Egyptians Take to the Polls

November 28, 2011

Today, Egyptians went to the polls for the first time since the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak in February. Reports suggest high turn-out and few problems. Elections will continue in two rounds for the next four months. The complex process is only one of the challenges on Egypt’s path towards democratization highlighted by last week’s violence and controversy over the extent and length of the interim military government’s rule.  Political Islam, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, is expected to do very well in the election – as has been the case in Tunisia and Morocco. The United States and the West face a twin challenge:  learning to work with political Islam, as we have in Turkey and Iraq, while holding such parties to their secular, democratic commitments and affirming our own.

Three-stage, multi-month voting in Egypt opens smoothly. Al Jazeera reports today: “Egyptians have started casting their ballots in the first parliamentary elections since former president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular uprising earlier this year. Voters on Monday are choosing 168 of the 498 deputies, which will form the new lower house of parliament. The vote is only the first stage in an election timetable which lasts until March 2012 and covers two houses of parliament.” Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Steven Cook explains the lengthy electoral process: “[G]iven the history of Egyptian elections, there has been an opposition demand, that predated the uprising, for judges to supervise each and every polling station. There are 9,000 judges and there are 27,000 polling places, which are actually too few. And as a result, they need to hold elections and run-offs in different stages. So you will have three stages of the People’s Assembly elections between November 28th … and early January. And then you will start having the upper house of the parliament, the Shura Council, the Consultative Council, held in three stages beginning in — January 29th, lasting through — through the middle of March. That’s why this takes as long as it has.” Marc Lynch, professor at George Washington University, writes, “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 polling stations. Those are good problems to have… 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.” [Al Jazeera, 11/28/11. Steven Cook, 11/21/11. Marc Lynch, 11/28/11]

Egypt faces complex challenges of which elections only one facet. Marc Lynch notes that “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.” Last week’s demonstrations and government crackdown, over the issue of how much power, and for how long, the interim military government will wield, highlight another challenge that Egyptians, and their newly-elected representatives, will face.  [Marc Lynch, 11/28/11]

Muslim Brotherhood expected to lead in polls, as political Islam likely to play a role in the new Middle East. The New York Times reports that, “The Muslim Brotherhood, the group that defined Islamist politics, was poised to win a dominant role in the Parliament of the country that for nearly six decades was the paradigmatic secular dictatorship of the Arab world. The Brotherhood’s new Freedom and Justice Party [FJP] was by far the best organized.” This has long been expected, as Lynch explains, “There’s no great secret to the FJP’s likely success. After years of electoral participation, and with a large, disciplined organization and significant financial resources, the Muslim Brotherhood has a very effective campaign machine. It has been organizing in the field for many months, at a time when most of its competitors were not. It has been carefully selecting candidates, holding rallies, constructing a Get Out the Vote machine, hanging banners, and doing all the things which political parties which want to win votes are supposed to do.”

Brian Katulis, Middle East expert and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, explained in Congressional testimony earlier this year that “The notion that Islamism and democracy are fundamentally incompatible is outdated and needs to be tested as does the idea that Islamism represents an ideological challenge akin to that of communism during the Cold War.” He further explains, “we should understand that we are entering a period where we’re going to have to live and deal with political Islam in many different forms. And we’ve already done this. I need to remind people that some of the leading political parties in the Iraqi government, which we’ve supported for the past several years, are Islamist parties. Some of our best allies in key countries, like Turkey, come from these sorts of roots.” The United States and the West will face the challenge of accepting the outcome of democratic elections while holding parties to their commitments, and affirming our commitment to democratic norms, tolerance and inclusion. [NY Times, 11/28/11. Brian Katulis, 4/6/11. Brian Katulis, 8/25/11]

What We’re Reading

The NATO air attack that killed at least two dozen Pakistani soldiers over the weekend reflected that the tactics of war can easily undercut the broader strategy that leaders of both countries say they share.

The Afghan government identified 18 new areas where Afghan troops will soon take over security responsibilities from the NATO coalition, putting about half the country’s population under the lead of Afghan forces.

Iran voted to expel Britain’s ambassador to Tehran and threatened his mission with a reprise of the 1979 hostage crisis.

The Arab League deepened Syria’s international isolation by imposing a battery of economic sanctions meant to sever most trade and investment from the Arab world, an unprecedented step against a member state.

Yemen’s vice president issued a decree assigning a veteran independent politician to form a national unity government, part of the power transfer deal signed by the president last week.

Armed men attacked voting centers and a truck carrying ballots, leaving at least five people dead in this massive nation long pummeled by war as Congo went ahead with an election that could drag the country back into conflict.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Asia will include Burma – the first U.S. secretary of state to visit in more than fifty years. Clinton will test the waters to see how committed Burma’s new leader is to reforms.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sternly warned the West not to interfere in Russia’s elections, as he launched his campaign to reclaim the presidency in a speech before thousands of flag-waving supporters.

European leaders will continue this week to slowly hammer out new structural measures to shore up the euro currency zone, but market confidence among investors already showed signs of crumbling.

Suspected Islamic militants detonated a powerful bomb that killed at least three people and wounded 27 others in a budget hotel packed with wedding guests in the southern Philippines.

Commentary of the Day

Leslie H. Gelb argues that the Republican Party is losing its grip on international reality and its foreign policy hold on American voters.

Marc Lynch examines the Arab Spring and asks, do the Middle East’s revolutions have a unifying ideology?

Tony Blair states that a new approach to international aid must be implemented and it will require building on the success of aid, broadening our thinking beyond aid to strengthen states and markets, and developing a new set of global relationships to tackle global issues.

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