Watching Egypt’s Elections

May 24, 2012

Today marks the second day of voting in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential vote. A pause to contemplate the tumultuous fifteen months since Tahrir Square reveals significant democratic progress: an elected legislature, a competitive election viewed as clean, a military apparently sticking to the timetable for transition – even some weakening in the popularity of more extreme groups. If no single candidate receives a clear majority, a runoff is expected in mid-June between the top two contenders. Much work remains and the transition to democracy remains incomplete, but the enthusiastic embrace of this week’s election by the Egyptian people is a positive sign.

Egyptians take to the polls, excited about democratic process. The New York Times reports, “In scenes unthinkable at any other time in this country’s vast history, millions of Egyptians waited patiently in long lines when polls opened on Wednesday, often holding scraps of cardboard against the desert sun, debating with their neighbors which of the five leading contenders deserved their vote… The authorities have declared Thursday a holiday to permit public sector workers to vote. If no candidate gets an outright majority, there will be a runoff between the two top vote-getters in June. Some reports suggested that the initial turnout on Thursday was lower than the day before, but the numbers could build during the day. After 15 months of street protests, economic crisis and rampant lawlessness, the novelty of an uncertain outcome seemed for a moment to revive the sense of momentum and hope. The military council that has governed since President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster has pledged to step aside with the election of a president by the end of June, allowing Egyptians at last a chance to determine their own future after decades of authoritarian rule.” Kate Seeyle, vice president of the Middle East Institute, writes, “The campaign witnessed many firsts for long-alienated Egyptians, including the participation of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and a televised debate between two of the front-runners that drew the kind of huge, captivated audience normally reserved for soccer matches between Egypt’s two favorite teams, Al-Ahly and Al-Zamalek.” [NY Times, 5/24/12. Kate Seelye, 5/24/12]

What’s on Egyptian voters’ minds? Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, outlines the top issues: “The economy. The leading concern among most voters is the continued economic crisis, and most candidates have offered promises to alleviate the high unemployment and inflation. But none of the platforms address the full range of pressures Egypt is facing from public-sector debt, a currency crisis, and the need to comprehensively tackle large budget items such as energy and food subsidies. The campaigns have made a number of promises without presenting coherent plans with credible budget numbers. Security and law and order. Another leading concern is law and order. The continued clashes in the streets, combined with anecdotal evidence of increasing violent crime, has raised new questions about the security forces and the police. Recent clashes in front of the Ministry of Defense building in the Abbasiya neighborhood in Cairo reinforced the concerns about continued disorder and also raised new questions of whether civilian oversight of the security establishment is possible. Islam and Egypt’s new government. A third overarching issue in the election debate relates to the overall identity and nature of Egypt and its political system…” The leading candidates include elements of the Mubarak regime including a former prime minster and a former foreign minister and general secretary of the Arab League; a moderate and a conservative Islamist; and a Nasserist. [Brian Katulis, 5/23/12]

Moment to celebrate Egyptians’ persistence, significant movement toward democracy. While daily coverage has tended to highlight challenges, Marc Lynch of CNAS and George Washington University steps back to sum up the positives: “Egypt now has an elected Parliament, which has underperfomed in some ways but does enjoy real electoral legitimacy. The Presidential election is hotly contested by mostly non-disastrous leading candidates in which the outcome is very much unknown.  Politics, as predicted, has shifted mostly from the streets to the ballot box, and election fever has gripped the country.  The military still seems intent on carving out its own empire within the state, but has consistently refused abundant opportunities to postpone the transfer of power to an elected government.  Islamists, after sweeping Parliamentary elections, seem to be losing some ground with the public in part through their own political mistakes (such as fielding a presidential candidate after promising not to do so and poorly managing the Parliament they won).  Former regime fullul [remnants of the old regime] were wiped out in those same elections, and remain on the defensive.  Could it be that Egypt’s disastrous transition might still end up pretty much okay?…  The election fever on the Egyptian street demonstrates the general legitimacy of the process and a popular desire to get on with the transition — and will invest the eventual winner with real legitimacy with which to challenge the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces], should he choose to do so.” [Marc Lynch, 5/22/12]

Work remains to be done and the transition remains incomplete.  Seelye writes, “A host of critical challenges will await the next president, chief among them reviving the economy, creating jobs, ensuring internal security, and restoring trust and confidence in governmental institutions. Curiously, though, the next leader will have to start this process not knowing what powers the presidency actually has in relation to the parliament or the armed forces.”  And as Katulis explains, “Even after a new president is sworn into office, however, Egypt’s political transition will remain incomplete. Egypt faces unresolved debates over plans for a new constitution and continued questions about whether Egypt’s military rulers will give up power over their budget. The military’s control of key sectors of the economy will make Egypt’s political transition incomplete even after a new president is sworn into office and negotiations over power will thus continue to unfold for years to come.” [Kate Seelye, 5/24/12.  Brian Katulis, 5/23/12]

Supporting democracy means supporting the results of a democratic process. Widespread support for democratic transition in the Middle East has swept through both sides of the aisle in American politics. Now, Americans must move past the habit of embracing democracy only to reject its results. As Lynch writes, “Some outcomes would be better than others, from my point of view, but Americans (including me) need to accept that supporting democracy means being willing to accept the choice of the Egyptian public. It’s just incredibly exciting to see a meaningful Egyptian election, in which nobody knows who will win and the outcome really matters.” How the new president governs will be the true test. [Marc Lynch, 5/22/12]

 What We’re Reading

World powers and Iran are wrapping up talks in Baghdad with no deal in sight but positive signs of agreement on another round of talks.

The opposition Syrian National Council has accepted the resignation of its president, setting the stage for a showdown over who will be the new leader.

Thousands of Somali citizens fled a region north of Mogadishu amid advancing government and allied troops.

U.S. State Department cyber experts successfully hacked into websites being used by al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen.

Pakistan says that a U.S. drone strike killed 7 to 10 suspected militants in northwest Pakistan.

Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will travel outside Burma for the first time in 24 years to deliver a speech at an international forum in Thailand.

European Union leaders urged Greece to complete the reforms demanded under its bailout program, as Eurozone nations ponder contingency plans in case Greece decides to quit.

The Norwegian right-wing extremist who admitted to killing 77 people in a massacre will not appeal the verdict if an Oslo court deems him sane.

The Honduran police executed a major drug raid that recovered a half ton of cocaine.

The two major drug cartels in Mexico are engaging in an all-out war, killing each other and innocent civilians alike.

 Commentary of the Day

The Baltimore Sun editorial board urges President Obama to heed calls for deeper cuts to the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Michael Tomasky explains how the debate over the Law of the Sea treaty is the latest example of a trend of Republicans bucking the Pentagon.

Abdullah Gul asserts Turkey will not refrain from taking on new responsibilities.


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