Seven days of upheaval in Cairo’s Tahrir square and other cities across Egypt have left 41 protesters dead and more than 3,000 wounded and jeopardized long-awaited parliamentary elections just days away. In a bid to quell the growing anger on the streets, the country’s ruling military authorities have appointed a new prime minister and offered to hold presidential elections by June 2012, while insisting on moving forward with parliamentary elections scheduled to begin in three days.
The concessions are not insignificant, but as today’s massive protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other Egyptian cities demonstrates, they are not enough to stem the mounting resolve of protesters to see Egypt’s military rulers go following months of SCAF mismanagement and overreach. As hundreds of thousands of Egyptians across the country gather to demand an end to military rule, there is a desperate need to reset the country’s transition, starting with a postponement of elections and an immediate handover to an independent civilian authority.
The country faces a dangerous split between the military and its supporters and an emerging opposition. Some are still persuaded by the concern that delaying elections could lead to a complete unraveling of the country’s democratic prospects. There are real risks associated with postponing the elections, but the dangers of holding them under present conditions outweigh any potential damage that would be caused by a temporary delay.
Practically, of course, it will be impossible to hold elections in the midst of running battles between protesters and security forces, particularly if casualties continue to rise as they have over the past several days. The atmosphere remains extremely tense and volatile on top of a pre-existing absence of law and order. But justifications for putting off elections go well beyond the current crisis.
Even if elections were logistically feasible, there is strong reason to believe that they would increase political friction and deepen the crisis of legitimacy, thus leading to greater instability and an entrenched anti-democratic trend. This is due to several foundational flaws that have long been acknowledged by Egyptian and foreign observers alike, but overlooked out of a sense of pragmatism and an eagerness to see a democratic milestone. Key among these are the various technical problems that are likely to arise from Egypt’s confusing and cumbersome electoral system, including an incoherent and incomplete election law decreed by the SCAF and amended on several occasions following political wrangling.
Equally problematic is the ambiguity regarding the parliament’s mandate. The parliament would not be empowered to form a new government — a power that remains in the hands of the SCAF. Other than appointing a 100-member Constitutional Assembly, which the SCAF has already attempted to usurp with its proposed "supra constitutional principles," it is unclear what role the new parliament would be able to play. Given the SCAF’s track record, we can also expect the parliament’s legislative and oversight functions to be severely curtailed, even if formal restrictions on those powers have not been written into law.
Most crucial of all, the poorly planned and ill-timed elections run the risk of reinforcing the already highly polarized and acrimonious environment which has prevailed throughout most of the transition period and which is only growing stronger. In the nine months since Mubarak’s ouster, the social and political environment has become divisive and confrontational along ideological, sectarian, and generational lines. Not surprisingly, this fragmentation has played directly into the hands of the SCAF, which has not shied away from playing one group off another in an attempt to engineer outcomes. Once viewed as a unifying force for a country in transition, the SCAF’s actions and presence have turned it into a major force of instability.
Whether out of fears for personal safety, confusion over the electoral system, or anger at the political actors, the current conditions are likely to keep large numbers of Egyptians away from the polls. Conspicuously low voter turnout — particularly if it is substantially lower than the modest 41 percent attained in the constitutional referendum last spring — would diminish domestic (and foreign) confidence in the process and the outcome. This, combined with continuing street unrest and a deepening Islamist-secularist rift, would significantly impair the parliament’s ability to claim a political mandate or act as a counter weight to SCAF’s executive powers. These dynamics are likely to lead to political stalemate or worse and enable the SCAF to backtrack on its commitment to handover executive power by June 2012.
Without a doubt Egypt should proceed as quickly as is practicable to elections. But as crucial as elections are to a viable democratic order, they cannot substitute for a minimal civic and political consensus and broad public confidence, and at this point are unlikely to bring about either. Given the near total breakdown in trust among all sides, it is imperative that efforts be re-focused on improving conditions for successful elections. Better conditions require an end to the SCAF’s direct involvement in governance, including and especially the electoral process, as well as the inclusion of a broad range of civic and political actors that are broadly representative.
Egyptian activists and political figures have already put forth a number of proposals along these lines, such as the formation of civilian-led "presidential council" or a "national salvation government" with full executive powers. Whatever model is chosen, the new body must function with full transparency and should be representative of the country’s demographic and political constituencies. Its first tasks should be to review the existing (SCAF-decreed) election law and set a new — and specific — elections timetable. To be sure, postponing elections could provoke the Muslim Brotherhood constituency, which was poised to make substantial gains in the elections and insists on moving ahead with elections as scheduled. However, a delay of a few weeks would not significantly affect their electoral prospects and would enhance the credibility of the process as whole, which would be to its ultimate benefit.
An even greater challenge will be convincing the SCAF to disentangle itself from national politics. This is not only because of the military’s desire to protect its vast economic interests and immunity form public scrutiny, but because of its solid base of support. For one thing, the SCAF has done a masterful job of conflating the "military council," a political body appointed by the former dictator, with the "army," a beloved national institution whose ranks are filled by the conscripted "sons of Egypt". The SCAF has also banked on a so-called "silent majority" of Egyptians, many of whom have grown tired of highly disruptive protests and yearn for some sense of normalcy and stability. But the generals would be wise not to rest too comfortably on this assumed cushion of public support.
Although the current protests have not yet risen to the scale seen during last winter’s uprising, as Hosni Mubarak learned in just 18 days, a silent majority is often no match for a mobilized, persistent, and defiant minority. Moreover, popularity is no substitute for genuine legitimacy or stability, both of which can be rather fleeting commodities. Indeed, a poll conducted this fall by the Brookings Institution’s Shibley Telhami found that more than twice as many Egyptians (43 percent) believe the SCAF is working against the gains of the revolution as see it as working to advance those gains (21 percent).
In any event, removing the SCAF from the political sphere need not entail immediate full relinquishing of power and return to the barracks. Even following a handover to a civilian authority, the military would still play a key role in overseeing public security and perhaps even continue playing a role in foreign affairs. But getting over this crisis will require ending the SCAF’s involvement in transitional politics and in managing day-to-day affairs, including elections and political appointments. While such a solution may seem radical, it may be the only way to restore stability and turn elections into an opportunity for democratic consolidation.
As the SCAF’s main sponsor, the United States has a critical role to play in ending the crisis. The U.S. administration’s misplaced confidence in the SCAF and relatively timid response over the past week, including the latest White House statement calling for a transfer of power "as soon as possible", is unlikely to change the SCAF’s calculations or to impress Egyptian protesters. The administration undoubtedly has concerns about the postponement of elections as well as a diminished role for the SCAF, which has served key U.S. interests in the region. But there is too much at stake for Egypt, the region, and the United States to continue along the current course. As with the first uprising against Mubarak last winter, the United States cannot afford to end up on the wrong side of history.
Leila Hilal is co-Director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and an editor on the Middle East Channel. Khaled Elgindy is a Visiting Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution. You can follow him on Twitter at @elgindy69