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The politics of Egypt’s elections

The military may wish to maintain its economic and political stranglehold, the Brotherhood may feel its time has come, and progressive groups may want to push for real change. But for the time being the Egyptian people remain an enigma.

As ballots are being counted in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak elections, the political landscape is becoming clearer. The turnout has been very strong compared to the Mubarak era, with lines outside polling stations often stretching for hundreds of metres. This determined will to participate in elections is the best indictment of those who until a few months ago argued that countries like Egypt were not ‘ready for democracy’. But beyond this, there is little to take cheer from.

The first round of a tortuous six-stage electoral process has been completed, it has been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, with strong showings by the salafist Nour party, and the secular-nationalist Egyptian Bloc, while remnants of the old regime (so-called felool) fared less well without the machinery of state behind them. These are not the forces which actually organised and carried out the January Uprising, but they are the best organised, best funded, and the most palatable to the military junta. By contrast, the leftist and liberal groups who were the driving force behind the January and November uprisings, who were far less well-funded than their opposition, were predictably marginalised.

The map of post-electoral Egyptian politics must include at least two further factors : the weakness of Egypt’s emergent institutional structure, and the re-emergence of the Mubarak regime’s repressive strategy. Assuming the second and third two-part rounds of voting are also relatively smooth, the resulting Parliament will nonetheless have virtually no significant formal powers. Already notoriously weak under Mubarak, under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) the Egyptian Parliament will have few powers of note that the military junta has not already taken for itself. Equally worryingly, practically as soon as polls closed Egypt’s notorious baltageyya, hired thugs employed by the Ministry of Interior to assault any opposition, were again in action assaulting protesters in Tahrir Square.

Taken together, every element save the turnout and the high levels of grassroots mobilisation witnessed since January remain cause for concern, and appears to confirm warning bells that have been sounding for a long time.

Two events epitomise the regime which has been emerging in post-Mubarak Egypt : the ‘constitutional referendum’ of March 19, and the last parliamentary elections held under Mubarak, barely two months before his downfall.

Warning signs

The March referendum, like this week’s Parliamentary elections, showed a very strong turnout compared to previous elections : under Mubarak dismally low turnouts of 10-15% were the norm, while Egypt’s first post-uprising poll saw estimated turnout of around 40%, and the same long lines of patient voters waiting to cast their ballots. Like the first round of current parliamentary elections, far fewer incidents were reported at polling stations, and virtually no violence compared to the scenes of regime-stoked urban guerrilla conflict witnessed in some locations during the 2010 vote.

But barely a month after Mubarak’s downfall, the constitutional referendum also provided a clear warning concerning the military junta’s intentions : having voted on barely eight constitutional principles, Egyptians saw SCAF declare a whopping 63 constitutional articles. This declaration effectively discarded the constitution – which stipulated the presidency should pass to the head of the constitutional court for the sole purposes of organising elections within sixty days[i] – and awarded the junta a concentration of executive power, legislative power and control over the judiciary unprecedented even under Mubarak.[ii]

Many were prepared to give the junta the benefit of the doubt, partly in the name of stability, and partly because the military’s reputation as a national institution and a force for good were still intact, having rid Egypt of Mubarak and his minions, such as the hated Interior Minister, Habib al-Adly.

Raising some eyebrows, the military went on to claim that the approval of the referendum they called for gave them constitutional as well as revolutionary legitimacy, regardless of the constitution’s actual provisions. The story of the past eight months has been one of increasingly worrying signs about the likelihood of a democratic transition.

After the March 19 referendum, SCAF set out a timetable for transition which saw parliamentary elections taking place in various stages over a period of six months, the consequent appointment of a hundred-strong council from within this parliament tasked with drawing up a new constitution, and only after this had reported – within six months – presidential elections to seal the transition. This would have left the military holding ultimate executive, legislative and judicial power for at least two years after Mubarak’s downfall.[iii]

As if that were not already serious enough, the military’s track record in fulfilling the promises and expectations of transition has been abysmal. Firstly, the transition to which SCAF repeats its commitment is constantly delayed. The initial promise of a 6-month transition period to elections in September, for example, was broken, and lack of progress on crucial issues such as the election law, or criteria for candidacy, resulted in a two-month delay. Recently, newly-appointed PM Ganzoury asks for two months’ ‘patience’ just to establish a cabinet.[iv] At times, SCAF appeared to go back on its intention to cede power at all, such as a statement made by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi himself on November 21 that SCAF was willing to hold a referendum on whether they should hand over power immediately, if the people demanded so, implying that such a referendum should rule on their withdrawal from politics, rather than this being a basic foundation of any claim to democracy.

Secondly, the junta have engaged in the systematic delegitimisation of the opposition, targeting particularly the groups who had provided the backbone of the January Uprising. Perhaps the best examples of this were the accusation of ‘foreign hands’[iv] being behind groups like April 6, and more generally the military’s role in actively fuelling the so-called ‘foreign funding’ debate, announcing inquiries into and prosecution of (mostly) human rights and democracy NGOs which received funding from western governments or independent NGOs. A largely pliant state media greatly facilitated this delegitimisation.

Thirdly, reviving another familiar tool of the regime under Mubarak, the military engaged in various attempts to effectively co-opt the opposition’s best-known and most credible leaders, from Muhammad El-Baradei to Abd el-Mun’im Abu el-Futouh, by including them in cabinets or offering to form a national council of some kind – positions which would always subject them to the junta’s authority, and make it difficult for them to distance themselves politically from the regime.

Fourthly, the military-led regime deployed the oldest instrument of any authoritarian regime : repression. Over 12,000 Egyptians have been tried in military courts since SCAF took over. Several journalists and activists were questioned by the military prosecution for statements they made or articles they wrote, including journalists and activists Rasha Azab, Hossam Al-Hamalawy and Asmaa Mahfouz. In the name of security and the need to increase economic performance, the SCAF even introduced new legislation (Law 34 of 2011) criminalizing strikes and any other form of protest deemed to obstruct work and imposing prison sentences and heavy fines on those convicted. The authorities also re-enacted and expanded the applications of the much-dreaded Emergency Law (Law 162 of 1958) to cover offences such ‘assault on freedom to work’, further cracking down on the right to strike, extending it to cases of blocking roads, and including catch-all accusations such as ‘broadcasting false rumours’, which have been extensively deployed to arrest and harass bloggers and journalists such as Maikel Nabil (sentenced to three years for a writing a blog post criticizing the army) and Alaa Abd el-Fattah (being tried for spreading false information and responsibility in causing murder) to cite only two of the best-known cases.[vi] This has led Amnesty International, for example, to conclude that “those who have challenged or criticized the military council — like demonstrators, journalists, bloggers, striking workers — have been ruthlessly suppressed in an attempt to silence their voices.”[vii]

Nor has any meaningful security sector reform been carried out. There has been a near-total lack of accountability for the 850 protesters killed during the revolution, the 1500 people injured, and continuing human rights abuses, and the events of the past two weeks confirm that Egypt’s security agencies are nowhere nearer being impartial upholders of the law today than they were under Mubarak. Instead, at every incident, the junta has met increasingly systematic reports of attacks apparently carried out by baltageyya or plain-clothes security officers – including apparently xenophobic attacks against foreigners[viii] – by consistently denying any wrongdoing or use of violence (e.g. live ammunition),[ix] and regaling the press with post-facto apologies and claims that nothing was ever their fault or that any violence was always in reaction to violence from demonstrators.

Finally, on a political level, the junta have shown every sign of aiming to retain a stranglehold on the political process. The best example of this is perhaps the so-called ‘El-Selmy document’. Despite the fact that according to SCAF’s own March Constitutional Declaration, parliament’s first duty would be to appoint a 100-strong Constitutional Committee from within its ranks, this too was usurped by the junta : the document, supposedly drafted by the Deputy Prime Minister, claimed for SCAF the right to appoint 80 out of the 100 members of the constitutional council. Although it was later withdrawn in a firestorm of opposition from across the political spectrum, it aptly illustrates the junta’s tendency to concentrate power in its own hands, and the way steps towards democracy have mostly come after strong opposition pressure. Exemplary of such ‘concessions’ to democratic transition is the ‘political corruption law’ preventing members of the former regime from running, which was passed only days before elections, under considerable pressure, and in ways that made it virtually impossible to apply. Often, such concessions were quickly followed by threats, such as Tantawi’s own November 26 warning against threats against ‘transition’.

The destabilizing impact of this conduct cannot be underestimated, and despite railing against strikes, SCAF must take a substantial portion of responsibility for the political and economic chaos Egypt has been thrown into – and which the junta has used to justify its crackdown on dissent – since February. On an economic level, Egypt has seen rising food prices, tumbling foreign reserves (-40%), bond rates increasing to 9.21%, falling tourism income, and capital flight – serious ingredients of an impending budget crunch,[x] with the deficit projected to reach 10% of GDP this year. Moreover, while this is all serious, it does not begin to address the structural problems of Egypt’s economy, particularly the large subsidy which army-controlled companies get from the state, giving them both the ability to undercut competition, and to dispense patronage – not to mention the country’s increasing rates of inequality and poverty.[xi] At a political level, on top of the ambiguities outlined above, the junta has contributed to increasing insecurity by allowing Interior Ministry forces to withdraw from the streets, coinciding with increasing attacks by baltageyya and – reportedly – by disguised Interior Ministry forces.


The junta’s mantra for rationalising their political leadership has been security and stability : “Who would protect Egypt if the armed forces left power ?” The answer is obvious : in any democratic regime, this is the job of security forces. What is not their job in any democratic regime is to take an active part in the political process. Moreover, the steps the military have taken since assuming power have – whether intentionally or not – destabilized the country by delaying transition and stalling reforms. Democratization appears to have been the least of their concerns since Mubarak’s departure in February.

There are several practical steps SCAF could take to speed up the transition and stabilize the country. The first and most obvious is to return to barracks and take orders from civilian authorities. While there is certainly a need to prevent the police and state security from carrying out their usual repertoire of election-time abuse, for example, it is difficult to see why the army could not do this under orders from a civilian government. This is, after all, one of the basic requirements for the democracy SCAF say they’re committed to.

The second is to fulfil the promises they themselves made, such as repealing the emergency law, which they had promised to do before any elections, release all prisoners arrested under the vastly expanded emergency law, prosecute human rights abuses by security forces, immediately stop smear campaigns and arrests against pro-democracy activists and journalists,[xii] and recognise a civilian council to replace SCAF holding presidential office, such as has been suggested by most presidential contenders over the past two weeks.[xiii] Instead, the junta endorsed the publication of the so-called ‘El-Selmy Document’, in which the then Deputy Prime Minister proposed a set of supra-constitutional principles which among other things effectively enshrined the inscrutability of the military’s power by preventing parliament from having any say – or even seeing the details of – the armed forces’ budget.

The fact that the military have taken none of these steps can lead to only one conclusion : the junta is either unable or unwilling to handle a transition to democracy. The military itself ought to be the first to be concerned about this, as popular trust in the military and their reputation as impartial defenders of Egypt’s national interests has been eroded, particularly since the events of the ‘second revolution’ in November, just before elections.[xiv]

Military elections vs. revolutionary democracy

The context described above – which is at best politically and legally ambiguous – clarifies the reasons of those who doubted whether meaningful elections could take place. Concerns about the legitimacy of such a process are understandable.

Among those who always questioned the junta’s willingness to move towards genuine democracy, many called for a boycott of elections, pointing to the climate of insecurity, the fear and disinformation spread through state institutions, the role Interior Ministry forces and the military had in this, the fear of implicitly legitimizing SCAF through such elections, not to mention the murky electoral system, the little preparation time, low organisational capability, and lack of name-recognition for pro-democracy candidates as opposed to Muslim Brotherhood and ex-NDP candidates (not to mention their far greater patronage capabilities). Last but certainly not least there was the issue of the new assembly’s powerlessness : Parliament will not give rise to a new government, which will be appointed with SCAF approval, nor will it legislate independently, as legislation is subject to SCAF approval.

However, many other pro-democracy protesters argued in favour of elections, pointing not least to the fact that the polls would begin the transition process, secure at least some gains, and prove transition is possible, applying more political pressure on SCAF.

The landscape of this debate is substantially the same as that of the discussion over participating in the March referendum. By the November elections, this debate split pro-democratic forces down the middle. Among those against voting were part of the ‘youth of the revolution’ and some new parties (e.g. the younger members of Egypt’s Social Democrats, Socialists and Communists), while those in favour were primarily the Muslim Brotherhood and most Islamists, the military and part of the pro-democracy camp.

What is certain is that, in the current context, it is difficult to see how voting will resolve the issue of civil-military relations : the army will not go back to its barracks or take orders from a civilian government, once it is finally appointed by parliament or after presidential elections. Nor will the elections deal with the most basic question of all : what makes it necessary for the junta not to take orders from civilians ? What the elections do have the potential to do is alter the political rather than formal balance of power between the junta, parties, and the newly mobilised Egyptian masses. Although both SCAF, the parties and grassroots movements will attempt to gain popular support – not least to confront each other – Egyptians have repeatedly demonstrated over the past ten months that their support cannot be taken for granted.

The Muslim Brotherhood : the return of the decorative opposition ?

While it remains publicly determined to see through the transition to democracy, the Brotherhood has backed the military on issues such as elections, and has condemned pro-democracy demonstrators nearly as eagerly as the junta. Some may question whether the Brotherhood is indeed prepared to push for a fully-fledged democracy, or whether it will ultimately be prepared to compromise – as it was under Mubarak – to accept a greater role in public life while sharing power with SCAF.

Either way, the Brotherhood’s tactics have been risky. Over the past ten months, the Brotherhood leadership has often underestimated popular desire for change. Indeed, at crucial points such as the run-up to the January Uprising and the November protests, it publicly criticised protests, and by encouraging its supporters to stay at home, was badly wrong-footed by the massive popular support such protests had. In January, Essam El-Erian asked Brotherhood members to boycott the January 25 protest that sparked the uprising, and all the way from January 24 to 27 consistently refused to support demonstrators. Moreover, while the Brotherhood later declared itself part of the revolutionary forces, it explicitly refused to join the November millioneyya (million-person) marches, preferring instead to turn to the old authoritarian language of plots by stating that their “assessment of the situation is that there is a plot to cause chaos and use it as an excuse to deprive the people of the benefits of democracy.” It argued that calls for SCAF’s resignation prior to elections would also cause chaos, echoing the junta’s own rhetoric.[xv] It was not surprising, then, that when Brotherhood representatives tried to go to Tahrir to show their participation in the latest round of anti-SCAF protests, high-ranking members were booed off the square, or that the Brotherhood has been losing members to more moderate and progressive groups over the past few months.

Quite aside from the parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood has recently won elections in lawyers, teacher and pharmacist syndicates,[xvi] so such losses ought not to be blown out of proportion – but neither should they be underestimated.

Conclusion : springtime for the junta and the Brotherhood ?

What the first round of parliamentary elections confirms is that it is no longer possible to view Egyptian politics purely through the spectrum of stated ideological commitments or conventional authoritarian prisms. The primary axes in Egyptian politics used to be thought of as a division between the regime, Islamists and liberal or leftist secularists. What the past ten months have highlighted, however, is a different split, already partly apparent under Mubarak. On the one hand, one finds the regime and the ‘decorative opposition’, which although ideologically disparate, share a considerable range of interests. On the other hand one finds those groups – whether liberal, leftist or Islamist – which draw on and mobilise popular dissatisfaction and provide a genuinely independent opposition to the regime. Although both Islamists and the junta have been prepared to hijack an uprising fought for by others, they remain significantly divided on the question of transition to genuine democracy. Whether the pro-democratic opposition will be able to exploit these divisions and build a movement capable of rivalling the Brotherhood’s organisational strength remains to be seen. The road ahead for democracy in Egypt is certainly a long and tortuous one.

Beyond the elections, however, two enigmas remain. The first concerns the intentions of the armed forces. The military has enormous interests to defend – estimated at between 5-20% of GDP[xvii] – but it remains unclear, and possibly unresolved within SCAF itself, whether the junta’s interest in the political process is simply aimed at safeguarding those interests, or whether there is a consensus for more direct control of the political sphere. Only in the former case is there space for a negotiated pathway towards democracy.

The second question mark is the Egyptian people themselves. The military may wish to maintain its economic and political stranglehold, the Brotherhood may feel its time has come, and progressive groups may want to push for real change, but the question is : will the people let them have their way ?

5 December 2011

Photo by Stefan Simanowitz, all rights reserved

[i] Article 84 of Egypt’s constitution deals with the eventuality of parliament being dissolved and the presidency being made vacant : in this case, the Presidency of the Supreme Constitutional Court, currently Farouk Sultan would be given the sole task of organising presidential elections “within a maximum period of sixty days from the date of the vacancy of the Presidential office,” while himself being unable to run for the post.

[ii] Article 56, for example, guarantees the SCAF military junta both executive and legislative power, giving it the right to establish policy and legislate, appoint and dismiss the government, promulgate or abrogate laws, issue budgets, represent the state, sign international treaties, nominate appointed members of Parliament, and call into session, adjourn or suspend Parliament.

[iii] This despite the fact that Article 33 of SCAF’s own constitutional declaration provides that “immediately upon election” the parliament should assume legislative, budgetary and oversight powers.

[iv] http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/27655/Egypt/Politics-/ElGanzouri-asks-for-at-least-two-months-to-fulfill.aspx

[v] e.g. http://bikyamasr.com/49071/egypt-military-general-%E2%80%9Cthere-is-an-invisible-hand-in-the-square%E2%80%9D/

[vi] The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) guarantees the right to freedom of expression (Article 19). Article 12 of the SCAF Constitutional Declaration states that “personal criticism and constructive criticism are a guarantee for the safety of national development.” Article 13 of the Declaration of March 2011 enshrines “freedom of the press, printing, publication and media” and forbids “censorship” – except in times of ‘national emergency’ or war.

[vii] Amnesty International, November 22nd.

[viii] http://bikyamasr.com/49294/foreigners-attacked-in-egypt-rising-xenophobia-and-anger-over-us-tear-gas/

[ix] http://bikyamasr.com/49415/egypt-rulers-say-elections-to-go-forward-defends-role-in-violence/ ; http://bikyamasr.com/49347/egypts-former-interior-minister-says-no-bullets-fired-deaths-prove-otherwise/

[x] http://bikyamasr.com/49290/egypt’s-economy-fights-to-keep-the-course/

[xi] http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/506781

[xii] http://bikyamasr.com/49153/journalists-attacked-in-egypt-sustain-injuries/ ; http://bikyamasr.com/48918/egypts-press-syndicate-denounce-violence-against-journalist/

[xiii] The council was slated to include Hamdeen Sabahi, leader of the Nasserist Karama Party and former MP, and Abd el-Mun’im Abu el-Futouh, Al-Ahram economic journalist Ahmed El-Naggar, and Judge Ashraf Baroudy, as well as a representative of the armed forces.

[xiv] A survey published by the Brookings Institution and Zogby International on Nov. 21 found that 43 percent of Egyptians believe the military rulers are seeking to slow or reverse the gains of the uprising against Mubarak.

[xv] http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/518431 ; http://bikyamasr.com/49356/muslim-brotherhood-calls-for-scheduled-elections-on-monday/

[xvi] SCAF’s ‘supra-constitutional principles’ documents indicates it will select member of the Constitutional Council from among the professions.

[xvii] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/18/world/middleeast/18military.html

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.