasants, and “others.”  If a worker or peasant wins (comes in first) in the first round then we’re ok.  What if neither of the top two vote-getters is a worker or peasant?  In other words what if the two top vote-getters are both “others”?  Then, even if they both won enough votes to take their respective seat, the “other” who came in second is thrown out and there is a run-off between the two top worker and/or peasant candidates.  Thus, it is by no means impossible (or even difficult) for someone to win a majority of votes for a seat in parliament and still be disqualified and for the seat to be given to someone who, at least initially, was a fairly unpopular candidate.
If someone is elected to parliament as a worker or peasant and ceases, legally, to be a worker or peasant then they forfeit their seat.  Joining a union, getting some education, or opening a business could all strip you of a seat.  Which is a little surprising for a system which claimed that representatives were being chosen by individual mandate rather than by party list.

Besides the disregard of the wishes of the voters this also appears to violate a basic (and I believe constitutional) principle that all votes count equally since in this case votes that should have been sufficient to elect a candidate are discounted.  But since it's a constitutional provision it can't be unconstitutional.  And Egypt is also a party to several international treaties that, in addition to the Egyptian  constitution, require equal treatment of voters.   And it’s not much of a mystery why, as Muhammad al-Baradei pointed out a couple of days ago, no other country has this kind of principle.

Retaining this provision of the constitution hardly seems like retaining a bit of the socialist past or one of the basic achievements of the 1952 revolution as General Mamdouh Shahin suggested recently.  It major function is to make make establishing a democratic and representative government that can engage in critical oversight just that much more difficult. Whether the generals fully realize how it works is a different question but it is not too difficult to understand why many people would like to get rid of this provision.


Marilee said...

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Unknown said...

I dont understand why the ordinary factory worker does not qualify as a worker according to this definition. could you explain?