The Middle East Channel

Egyptian elections, necessary but not sufficient

With parliamentary elections approaching rapidly, the unwarranted excitement about Egypt’s democratic transition is giving way to unfounded frustration. Both inside and outside the country, analysts and political contenders have been focusing on the difficult conditions governing the elections. But while many of these concerns are valid, it is far too soon to despair. Elections are ...

MAHMUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images
MAHMUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images

With parliamentary elections approaching rapidly, the unwarranted excitement about Egypt’s democratic transition is giving way to unfounded frustration. Both inside and outside the country, analysts and political contenders have been focusing on the difficult conditions governing the elections. But while many of these concerns are valid, it is far too soon to despair. Elections are only one part of the complex political process unfolding in Egypt since the revolution.

The complaints about the elections span a wide spectrum. Whether it is the timing of the elections providing too little time for the new parties to prepare, or the pacing of the elections (between the two houses of the parliament the elections are expected to take four months) which would allow for "engineering of results," or having a mixed electoral system (proportional representation slates and individual candidates); there is increased fear that the upcoming parliament would be dominated by Islamists and ex-National Democratic Party (NDP) members. In reality, they are the two groups with financial resources and organizational experience in running campaigns. As such, many assume that the elections will be the end of Egypt’s short-lived "revolution."

Such pessimistic views tend to conflate the structural limitations of elections in general with their implementation in Egypt. For example, a concern about the power of "money" in elections is not particular to the Egyptian case, nor is the shortfalls and ability to manipulate different electoral systems. Similarly, the assumption that postponing the elections would have given new contenders a better chance for competition with the Muslim Brotherhood ignores that the latter is an 81-year-old organization, and hence time alone cannot be the crucial factor in leveling the playing field.

The pessimists overlook the panoply of opportunities associated with these elections. First, it is an opportunity to overcome the secular-Islamist divide that has long been characterizing Egyptian politics and to delve into more nuanced discussions of pressing economic and political issues. This process seems to be already unfolding with presence of more than a few "Islamist" parties competing in the elections including Al-Wasat, the MB Freedom and Justice, Al-Asalah and Al-Nour Salafi parties to name a few. Rather than running as an "Islamist" bloc the parties are competing openly and presenting different views on the state, economics, and civil rights, ending the long-held perception of a unified Islamist alternative.

It is also clear in the electoral alliance, named "The Revolution Continues" which includes leftist and liberal parties along with the Egyptian Current Party formed by young Muslim Brotherhood defectors. Similarly, the "Democratic Alliance" bloc that is headed by the MB Justice and Freedom party includes the nationalist-Nasserite Al-Karama party and the liberal Al-Ghad party among others. Hence, the elections are creating new and more diversified dividing-lines within Egyptian politics, which is a necessary first step to transcend identity politics.

Second, the elections are forcing parties from rhetoric to action in terms of both agenda setting and campaigning. It is a golden opportunity for producing a new class of politicians and party cadres who can be the basis for Egypt’s much-needed new political elite, as for formulating new political projects and alternatives. Not only is this a chance for parties to learn about campaigning, but also with the rising public interest in politics they will be forced to formulate agendas and policy directions.

Even more important is that for the first time Egyptian elections are characterized by one of the most important features of democracy: uncertainty. The large expected turnout of first-time voters from more than 50 million eligible voters as opposed to only 40 million in the last elections of 2010, and for which only a meager 30 percent voted (according to the exaggerated official figures) is forcing everyone to compete for an unknown constituency. The absence of a pre-determined majority for the NDP is forcing all parties to shift their agendas away from simply opposing Mubarak policies to addressing voters concerns. It is also forcing all contenders and political forces, including the new post-January parties and "icons" to shift their attention away from television shows which have been their main venue and focus since the revolution, to building local constituencies and to adjusting their programs accordingly.

Finally, elections are giving citizens, parties, and civil society organizations a chance to reclaim politics and to establish new links. It is allowing civil society organizations including unions, NGOs, and social movements to filter-through and find new allies within the political contenders who can champion their agendas. Hence allowing the rise of broader alliances on issues as diverse as labor-rights, civil freedoms, socio-economic, and minority rights. It is also allowing citizens to reclaim politics in a way that was shortly lived during the uprising, but soon gave away to an elitist monopoly of politics within a narrow public sphere of experts and ‘professional activists’ debating on TV and in closed forums.

While elections are definitely not the magic solution for Egypt’s chronic political problems both inherited from the Mubarak-regime and those that have arisen with the post-January military leadership, it is still providing an invaluable opportunity for the development of Egypt’s political sphere. Seen in isolation, elections cannot provide Egyptians with the much-needed transformation they went out for in January 2011. Luckily, elections seem to be happening in parallel with other forms of political participation, including continued strikes, protests, public-campaigns, and the rise of community and workplace organizations. The challenge for Egypt’s transformation now is to build bridges between emerging institutional politics as expressed in elections, and the extra-institutional politics of the street and the workplace.

Rabab El Mahdi is an assistant professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.

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