Egypt's March To Democracy Moves On

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Collage of election pictures By Ernest Corea
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

WASHINGTON DC (IDN) – "This first round (of post-Mubarak elections in Egypt) was truly great. No violence, good participation, many candidates. Orderly queues, waiting hours if need be….It is a most promising start for a new future. The people are participating in very large numbers in an orderly, free and fair election and that is the most important thing…

"The march to democracy has started. These are the first fruits of our revolution of January 25. It is time to celebrate. But it is also time to pay homage to the dead and wounded who made this possible. The fallen must never be forgotten," Ismail Serageldin, a distinguished Egyptian intellectual, Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and formerly a Vice President of the World Bank, told IDN via email.

The first round of elections to the lower house of parliament, known as the People's Assembly, was held on November 28 and 29. Complete results were not available at the time of writing (December 3) because, as Al Jazeera reported quoting election officials, only a small number of candidates won outright. Others failed to reach the required minimum of 50 percent. Runoffs will therefore be held shortly.

Already, however, representatives of political parties who have been monitoring the voting and conducting exit polls, see an emerging trend of an ascendant Freedom and Justice Party (FJP),  the political arm of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, followed by the Salafist Al Nour, a conservative Islamist group and, trailing behind them, the liberal-secular Egyptian Bloc.

The People's Assembly will consist of 508 members, 498 elected by the people and 10 appointed by the president. Members will serve five-year terms. A key responsibility in the coming months will be to choose a 100-member constitutional council to draft the country’s post-dictatorship constitution.

Highest Turnout

Egypt's parliamentary elections are held in three rounds as there are insufficient judges to monitor all the polling stations in the country simultaneously. The first round of elections to the People's Assembly will be followed by two more rounds on December 14 and January 3, 2012. Forty seven political parties, some of them loose-knit coalitions of like-minded groups, are fielding over 6000 candidates in all.

A second three round election will be held from January 29 to March 11, 2012 to select the 270 members of Egypt's upper house, the Shura Council. The country's new president is to be elected in June.

Even at this stage, however, with elections far from complete, reaction within Egypt to the transition, long drawn out as it is, from a dictatorship to a democracy grounded in the will of the people, is one of great enthusiasm.

Serageldin captures that spirit when he says:

"The wide spread of political ideas represented in the election campaign is great. Democracy is about pluralism, and pluralism is about differences of views. The point is to settle these differences through the ballot box, not by confrontation in the streets. Egypt needs us all…."

Some 62 percent of eligible voters (over 8 million people) participated in the first round. Compare this with voter turnout in US federal elections of 56.8 percent in 2008 and 37.1 percent in 2006.

"This is the highest turnout in Egypt's history since pharaonic times until now," said Abdel Moez Ibrahim, the head of Egypt's Elections High Commission.

No Women Elected

A successful post-dictatorship election (assuming it will be) does not resolve all the issues that inspired Egypt's pro-freedom revolution. For instance, while there have been no indications or allegations of malpractice by election officials, the election process itself has caused some unhappiness among younger voters because officials who were in charge of holding elections in the past continue to be managing the process even now.

This negative mood is aggravated by concerns that the military who are still calling the shots will try every trick in the book, and some that are not in the book, to perpetuate their power, leaving the elected parliament to function as a powerless talking shop.

If the current electoral trend is confirmed by final results – and most observers, local and foreign are convinced that it will be – that is bound to discourage liberal-secularists who were in the vanguard of the movement that toppled Mubarak.

Women, in particular, who found new roles for themselves in the pro-democracy movement, must necessarily be concerned that a conservative government might want to introduce and enforce laws that give women a subservient place in society. They cannot find comfort in (unconfirmed) reports that no women were elected in the first round.

Reaching Out

Countering these"amber warning signs" on Egypt's political pathway is the fact that the FJP and its originator, the Muslim Brotherhood, said throughout the election campaign that their goal is to create a free, secular state. Much now depends on the extent to which they govern by that assurance.

The Muslim Brotherhood knows that it has achieved a high level of acceptance in society partly as compensation for the suffering it endured under the Mubarak regime, and also because of the social and economic support it provided the poor through efficient and effective networks of health clinics, schools, and other social services.

Expectations of systemic expansion and improvement among those who benefited from these services will be high. This, at a time when Egypt is trying to climb back to the annual GDP growth rate of 7 percent it achieved before it felt the impact of global recession. So this is not a time for ideology but for ideas that can generate action.

It is a time for consensus building and a time for reaching out to combine the various strands of the country’s substantial human resources. The world saw what they could achieve together, during the January revolution. But uniting is not going to be easy, particularly after a hard-fought election.

Changing Course

Internationally, it will be difficult for governments and institutions that played footsie with Mubarak's dictatorship and sustained it, all in the name of "stability," to change course and move into a realistic relationship, based on mutual interests, with a new, post-Mubarak government.

The Government of Israel, already isolated, and now reportedly building a barrier along the Sinai border, will be concerned that Egypt could reject existing bilateral agreements in spite of the assurance by the Muslim Brotherhood and other political entities that they will not.

The US in particular will face tough challenges ahead. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton considered Mubarak a "family friend", she told Al Arabiya in 2009. She will now have to forge a new kind of friendship with whoever becomes her potential partner in the next Egyptian government.

The US Government has poured billions of dollars into Egypt since the Camp David accords were signed. Most of those aid funds went to Egypt’s armed services. Can the US Government and, in particular, the military, find an effective means of using that relationship as leverage to ensure that the Egyptian military does not stand in the way of genuine progress?

Then, of course, there is the brooding, "1000-lb gorilla" encircling the US-Egypt relationship: the issue of Palestinian rights and security. Any government that is created by the will of the people will be supportive of the Palestinian cause. That new reality has to be understood and appreciated. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta's recent assertion that Israel must “get to the damn table” is a small but well noted first step.

Free and Just Society

With the elections now in progress, Egypt has launched a process of significance to itself, to the region, and to the international community. Whether that process results in the creation of a new and just society will depend very much on the Egyptians themselves. They have, throughout the revolution that tragically took so many lives but dislodged the jackboot of dictatorship, managed their affairs with dedication and skill. There is no reason why they should not continue to manage their post-revolution process in similar fashion.

But, given the world's interdependence, they cannot possibly succeed entirely on their own. They will need and deserve all the support they can muster. [IDN-InDepthNews – December 4, 2011]

Ernest Corea's previous IDN articles:

Picture: Collage of election pictures | Credit: Carnegie Endowment

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