The Rise of Political Apathy: Egypt’s Falling Participation Rates

With just over a month to go before presidential elections, political apathy is becoming a growing concern in Egypt. Following the removal of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the country has been rocked by periodic violence and protests. Many have been arrested or killed in the dispersals of violent protests, and terrorist attacks across the country have claimed hundreds more. Amidst such fear and instability, more and more Egyptians are becoming disenchanted with political participation.

Apathy, characterised by a lack of interest or indifference to matters of concern, is evident in the falling rates of participation in either the institutional political process or the protests that have become commonplace since 2011.

In the protests that took place on 30th June until Morsi’s removal on 3rd July, millions of Egyptians took to the streets in what were widely referred to as some of the biggest popular protests in history, and undoubtedly, the biggest episode of collective action known in Egyptian history.

The ouster of Mohamed Morsi was met with opposing protests in Raba’a Al-Adawiya and NahdaSquares, which were dispersed by security forces in August 2013 after serious threats to the security of citizens and the civil infrastructure in both areas. What followed was widely criticised as a harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, who have taken to protesting regularly ever since, albeit in increasingly dwindling numbers.

The new constitution that was ratified in January 2014 by popular referendum received a 98.1% ‘yes’ vote, with voter turnout at 38.6%. Although this was higher than the turnout for the referendum under Morsi in 2012, which was 32%, it remains below the 41.9% turnout seen in March 2011 in the referendum on constitutional amendments held after the January 25th revolution under the authority of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). Moreover, the staggeringly high approval rating was a clear indication that a large portion of the population had been disenchanted or discouraged.

Protests of all political affiliations have also steadily decreased in numbers with time. This overall decrease in participation has many reasons. It is worth noting that until presidential and parliamentary elections take place it will not be possible to accurately assess participation in the political process, and protests remain the only constant and regular indicator of participation or the lack thereof.

One of the primary reasons for the constantly dwindling number of protests is Law 107 of 2013, the controversial protest law passed on 24th November 2013.

The law has roused much debate since it was passed, with many rights groups saying that it is a threat to freedom of expression. Human Rights Watch stated on their website that it, “Will Enable Further Crackdown, Stifle Electoral Campaigning”.

Further, Amnesty International stated that:

“In practice, the vague and overbroad grounds in the law will not only allow the authorities to prevent or forcibly disperse protests by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, but it will essentially allow for a ban on all opposition protests.”

One of the more controversial articles in the law is Article 7, which lists some very vague actions as violations. According to the law, protests cannot “impact on public services, transportation or the flow of traffic”. Further, a protest cannot violate “general security, public order, or production”.

The interior minister or security director may prohibit, postpone, or reroute any protest as part of an “authorised reasoned decision”.

However, those who defend the law see it as a political necessity rather than a legislative regulation. “How different political groups concur on issuing the law proves that it is a temporary matter and a respnose to threats to state security” said Dr. Yousri Ezbawi, researcher at the Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies. Ezbawi added that “the protest law will be among the very first legislative amendments the next elected Parliament will vote on, it is a matter of responding to security threats and changing social and political conditions”.

In addition to the state’s tough stance on protests, terrorist and militant activity have been on the rise since Morsi’s ouster. The Middle East Institute and state-owned Al-Ahram Online place the death toll from terrorist attacks at 150 police officers, 74 soldiers, and 57 civilians.

In light of the worrying death toll, widespread arrests, and ever-present threat of terrorist attack, it is only natural that the population would be less willing to take to the streets. Coupled with the new protest law, it serves to effectively dissuade many would-be protesters.

Former First-Undersecretary of State for Foreign Cultural Relations in the Ministry of Culture, Hossam Nassar, dismissed the fears of political apathy, saying that “politics is not just about taking to the streets, but about social and political participation as well as involvement in political events such as referenda.” He further stated that even children are showing an interest in politics, and that contrary to the belief of many, youth participation is not decreasing.

When asked about the future of participation, he said he confidently expects a voter turnout of at least 27 million – approximately half of those registered. With regard to the Brotherhood and other protesters, he believes that they no longer possess the weight and influence they once had.

Rana Allam, Managing Editor of independent newspaper Daily News Egypt, when asked about political apathy stated that, “it is not apathy, it is despair”. She states that the youth in particular have lost hope in the political process. She notes that even though voter turnout was about 6% higher in the last referendum, 38% is still a low figure – not even near half of those registered.

With regard to the upcoming presidential elections, she said that voter turnout will be “laughable”.

It is clear that, whatever the actual state of political apathy is, the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections will be a clear indicator of the mood of the population. The Muslim Brotherhood has already declared its intention to boycott the presidential elections, and another overwhelmingly one-sided vote would indicate a lack of progress where apathy is concerned.

Whether we like it or not, the future of Egypt’s political participation lies in the ballot box rather than in public squares.

This article was originally published in the Middle East Media Center for Studies website http://www.memcs.com. It is written by  Adam Woodard, Sara Mohsen and Yahia Gweifel.

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