Marc Lynch

Egypt’s elections begin, with a long way to go

Egypt’s elections began today after a week of intense political conflict, violent clashes, and uncertainty.  Thus far, they seem to be going very well, with reports of long lines, high turnout, few of the expected security problems and great enthusiasm.  As someone who has been arguing in favor of these elections for months, I’m thrilled ...

Village outside of Assiut, November 28, 2011. Photo by Lauren E. Bohn.
Village outside of Assiut, November 28, 2011. Photo by Lauren E. Bohn.

Egypt’s elections began today after a week of intense political conflict, violent clashes, and uncertainty.  Thus far, they seem to be going very well, with reports of long lines, high turnout, few of the expected security problems and great enthusiasm.  As someone who has been arguing in favor of these elections for months, I’m thrilled to see them off to a good start.  There is a long way to go, though, as voting will continue for six weeks, giving all too many opportunities for enthusiasm to fade, political forces to panic, or security problems to appear. Even successful elections won’t change the fact that the SCAF needs to be held accountable for its unacceptable violence against protestors last week and still urgently needs to transfer significant power to an independent civilian transitional government. 

I argued on Tuesday for a short delay in the first round of the elections because of the intense violence, protests, and general political chaos.  That was a tough call for me because I have been pushing to hold the elections for so long, and have placed so much political importance on the establishment of a legitimate, elected Parliament to balance the authority of the SCAF.  But I did not see how credible elections could be held at a time when the security forces were waging running battles with protestors in Tahrir, Alexandria, or elsewhere.  I feared that the security situation and the anger over violence would significantly depress turnout, compromising the legitimacy of the election.  Thus far, this seems to have been thankfully wrong.  All reports thus far suggest that turnout has been high, with few security issues and most of the complaints having to do with overly aggressive campaigning, long lines, and administrative failures at pollings stations. Those are good problems to have. I’ve rarely been happier to be wrong. 

Today’s positive beginning to the elections offers hope that Egypt could be on the road to getting the legitimate, elected Parliament it so badly needs.  But it is far too soon to declare the elections a success.  Even before last week’s violence and political turbulence, there were many problems with the electoral process.  The election law remains deeply confusing and the preparations haphazard with most of the complaints thus far revolving around administrative issues (judges arriving late or leaving early). All the early reports suggest that, as expected, Islamists — and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party — will do very well in the election, which will raise all sorts of difficult political choices in Egypt and abroad.  And fundamental issues of the political system remain unresolved, from the Constitution to the powers and composition of the newly appointed government. For that matter, nobody really even knows what powers the newly elected Parliament will have. 

These problems will all be magnified by Egypt’s long, drawn-out election process. Tunisia, like most other normal countries, had its foundational election in a single day and quickly announced the results.  Egypt’s election will continue for six weeks.  Next week will be the run-off for round one, and then two more rounds will follow.  Voting will not conclude until January.  This creates a very different dynamic. Instead of one, adrenaline-fueled moment of enthusiasm which can slice through the political polarization and inevitable complaints, Egypt is going to have long weeks to digest and dissect each round of voting.  Today’s enthusiasm could fade as the elections become a weekly grind. That gives all too many opportunities for provocateurs unhappy with the results of previous rounds to plot mischief — including not only disaffected political trends, but also foreign actors or the SCAF, should Islamists do as well as expected.

The SCAF clearly believes that it has weathered last week’s political storm, and that the elections will shift attention away from the ongoing challenge from Tahrir. But that would be a serious mistake. The game really has changed. Its use of massive violence against its own people last week must, and will, have consequences.  The enthusiasm for voting today does not erase the harsh reality that over 40 people were killed and over a thousand wounded last week by regime violence.  The SCAF’s political leadership brought Egypt to the brink of chaos last week, and not for the first time. The U.S. and France have both called on the SCAF to begin a transition to civilian rule as soon as possible, and those should still be pushed regardless of the Parliamentary elections. 

The SCAF did well last week to agree to move the Presidential election and the transition to civilian rule up to June 2012, which is a significant improvement over its previous vague timeline which would have deferred both until well into 2013.  Its appointment of the elderly Kamal el-Ganzoury as the new Prime Minister has been poorly received, however.  Whatever solution is finally found among Cairo’s bickering, divided politicians, it remains urgently important that the SCAF turn significant executive power over to an independent civilian leadership for the remainder of the transition period.  The elections introduce a new dimension to Egyptian politics, but the existing challenges have not disappeared. 

In other words, there’s a long way to go.  But I’m glad that Egypt has at least begun the process. 

 Twitter: @abuaardvark

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