Marc Lynch

Egypt’s elections: don’t panic!

Egypt’s elections: don’t panic!

Egypt’s first post-Mubarak elections are scheduled to begin in less than two weeks. It would be hard to exaggerate how badly the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has prepared for these pivotal transitional elections. The election law is baffling and incoherent. Election preparations seem haphazard. The rules keep changing. People barely know what or who they are voting for. Some activists plan to boycott. Islamists seem poised to win big. The election is shaping up to be far messier and difficult than it needed to be. 

And yet despite all of that, holding these elections is still the right move. For Egypt to make a transition to a more democratic, legitimate and accountable political order it has to actually start making that transition. And that means elections. And here, there are some all too rare good signs. There has been no backsliding on the SCAF’s commitment to hold these elections despite ample opportunity to postpone them, and there will even be international observers of a sort. On the other side, while some activists have decided to boycott the election they seem to be in the minority. And the Obama administration recognizes the importance of the election and is determined to do what it can to hold the SCAF to its commitments and to assist with the transition. Holding elections now still remains the best choice for Egypt. But everyone needs to prepare for the likely outcome to make sure that the vote actually does begin a real transition to a democratic Egypt rather than digging its early grave.

I remain broadly optimistic that Egypt, like Tunisia, will make its democratic transition despite all the turbulence. This is not because the SCAF has demonstrated any real commitment to democracy or the rule of law. It is because there is a broad and deep public consensus in support of democracy, and enough powerful competing forces to prevent any easy return to Mubarak-style authoritarian rule. It is also because the Obama administration at the highest levels is determined to help get Egypt right, and has been working hard — often behind the scenes — to push the SCAF in the correct direction. 

It is also because the SCAF has proven to be politically incompetent. Even if they do hope to remain in power and are scheming to abort the revolution, they just aren’t very good at it. For all of their deep and justifiable frustrations, Egypt’s activists and the ornery, contentious Egyptian media and new political class have succeeded in making life miserable for the SCAF. The military hasn’t gotten comfortable in power. Nor has it been able to demonstrate that it holds the key to restoring public order or getting the economy back on track. Its efforts to impose its authority, with its continued resort to military courts and arrests of prominent activists and increasing censorship, have only made things more unstable. The violence against Copts last month, as well as the military clashes with protestors, left many people frightened. And this may be taking a toll. While public opinion surveys have consistently shown strong support for the SCAF, a new survey published last week shows their public approval dropping by twenty-five points in the last five months (from 86 percent to 61 percent).

There has been a lot of criticism of the decision to hold these elections now. But the other alternatives are all worse. The turbulence, chaos, abuses and violence of SCAF’s months in power have proven that their remaining in power does not guarantee stability, a steady hand, or economic revival.  If the SCAF had postponed elections further, as some had hoped, everyone would now be rightly complaining that this proved their intention of holding on to power. If the SCAF had opted to first draft the Constitution, everyone would now be complaining about the composition of the drafting committee and the content of leaked drafts while elections remained only on the distant horizon. 

And that’s why it has always been so important that the elections go forward. That said, the election process in Egypt has been an inexcusable mess. The election law wasn’t announced until shortly before the election, and then amended again in the face of political uproar. This left little time for political parties to organize electoral strategies or coalitions. The law itself is nigh-incomprehensible, allocating two-thirds of the seats by lists and one-third to individual winners. Two weeks before the election, it is difficult to get even basic information about the parties, electoral coalitions, or candidates. That’s worrying.

What’s more, the rules keep changing, creating extreme uncertainty. The election law took forever to be released, and then changed. Right in the middle of the short election campaign, the SCAF dropped a controversial document of constitutional principles, which seemed to enshrine the military’s power in the emerging political order. It will probably back down on parts of it in the face of public pressure, including Friday’s threatened Islamist protest / campaign rally. But nobody really knows. Same thing for the presidential election, which will probably not really be postponed all the way to 2013, but nobody really knows. And then, of course, without a constitution nobody really knows what the Parliament will do. Ex-NDP candidates may or may not be banned. Egyptians abroad got the right to vote less than a month before the election. It’s obviously not good to have this kind of uncertainty about the basic rules in the midst of such a transition. 

The other big source of incipient panic is the one thing upon which almost everyone now agrees: that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is likely to do well. There’s no great secret to the FJP’s likely success. After years of electoral participation, and with a large, disciplined organization and significant financial resources, the Muslim Brotherhood has a very effective campaign machine. It has been organizing in the field for many months, at a time when most of its competitors were not. It has been carefully selecting candidates, holding rallies, constructing a Get Out the Vote machine, hanging banners, and doing all the things which political parties which want to win votes are supposed to do. The FJP has many problems, and its efforts could still be short-circuited by a massive turnout which swamps its organizational advantages, but for now it is looking strong compared to its rivals. 

It’s hard for anyone, even the MB and FJP’s leaders, to say exactly how well it will do in the election. When I spoke to a number of them in late September, they said that their goal of winning 30-40 percent of the seats remained unchanged. Tunisia-like numbers would represent something of a best-case scenario, forcing them to form coalitions rather than ruling alone. But their electoral strategy, they told me even then, was complicated by the confusion surrounding the election law, the rapidly shifting electoral coalitions, and the weak preparations by some of their chief rivals. It is all too plausible to see something like the 2006 Palestinian election unfold, where Fatah’s disorganization handed victory to Hamas (for example, multiple liberal candidates contesting the same seat handing a safe liberal seat to a unified Islamist vote). It now seems possible that the MB, alone or in coalition with other Islamists, could end up winning a Parliamentary majority. Even that would not be cause for panic, given the limits on Parliament’s power, but it would be far more difficult to navigate than an Islamist bloc under 40 percent.  

With or without a majority, everyone needs to be prepared for Islamists to do well. It is almost impossible for there to be a free and fair Egyptian election in which Islamists do not win a sizable share of the vote. But even though it is expected, their success will likely prompt a media and political frenzy. This will be made even worse by the fact that Egypt’s election will extend over three rounds, rather than being completed in one day. This means that there will be long weeks for rumors of Islamist victories to circulate, for polarization and recriminations, and — worst of all — for calls for the army to step in and cancel elections as in Algeria in 1991.

To avoid such a catastrophic failure, everyone will need to avoid over-reaction. The Muslim Brotherhood will need to demonstrate a lot more political maturity  than it has shown in recent months. It will need to emulate Tunisia’s Rached al-Ghannouch, who has since al-Nahda’s big electoral victory done everything possible to reassure Tunisians and the West that his party will not impose Islamist rule on Tunisia. The Egyptian MB will need to do the same, and back those words with deeds by proving that it will not seek to dominate or to impose its agenda. I have heard a lot over the years from MB leaders about their true democratic convictions, their recognition of the fears they provoke in others and their desire to avoid repeating the Algerian or Palestinian experiences. This is their chance to prove it.  

Egyptian secularists, leftists, liberals, and Christians will also need to show restraint, especially with regard to the temptation to call for the elections to be interrupted if they seem to be going badly. That doesn’t mean rolling over — those forces should absolutely continue to challenge and push the MB on their democratic commitments at every opportunity, and call them out when they don’t live up to them.

The U.S. and outside observers will also need to resist the tidal wave of recrimination and scare-mongering which is nearly certain to flood the media as the election unfolds. The Obama administration has tried to show that it will respect the outcome of democratic elections, and that it will be willing to work with Islamist parties which demonstrate respect for democratic rules, human rights, and non-violence. There has been a growing recognition that you can’t have a representative democracy which excludes a major political trend such as the Islamists, and that including Islamists in the political game is better than forcing them into the shadows. Most now see that lumping together the wide variety of often sharply competing Islamists into one vast Islamic menace is shoddy analytic bunk. 

But that balance is going to be far harder to maintain in Egypt than it was after al-Nahda’s victory in Tunisia. The stakes are higher, the media glare hotter, and the Egyptian MB less forthcoming than their Tunisian counterparts. But doing so has never been more important. For years there was a bipartisan rhetorical consensus in the United States about supporting Arab democracy. This will be the most important test yet of that commitment to Arab democracy — for the administration, for Congress, for the media, and for the academic and policy communities.  Did they, and we, really mean it? 

The best advice, as in most parts of the universe: don’t panic. The election isn’t going to be pretty, but it’s necessary.