Feature Stories

Mapping the Electoral Landscape

A pioneering website aids Egypt’s nascent democracy

Egyptelections.  org helps researchers, party leaders, policy-makers, and especially NGOs better understand the evolving political situation in Egypt.

In late January of 2011, hundreds of thousands of activists commanded global attention by gathering in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest the poverty, unemployment, and government corruption spawned by the three-decade dictatorship of President Hosni Mubarak. In September, Egypt’s 2011 Parliamentary Election Law was passed, instituting radical changes to the electoral system but leaving many of Egypt’s non-government organizations (NGOs) in the dark about how to navigate the new electoral process.

On September 21, 2011, UMass Amherst Associate Professor of Political Science Amel Ahmed launched a unique website, Egyptelections.org, to help researchers, party leaders, policy-makers, and especially NGOs better understand the evolving political situation in Egypt. “The website,” she says, “addresses a critical challenge in the Egyptian transition process: the absence of reliable information on the electoral landscape.”

Of particular concern to Ahmed was the need for the accurate census data and detailed district-boundary information crucial for those hoping to participate meaningfully in the political process. “Many of the activist groups and parties that had been involved in the revolutionary movement were left at a particular disadvantage in the fast-moving transition,” she says.

Ahmed’s early work helped uncover major disparities in the distribution of population on the electoral map. In one case she found two equally represented districts: one had 18,000 voting-eligible residents, the other had 300,000.Professor Amel Ahmed

In addition to maps of the electoral districts, the site contains census data that proved challenging to uncover. In two trips during the spring and summer of 2011, Ahmed scoured through dusty boxes of papers in dingy basements, culling the most basic districting data. “This essential information had been moot during three decades of a dictatorship,” says Ahmed, “but is now made public to give NGOs—those, for example, in support of disadvantaged urban populations —a chance to strategize their approach in upcoming electoral situations.”

Within a week of the website’s launching, academics, activists, and party officials began requesting additional information. Media inquiries to use the data for stories also poured in, and Al Jazeera English posted a version of the maps onto its website. Egyptelection.org has quickly become the media standard for election data, and Ahmed has expanded it to include an Arabic-language version. It is slated to further include additional demographic data, such as religious and educational statistics, and an archive of maps, census data, and results from previous elections.

Ahmed joined the Department of Political Science in 2007 to continue researching the dynamics of institutional choice in the context of democratization, especially in the 19th-century European democracies, her specialization.

So how does a scholar of western democracies become the creator of the preeminent website on Egyptian elections? As an Egyptian national with friends and colleagues who encouraged her support of the activists, Ahmed soon found herself submerged in data-mining and won the support of a UMass Amherst Healy Grant. “The grant,” she says, “allowed me to act quickly in response to the revolution, and the political science department worked hard to get me to Egypt in the spring.”

Ahmed is planning another trip to Egypt to continue her research into the dynamics of institutional choice in order to understand why certain electoral institutions were chosen and what this portends for Egypt’s democratic politics. She looks forward to analysis of her pioneer work and to turning its data over to the public sphere to encourage greater democracy in Egyptian elections and a more inclusive redistricting process.

David Bartone '12G