The Call

Update from Cairo

Update from Cairo

By Hani Sabra

On Oct. 1, Egypt’s ruling supreme military council and several large political parties struck a deal on a new electoral law that effectively restores the military council’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and extends the Brotherhood’s electoral advantage. The agreement also means that the presidential election may be held 18 months from now. While the presidential election’s timing may be a point of contention in 2012, political tensions are also set to rise in the first quarter next year if Egypt’s revolutionary youth activists — who have lost faith in the transition process and who have been shut out of the conversation with the military council-decide to return to the streets in protest on the anniversary of the revolution.

The new law, finalized a day after street protests in which the Brotherhood did not participate, is a clever move by the military. Without getting bogged down in the minutiae of the new legislation, it effectively benefits established political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Mubarak-era National Democratic Party (NDP). But the changes will hinder the newly established liberal secular political parties, who are still finding their footing. (The new liberal parties were pushing for the whole parliament to be elected through PR.) Under the new system, the Brotherhood’s electoral alliance, which includes the old liberal Wafd party, is likely to dominate parliament. The military council will not get as weak a parliament as it would have liked, but the council made the changes to the electoral law in part to appease the Brotherhood, which had threatened to rejoin protests.

The Wafd-Brotherhood alliance is becoming a very convenient partnership. The Wafd is not very popular, but along with the NDP and the Brotherhood, it is the only other party with wide spread name recognition. The Brotherhood is the dominant figure in the partnership, but the Wafd provides the Brotherhood with the cover of a secular, respected ally. If the Brotherhood-Wafd alliance scores a victory in parliamentary elections, it is likely that high-profile government positions will be held by senior Wafd party members, undermining any charges of an Islamist takeover.

The military council may have secured its short-term goal, but the continued alienation of the youth groups means a tricky, complicated transition in the medium term. The military council did not consult with any of the revolutionary youth activists or groups on the electoral law. In fact, the council now has an overtly hostile relationship with groups such as the April 6 Youth Movement and the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, the groups that organized the anti-Mubarak protests earlier this year.

These activists no longer view the transition as credible. They are less concerned with election results than they are about the transparency of the process. Many of the young protestors now believe that they have been frozen out the new power deal in which the Brotherhood runs parliament, the Wafd runs the government, and the military maintains the presidency. In part this is based on the fact that Egypt may be without an elected president until 2013, leaving Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi in control of the country for the next year and half. Tantawi’s popularity has plummeted among the revolutionaries since his testimony at former president Hosni Mubarak’s trial. Suspicions were also raised when he donned civilian clothes for a visit to downtown Cairo, a move that many young activists perceived as an attempt to build a public profile ahead of efforts to take a clearer leadership role.

Hani Sabra is an analyst with Eurasia Group’s Middle East practice.