Despite their oppression, authoritarian governments are keen to hold elections, even if they are a mere formality, on both a parliamentary or municipality level. Although they may be corrupt and have forged results, the façade of elections are considered one of the most important means of legitimising the authority and guaranteeing its support from at least some of the people. Hence, the more oppressive these governments are, the more they require elections to act as a cover justifying their brutality. As such, elections are not necessarily symbols of democracy; they may indicate dictatorship and authoritarianism. This is the case in Egypt at the moment, as parliamentary “elections” are being held. The people have boycotted the polls in a repeat of what happened in the presidential election won by General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi over a year ago.
Authoritarian governments use elections as a means of achieving a number of goals, the first of which is, as noted above, providing political cover to legitimise, legalise and justifying their oppression domestically and externally. The second goal is to reward those who are loyal to the government and its head with political spoils and benefits. Thirdly, the elections allow the government to make sure that the parliament does not get out of control in the event that there is real opposition therein that may expose ministers and their actions, and thus hold them accountable. The fourth goal is the issue of legislation that establishes and reinforces the rule of the tyrannical authority and affords it more powers. Many academic studies have revealed the keenness of authoritarian governments to hold regular elections, and the concern of citizens to participate in them, both willingly and out of fear.
It was, therefore, no surprise that Egypt’s Al-Sisi addressed the people a few days ago, urging and begging them to vote in the parliamentary elections, the results of which will not make any difference to his policies. The man really looked as if he was calling on the people to participate in honest, democratic elections to produce a parliament with real authority. If it wasn’t for his understanding, from data provided by his intelligence services, that many Egyptians had made up their mind not to participate in the sham elections, he would not have addressed them.
Al-Sisi’s concern with holding elections is not that much different to the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s over holding local elections a few months ago. It was said that 99.97 per cent of the North Korean people participated in these elections and that the only ruling party received 100 per cent of the seats. It is also similar to the so-called presidential elections held by Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, which allowed another dictator, Vladimir Putin, to use it as justification for his military intervention in the war there under the pretext of “protecting the legitimate government”. Thus, elections are conjured up every time an authoritarian government needs some false legitimacy to justify its existence.
This week it was not surprising that the pro-Sisi media were a bit hysterical, given that the polling booths were almost empty, which was the case during the sham presidential elections which the general won by a “landslide”. The media response varied from begging the people to vote all the way to threatening them and then cursing them shamelessly. These people want the nation to play a role in their farcical play. However, they do not care about having a parliament or an authority that can truly hold officials accountable for their actions, beginning with the general. They want a parliament that gives its “seal of approval” to Al-Sisi’s diktats and turns them into laws. To make matters worse, one individual said somewhat perversely that the people’s failure to vote “is an indication of their trust in the general.”
Such sycophants do not remember the ordinary people until they need something from them; they do not acknowledge their presence until they want it as a cover for the failure of the authority. Although they are the most concerned with the people staying under a corrupt, fascist, military rule, they only see them as a group of “dependents” who move as they are asked, rather than citizens with rights and legitimacy. This is the importance of the elections that produce a parliament completely loyal to the authority.
There are confident predictions that the parliament will amend the constitution to reduce its own powers and pass them on to the president. There are also expectations that it will amend the constitution in a manner that ensures that Al-Sisi will remain in power indefinitely. He has waited until the time is right for him to engineer the election results and ensure that the political wind doesn’t blow against him. If he wasn’t confident of producing the result that he craves, the elections would not be held and he wouldn’t be pleading with people to fill the polling booths.
Nevertheless, the people of Egypt have not fallen for it and have boycotted the elections. Even if it was out of apathy and not a specifically political move, the message has got through to the powers that be: the people are not concerned with the Egyptian government, its elections or its parliament.
Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadid, 20 October, 2015.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.