The first round of the Egyptian vote for president has concluded, with a runoff to be held in June. Five of the 13 candidates are considered frontrunners and at the close of the second day of voting, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate is claiming the lead. Things couldn’t be worse, no? Well, yes, they could be — in fact, things are not so bad. Steeling myself as I anticipate my fellow democracy campaigners calling me overly optimistic, I will nevertheless plunge ahead. My optimism has a foundation.
What should evoke some optimism is 1) that this vote happened at all; 2) that it was preceded by demonstrations of grassroots political participation that has been influencing leaders for over a year and that is very likely to continue no matter who wins and no matter how entrenched the military elite remain; and 3) while we don’t know the true count of the first round yet, several of the frontrunners vying for second place are not hardline Islamists. In fact, among those vying for second spot are a moderate Islamist who courts Christians, liberals, and leftists; two former Mubarak cabinet officials; and a leftist.
What we can gather from polling and journalists’ reports is encouraging. Polling in Egypt, as in most developing countries and former tyrannies, is of course not very reliable, but what polls exist, in addition to much journalist-based anecdotal evidence, shows that many Egyptians, even in solidly pro-Islamist regions of the country, are wary of the Brotherhood or any Islamist party getting dominance over the country. The public has been unimpressed with, and even afraid of, too much control falling into the hands of the radicals. The Brotherhood’s 6-month stint running parliament has given pause to an electorate, even among the Brotherhood’s friends. Egyptians have been quoted as saying they want to see more than one party or point of view have some power. That’s a democratic attitude that bodes well if a critical mass of Egyptians hold it and continue to vote that way.
And interestingly, it appears that some Egyptians are acting in the civic arena like Westerners: families are divided, and without bitterness, over candidates and party platforms.
In short, with this vote, even if the Brotherhood candidate wins it all, Egypt seems to have changed from a society that was under the sway and "tutelage" of despots to one that is awakening to the rights of citizens to choose their leaders from among many options and to hold those leaders accountable for good governance. The path forward will surely be rough at times — probably often — but the path forward appears to be one of Egyptians continuing to demand that government be more their servant than their master, as it has been for 5000 years.
So without getting caught up yet in the specific outcomes of the presidential election, let’s recall how far Egyptians have come in the democratization of their country and appreciate why it should afford us a measure of hope — even if there is little chance that a democratic reformer will be announced the winner next week and assume a mandate to operate within constitutional limits. We’ll be able to rest more easily about the stability of Egyptian democracy when we know Egyptian grandmothers are hectoring their grandchildren to do their civic duty and go vote — as the latter have come to take it for granted. That day is a long way off, but the last two days have been a promising start toward that day.