Marc Lynch

Saving Egypt’s Elections

Saving Egypt’s Elections

Egypt’s Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) hastily convened a meeting with a group of political parties on Saturday, September 30, in the face of an uproar over amendments to the election law announced earlier in the week. It emerged with a document that addressed a number of the major popular demands, and which initially seemed to get Egypt back on track for crucial parliamentary elections scheduled to begin in less than two months. But within hours opposition to the agreement exploded, threatening to throw Egypt’s democratic transition back into crisis.  

The agreement did include a number of important concessions by the SCAF. It changed the most controversial parts of the new election law, laid out a clear timeline for a transition to civilian rule, and promised to study a more rapid lifting of the emergency law and an end to military trials. It seemed to secure Islamist agreement to a statement of supra-constitutional principles which they had previously rejected. But it introduced new problems — above all, a timeline which delayed presidential elections until 2013, and vague, unclear promises on key issues which a skeptical public felt little reason to trust. 

I’ve just returned from a week in Cairo, my third visit in the last four months. It is impossible to miss the atmosphere of mistrust, frustration, anger, polarization, and skepticism consuming the political realm. A month ago I warned of the risk of an election boycott. By last week, such threats had erupted onto the front pages of the newspapers and had caught the SCAF’s attention. But despite all this turbulence, I remain hopeful about Egypt’s prospects. Any healthy democratic transition is going to involve contentioun and uncertainty and frustration. The SCAF’s intentions remain unclear, but the continuing challenges posed by a dizzying array of political forces, movements and parties through a contentious Egyptian media are a good sign that they will not be able to go too far against a popular consensus. The most important thing, in my view, continues to be that Egypt move forward to holding the parliamentary elections on schedule, with a widely acceptable election law, a level playing field, and adequate international and domestic oversight. The SCAF-Parties agreement, for all its many flaws which should continue to be challenged, at least keeps hopes alive for such elections to produce a legitimate parliament which can finally begin to move Egypt toward the democracy it so desperately needs and deserves.

In sharp contrast with earlier critical moments in the months following Mubarak’s fall, where massive protests forced the SCAF to backtrack from controversial steps, the revolutionary groups and street protests were not the decisive factors in forcing these SCAF concessions. The disappointing turnout of an estimated 5,000-10,000 at the Tahrir protest on September 29 likely reinforced the SCAF’s evident sense of the dwindling power and relevance of the revolutionary groups. Instead, the SCAF’s move came in response to a threat by numerous political parties to boycott the parliamentary elections, and to a warning by the Muslim Brotherhood of serious street protests if the law was not changed by Sunday. The SCAF does worry that the elections will not be seen as legitimate, which gives the parties some serious bargaining power — and Muslim Brotherhood leaders told me last week that they were quite serious about using it. The SCAF therefore invited the Brotherhood and the parties, not revolutionary groups, to the table since that is where they now see the greatest immediate threat. 

The hostility toward the agreement expressed by many activists and revolutionary groups at least in part reflected their dismay at being bypassed as interlocutors in favor of the parties and the Muslim Brotherhood. They also fumed at not being consulted by the party representatives who signed the deal, who in their view lack legitimacy, put electoral self-interest over the collective goals of the revolution, and aren’t very good negotiators. Mostafa el-Naggar, the representative of the el-Adl party, actually retracted his signature in the face of internal dissent from party members. This conflict between activist groups and political parties is likely to become ever more intense as elections approach, since they rely on fundamentally different sources of legitimacy: parties on success at the ballot box, activist groups on claims of revolutionary legitimacy and the ability to mobilize street protests. 

The best part of the agreement was the changes to the revised elections law, which had prompted the threatened electoral boycott. The law had reserved one-third of the seats in parliament to be elected as independents, with candidates affiliated with parties banned from contesting them — which was better than the 50 percent originally allocated that way, but well short of the 100 percent list system preferred by most of the parties. Most political analysts assume that the contest for individual seats will be dominated by well-known former National Democratic Party members, ensuring a dominant political role for the remnants of the old regime. The SCAF modified the law to allow party members to contest the individual seats, which will even the odds a bit. The SCAF also backed down on its original plan not to seat the new parliament until March, two months after the end of the elections. Both changes should be scored as a win for the political forces. 

The worst part of the agreement is the proposed timeline for the political transition. The presidential election had been expected by April 2012, which seemed a bit long but acceptable. Presidential candidate Abd el-Moneim Abou el-Fattouh told me last week that most serious candidates agreed that this was the latest acceptable date, a position stated publicly by Amr Moussa today. The SCAF’s new timeline would have the elections deferred all the way to early 2013, after the drafting of the new constitution. Such a long delay would leave the SCAF controlling executive power for another year and a half. It would guarantee continuing political instability, badly undermine the transition to legitimate civilian rule, and violate its own promises to the Egyptian people. Expect to see a lot more mobilization against this timeline and powerful demands that the SCAF go back to the spring 2012 date for a presidential election.

The SCAF also made motions toward some of the key issues which have long generated political opposition. They promised to look into lifting the Emergency Law, to ending military trials for civil offenses, to accept international observers (not monitors) for elections, and various other points. But unfortunately, they offered only promises rather than firm, clear commitments. Most of the Egyptian political class has lost confidence in such promises, for good reason, so this will probably also produce continued mobilization and anger.  It is far too early to score these vague promises as either a win or a loss — though most think that the parties should have pushed harder to get concrete commitments before signing. Finally, in a gesture toward liberals and secularists, the SCAF seemed to have secured the agreement of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi parties to the supra-constitutional guarantees which had been so controversial over the summer — but by today, the MB was already backing away from it, showing the slippery nature of such agreements.

I am ambivalent, I must say, about the potential use of the Treason Law to bar NDP politicians from elections, which has been a demand of many political trends in recent weeks. I understand the impulse behind this call, as many fear that the falul (regime remnants) will regain power through the ballot box. What would stop, say, Gamal Mubarak from entering parliament if he avoids conviction? There are many layers of complexity in this move, however. Defining who would be banned from politics is contentious — only top NDP officials or all of the millions of party members? And would banning ex-NDP members push them (a group including much of the country’s economic elite) into active opposition to the emerging political system or provoke escalated capital flight? What’s more, with the SCAF openly waging a campaign against the "foreign funding" of liberal and revolutionary groups such as the April 6 Youth Movement, the embrace of a "Treason Law" seems an extremely dangerous double-edged sword. 

The SCAF-Parties agreement therefore has some positive and some negative aspects. It isn’t the catastrophe which many are painting it as nor is it enough to rescue Egypt from its ongoing political crisis. I hope that the parties and the political movements can continue to pressure the SCAF to live up to its promises and to reverse some of the bad moves (especially the presidential election date), while continuing to focus on the prize: fair parliamentary elections on schedule to finally create a legitimate civilian government. The SCAF may have every intention of manipulating the process to hold onto power, but that doesn’t mean that they will be able to do so. Their consistent pattern of blundering and over-reaching, and then backing down in the face of public outrage, do not suggest that Egypt is being ruled by a masterful, unstoppable super-genius. Egypt’s creative, restless and impatient political public should not be sidetracked by side battles or take their bait. If they want a transition to real democracy, now is the time to push hard to make sure that the elections deliver it.