Eleven months after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians are voting for what is hoped to be the first freely elected parliament in decades. Although an encouraging development, these elections do not yet signal a new dawn in Egyptian politics.
The memory of six decades of authoritarianism still cast a shadow over the electoral process, and the legacy of previous manipulations will influence acceptance of the new vote. The value of Egypt's elections therefore lies in the integrity of the process, rather than the result.
In recent decades, Egypt's elections have been tightly stage-managed. Despite regular polls, the electoral framework within which these took place allowed Egyptian elites to oversee a controlled degree of political pluralism, resulting in what has been termed a 'liberalised autocracy'. By early 2011, meaningful participation in Egypt's political arena was a near impossibility. Using a mix of coercion and financial incentives, Mubarak had been able to co-opt members of both the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and the formal opposition into the existing political system. Since dissent could now only be channeled through representatives in an impotent parliament, the regime largely insulated itself from the demands of the street. However, as we have now seen, this strategy was unsustainable.
As opposition activist Mohammad Mursi wrote during the Revolution, the feeling of powerlessness engendered by rigged elections was responsible for 'forcing Egyptians, and especially the young, into a state of utter desperation.' This would only be compounded by the perceived fraudulent nature of the 2010 parliamentary elections. Amid vote-rigging and an atmosphere of widespread repression, NDP affiliated candidates returned 93 percent of the vote while the Muslim Brotherhood lost all but one of its seats. The NDP's total domination of parliament largely cordoned off the legislature from bottom-up demands for representation. In effect, the regime had manipulated the mechanisms of electoral democracy to deepen the authoritarian nature of the state. Mubarak's Egypt was therefore a perfect example of why a functioning democracy is not simply the product of elections.
Early Stages And Perceptions Of 2011
The memory of this would have been fresh in the minds of voters as they headed to the polls in late November. Despite widespread fears regarding the state's ability to provide adequate security around the polling stations, few problems have been reported. The process is by no means perfect - after all, there has been little effort on the part of the ruling military council (SCAF) to explain the highly complex system of voting - but transgressions on the day appear to have been more the result of incompetence than of a concerted effort to subvert the electoral process. This is an encouraging sign. In this historic election it is the integrity of the process that matters more than the result itself. The new parliament is likely to be one of the shortest in Egyptian history, tasked only with the formation of a constitutional assembly. With this in mind, the significance of the result diminishes if measured solely in terms of who is in power and who is not. More important is its perceived credibility, and the increased faith in the democratic process that accompanies this. In 2010, widespread allegations of electoral fraud made the act of voting seem an empty ritual that would change little. One year on, it is vital that this perception be disproved and what happens in the coming months will set an example which one hopes will be surpassed by the emergence of a more mature electoral process in decades to come.
The Muslim Brotherhood
The international reaction is also significant since it will create a precedent for future engagement with Egypt. Our preoccupation with the result need not be underpinned by fear of an Islamist victory. If the western world is to make good on its democratising rhetoric then it must keep its promise to accept and support the outcome of elections, whatever the result, as long as they are perceived to be free and fair. Anything less will prove counterproductive to the long-term goal of 'stability', a term that continues to be associated with passivity and which pays little heed to the type of government that ensures this. Over the past decade, inconsistent support for participatory politics was interpreted by the Mubarak regime as tacit support for the suppression of his main political opposition: the Muslim Brotherhood. Aware that his western allies, particularly the US, were deeply wary of the potential for Islamist participation in government, Mubarak was able to deploy the rhetoric of democratisation and stability to his own political advantage.
Although the Brotherhood's domestic support remained fairly constant over the past decade, its electoral success varied according to regime calculations. It seems that they won eighty-seven seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections partly because they were allowed to by the regime. Not only did this improved share of the vote go some way towards satisfying domestic and international calls for reform, it also sent a message that truly free elections would present a straight choice between Mubarak and the Islamists. This notion was woven into Mubarak's rhetoric even during his final days as he emphasised that his rule was the only solution in a choice between 'chaos and stability'. If, as seems increasingly likely, the Brotherhood win a sizeable proportion of seats in the next parliament, the international community will face a choice: to support the democratic process regardless of its results, or reject the fruits of its labour on ideological grounds.
Fear of an Islamist victory masks a misguided belief in the homogeneity of such parties. The Brotherhood's membership is as varied as any other organisation, with the dominant ideological current flowing towards the centre ground. The manifesto of its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) focuses on free-market economic policies that will be tempered by a concern for social justice. What this will mean in practice remains to be seen, although it is unlikely to have the opportunity to enact sweeping changes before the parliament is dissolved once again. However, one caveat remains: the FJP's platform could yet be influenced by the electoral success of Salafist parties. The party leadership may interpret a sizeable Salafist vote as a sign of a more conservative political mood and therefore respond with a shift to the right. This would be unsurprising for an organisation that traditionally operates in a way that is more pragmatic than ideological. Such a rhetorical shift may concern those already wary of the Brotherhood's proselytising intentions, but should be interpreted as a move underpinned by political calculations, rather than a hidden agenda.
Although voting has been conducted with relative ease thus far, the process has been marred by a number of failings. One of the most worrying developments has been the silencing of the SCAF's critics. At least 12,000 Egyptians are currently held in military detention, and since many of these will have been arrested during street demonstrations, it is fair to assume that they will include some of the military's more vocal opponents among their number. The most high profile prisoner is Alaa Abdel Fatah. Arrested for allegedly violent conduct during October's Maspero massacre, it seems that Abdel Fatah's detention is in fact motivated by a desire to punish his reporting of a night on which the military fired on protesters, killing 27. Although it is important not to overestimate the size of Alaa's audience within Egypt - after all, a blog such as his will have a limited readership in a country where leftist politics is still a minority pastime - the removal of such a prominent critic from the debate is still highly significant, and sends a signal to others who might then reconsider their own outspoken stances. If elections are to be free and fair, voters must have equal access to the views of all candidates. Silencing critical voices in this manner casts serious doubt on the fairness of the process.
The handling of protests in downtown Cairo is also cause for concern. The week preceding the elections saw fierce clashes between state security and protesters condemning the military's role in political life. This was followed by a shortlived period of calm lasting just long enough for the vote to take place. Reports suggest that the violence that followed was precipitated by the Ministry of the Interior's famous baltegaya ('thugs' who are paid to infiltrate and disrupt demonstrations). If true, then this sends out a clear message: the state may allow peaceful dissent through the ballot box but it is unwilling to tolerate a more spontaneous and sustained form of protest. In this respect, the handling of elections bears eerie similarities to the practices of the Mubarak regime, a reality that could yet discredit the fledgling electoral process.
Whatever the outcome of these elections, a precedent is being set for future decades. As in life, the first steps in a democracy are always faltering. If they are guided and encouraged, however, these can eventually turn into a confident stride, paving the way for a political future that Egyptians deserve.
Louis Loveluck is the Administrator of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.