Electing a New Egypt

In a Q&A, Marina Ottaway analyzes the elections and Egypt’s fragile transition and says that the latest outbreak of violence makes the elections both imperative and difficult. The most challenging part of the change to civilian government in Egypt lies ahead—the road to democracy is far from guaranteed.

Amid renewed protests and violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces, Egyptians headed to the polls this week in the country’s first elections since the fall of the Mubarak regime. The military is promising to speed up the move to civilian rule, but voting is taking place against a backdrop of uncertainty and unanswered questions about how Egypt will ultimately transition to democracy.

In a Q&A, Marina Ottaway analyzes the elections and Egypt’s fragile transition and says that the latest outbreak of violence makes the elections both imperative and difficult. The most challenging part of the change to civilian government in Egypt lies ahead—the road to democracy is far from guaranteed.

How smooth has Egypt’s transition been since protests toppled Hosni Mubarak in February and why did protests start anew last week?

Egypt’s transition is difficult. The country has not undergone a complete revolution or the violent overthrow of the former regime. The first few weeks after the fall of the Mubarak government were in fact quite tranquil, but we are now seeing a transition that risks being derailed.

The most difficult time in the Egyptian transition is still ahead. Whereas in the case of Tunisia the worst is probably over and from now on it is a process of building a new political system, the main conflicts in Egypt still need to be resolved.

The past nine months have brought to light the central issues that divide Egypt. The obstacles to a smooth transition have not been overcome. In fact, what is becoming more evident in the last few weeks is that issues that appeared to be settled back in March are totally open and up for discussion again.

Egypt is now undergoing a second transition from the military that has ruled since Mubarak’s ouster to elected institutions. The problem is that it is increasingly unclear whether the military wants to surrender power to elected officials soon enough to satisfy the expectations of the Egyptian population.

An already dangerous situation in Egypt on the eve of parliamentary elections was made worse when the government published a draft proclamation earlier this month that suggested the military intended to stay in power, essentially indefinitely. These rules would override whatever a new constitution established and made it clear that the military would not accept civilian oversight and wanted to maintain control of the writing of Egypt’s new constitution.

This is what triggered the protests, and it can have a very negative effect on the elections. The voting has started with basic and critical issues left unanswered. There is not much time to solve Egypt’s problems.

What are the likely results of the parliamentary elections?

An election typically shows the relative strength of different political parties and apportions power among them. Unfortunately, the elections are for a body that may or may not have power. And to make matters more complicated, it is the election results that will determine how much influence the military will allow the parliament to have.

There are many moving parts with nothing fixed at the moment, and there are still questions about how much sway the parliament will have over the selection of a constitutional committee tasked with drafting a new constitution. There will not be too much lawmaking in Egypt before a new constitution is finalized as the government is likely to hide behind the fact that this is a transitional period. The parliament thus may not be allowed to do much of anything.

The Muslim Brotherhood is expected to do quite well in the elections, but no one knows if the Brotherhood will win a majority of the seats. It will probably get a plurality. There is currently an alliance between the secular forces and the military to minimize the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in the process of writing a constitution. This is basically an attempt to nullify the results of the upcoming parliamentary elections.

This vote is crucial for moving the process forward. Unless Egypt has elections, the transition to democracy cannot continue. But at the same time, the elections are really not very meaningful, because there is a serious endeavor to void the parliament of any significant role in or impact on the transition.

Why are the parliamentary elections spread out over the next four months?

The decision to stretch out the elections for the two parliamentary chambers in installments, running until March of next year, was due to a very literal interpretation of what judicial supervision means. Judicial supervision was imposed to avoid fraud and to reassure the population that the voting will be free and fair. This choice is not without precedent. Egypt’s election in 2005 was carried out with judicial supervision, but the last election in November 2010 was not under judicial supervision and the vote was notorious for the level of cheating.

The problem with judicial supervision is not the concept but the way Egypt interpreted it—under the current interpretation, the judiciary is not simply responsible for choosing the poll watchers and making sure everything goes according to plan. Instead, a judge is required to be present in every polling place. There are not enough judges to go around if all the voting takes place on one day. The truth is that judges can supervise elections without being present in every polling station, but Egypt did not choose that interpretation.

The choice to space out the election is incredibly dangerous. It is the wrong decision regardless of whether the results are released immediately or are held until after all of the voting is complete.

There will be two weeks between each round. If the government promptly releases the results from the jurisdictions that have voted, the information will impact the vote in other areas. This is a bit like when results are released in American elections while the polling stations are still open in the western United States. Only this is magnified over a longer time period and will have a much greater effect.

If the government does not immediately release the results, the possibilities to cheat by stuffing ballot boxes are enormous, and even if fraud is avoided, no one will believe it.

What is the possibility of more violence?

Egypt is undergoing its worst bout of violence since Mubarak’s fall. Earlier in the year, the military was seen as the savior—the army and the people were one—but the military is increasingly seen as the enemy and roadblock in Egypt’s path.

We have already seen the confrontation between the protesters and security forces in Tahrir Square over the last few days result in dozens of people killed. The risk of greater violence is very serious.

What are the next steps for Egypt’s democracy after the parliamentary elections? How will a new constitution be written?

The elections are for a parliament that in turn will help set up a constitutional committee to write Egypt’s new constitution. It is not an election for a constituent assembly that is specifically tasked with writing a new constitution, as was the case in Tunisia. According to the constitutional proclamation that was issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in March, the parliament was supposed to choose the 100-member commission. There was a general understanding that the constitutional commission would not only be composed of parliamentarians but also members of civil society organizations and other groups.

Earlier this month, however, the government issued a draft proclamation that would change the rules of the game if adopted. The proclamation said that members of parliament could only fill twenty positions and specified the groups and types of people from which the other members would be selected. This included a long list of representatives from various institutions (labor unions, professional syndicates, etc.), all of which are Mubarak-era institutions. The institutions themselves would submit two names for each of these positions and then the parliament would make the final decision, but this meant that the parliament would only have limited sway over the commission’s final makeup.

The military was also trying to reserve the right to change the constitution however it wanted to. The draft proclamation gave the military the ability to ask for revisions, refer the constitution to the constitutional court—a Mubarak-era institution—or replace the constitutional commission if it did not produce a constitution in the allotted six months. This meant that the old regime would have the power to determine what the new system would look like—a bizarre situation.

At present it is not clear what the fate of the draft proclamation is—it has not been officially approved, but it has not been officially withdrawn either. It is possible that the military still intends to enforce these rules.

One of the outcomes of the latest Tahrir Square protests is that the military revised the dates of the presidential elections. In the original plan, the vote for a new president would only happen after a new constitution was approved in a national referendum. The expectation was that presidential elections would not be held until 2013.

As a result of the latest demonstrations, the military announced that the presidential elections will take place before the end of June 2012. But it is not clear whether this means the military envisages a much shorter writing process for the constitution or whether the elections will proceed under the current constitution.

Until presidential elections are finished, the military will continue to rule and its power will be undiminished. The fear is that the political system will be frozen until a new president is elected.

Looking ahead, who are the front-runners for the presidential election?

There has been talk recently about the possibility of a military leader running for president. A few weeks ago a campaign emerged to elect the head of the SCAF, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. The military denied that this was a real initiative, but it was probably a trial balloon.

It is not out of the realm of possibility that there will be a military president and the perpetuation of military rule. Keep in mind that since the days of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who took office in 1956, there has not been a president that did not come from the military.

At this early stage, there are two candidates outside of the military who have been seriously discussed. The first big name is Amr Moussa, who is widely considered the early front-runner. He is a former foreign minister of Egypt and former secretary general of the Arab League. Moussa enjoys popularity in Egypt in part because he has consistently taken an anti-Israel position. With his name recognition, all of the public opinion polls put him near the top.

Mohamed ElBaradei has played a prominent role in the early stages of the country’s transition, but he is not popular in Egypt. ElBaradei is considered an outsider in many ways. He spent a great deal of time out of the country and does not speak the language of the street. Although he has done good things and is a strong advocate for reform, his chances for the presidency are not very good.

It is also important to watch Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh, a former senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who was expelled this summer after saying he would run for president, defying the group’s decision not to field a candidate in the elections. From everything I know about him, he is a very moderate and honest man who helped convince the Muslim Brotherhood to be part of the legal political process in the country and run for elections in the past.

El-Fotouh enjoys a great deal of support among the youth in the Muslim Brotherhood and is seen as a democrat. But many secular voters will not support him given his ties to the Brotherhood. And it remains unclear if the Brotherhood will ultimately back him—when push comes to shove, the group may support his candidacy.

Is the military more concerned about preserving its power or ensuring that a real civilian and democratic government takes control?

When the military took over after Mubarak, the first declarations were reassuring. Leaders said that the military was only there to maintain stability in the period of transition and would step down right away.

This seemed to hold true for a while, but clearly the military has gone back on this now. The recent draft proclamation suggested to the public that the military had no intention of stepping down. It held that the military is not subject to civilian oversight and the military budget will not be published or open to discussion, making it very clear that the military wanted to preserve its power. This was extremely provocative.

While the military said the presidential elections will happen earlier than previously thought, it has not made a statement about giving up its power. After all, the military has been the power behind civilian governments since Nasser, so it is difficult to imagine it will be willing to diminish its presence now.

What role will Islamists play in a new government?

This is a difficult issue as the Islamist spectrum is becoming more and more complicated in Egypt. The situation used to be fairly simple: the Muslim Brotherhood was fairly moderate and ran in elections; the Salafis were social hard-liners who stayed aloof from politics as they did not feel that the state was legitimate; and al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya was considered a terrorist organization that was intent on overthrowing the political system.

But now there is a diffusion of Islamist political parties. When Islamists in Egyptian politics were discussed in the past they were largely talking about the Muslim Brotherhood. This no longer holds true. The Muslim Brotherhood remains important, but you can’t forget the rest. The Salafis, for instance, could do well in certain areas, possibly Alexandria.

There is very little doubt that the Islamists will win a plurality of the vote, given that every other political group is so splintered and disorganized. The competition is slim. This will be true unless the liberal al-Wafd Party manages to transform itself into the new National Democratic Party (NDP), the former ruling party. The Wafd has the name and the NDP has the organization—and recently, politicians and NDP members have been flocking to the Wafd. But barring a strong alliance between the two, there is no doubt that the Islamists will enjoy success.

The question is how large of a plurality the Islamists will win, as this will determine how much they will be forced to compromise. The leadership in the Muslim Brotherhood knows the risk and understands that Islamists need to be part of coalitions and not go it alone. But the larger the plurality they enjoy, the greater the temptation will be for them to flex their muscles and to try to come out with strong positions.

The parliament might not have much power, but elections to the body are a sign of relative popularity. It is not inconsequential how many votes Islamists get.

Should Egyptians and the West be afraid of the influence of Islamists?

There is widespread concern in Egypt and the West about what the Islamists would do if they gained power in Egypt. Islamists are untested in positions of power and their behavior may well depend on how much power they win. There is mistrust and worry that Islamists tell outsiders what they want to hear, but tell their followers the opposite.

The fear of Islamists has created the alliance between the Egyptian military and the so-called defenders of democracy in the country. They argue that the Islamists do not believe in democracy so they should not have influence in the transition. This is a bit like the middle class of Italy and Germany who voted for Mussolini and Hitler because they were afraid of the communists. This is what we see happening in Egypt. Illiberal democrats are convinced that the Muslim Brothers are not democrats and therefore prefer to have the military in control.

But there is no reason to assume that Islamists are revolutionaries bent on ushering in hard-line Islamist regimes. People worry about Islamists more than they should. All of the Islamist political parties that have been participating in the Arab political process—and there are many—are quite moderate. They all profess to accept the rules of democracy and accept human rights up to a certain point. By and large, Islamist groups are much closer to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey than the Khamenei regime in Iran.

The problem is that Egyptian Islamist organizations are untried. In 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood won 20 percent of the seats in parliament but was immediately shut out and did not have any chance to influence policy, even if it had nothing to do with religion.

To a large extent, the answer to whether or not the Islamists will be a threat depends on how much of the vote they win in the elections. There is no reason to worry about a party that only gets 20 percent of the vote, but if an Islamist party gets over 50 percent more radical elements will have the chance to try to form an Islamist state.

Yet, as long as the Islamists need to work with other parties to move things forward in parliament, the dangers are grossly exaggerated.

How will a new democracy in Egypt change the country’s foreign policy?

Despite fears that a new government in Egypt will do away with the country’s peace treaty with Israel, there is little appetite for a resumption of conflict. I would be very surprised if the peace treaty with Israel was abrogated. In truth, the peace with Israel has always been a cold peace and this was certainly true under Mubarak. The temperature might drop a few more degrees with a new democratically elected government in Egypt, but it has always been an extremely strained relationship.

What should the United States do to support the elections and the transition?

Unfortunately, the United States is not in a particularly good position to support Egypt’s transition. The thing Egypt needs most right now is economic aid. The Egyptian economy was hard hit by the turmoil earlier in the year, and it was already having a great deal of problems before the uprisings began.

Egypt lost a major source of revenue in tourism and the industry is not going to bounce back anytime soon with the instability in the country. It is not only the loss of revenue and foreign currency that is hurting Egypt, but the loss of livelihood for people who rely on tourism in a country plagued by a high unemployment rate.

With its own economic problems at home, the United States is not in the position to provide a sizable amount of economic assistance to Egypt. Washington is trying to put some of the money it does have to help Egypt into democracy assistance. I am skeptical about this aid. The impact of democracy assistance is often overstated.

There are American organizations that are training political parties and undertaking reasonable initiatives, but they are likely to have only a very marginal impact on what happens. In Iraq, for example, democracy promotion organizations put tremendous effort into trying to strengthen the country’s new political parties. But none of the parties were successful in the elections and there was very little gained in the end.

The places where democracy assistance is most effective are the countries like Tunisia that really want technical assistance. Egyptians are too proud to accept this kind of aid.

There are also proposals to cut off U.S. military assistance to Egypt if the country does not keep moving toward democracy and hold free and fair elections. Leaving aside the difficulty of assessing how free and fair an election is, this is not usually a productive policy. There is a danger that the United States will lose the best and last contact it has in Egypt—the military. The United States should, however, express concern over the military’s efforts to marginalize an elected parliament and make it clear that elected institutions are critical.

This article is reprinted with permission from Sada.  It can be accessed online at: http://carnegieendowment.org/2011/11/28/electing-new-egypt/7ujd, © 2011, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.