November 29, 2011

Egypt's Election: Battle Within the War

As Egypt’s recent violence gives way to the flow of Monday’s parliamentary election, jubilant and wary voters alike must remember the day as emblematic of their revolution. Only weeks ago many protesters were asking whether their sacrifices over the last 10 months had generated the appropriate level of change. Whether Egypt is experiencing a revolution at all remains a periodic topic of debate, but a hardened core of protesters refuse to listen and finally defied the army to the point of reaction.

Monday’s record turnout and peaceful atmosphere serve as a beacon for darker days ahead. Revolutions ebb and flow through their cycle, often reversing before progressing again, and an uprising only ends when the people give up.

The relatively smooth processing of Egypt’s first free parliamentary election in 30 years seems to have impressed everyone involved. Voters waited patiently (and impatiently) for hours as lines refused to shrink; turnout is being predicted above 70%, out of an estimated 50 million registered voters. Limited reports of violence and irregularities failed to mar the election’s results and festive mood, while the Muslim Brotherhood’s illegal campaigning won’t boost its figures above normal. Given that Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) refused to step down and can only be removed by violent action, participating and securing the limited power available represents a suitable alternative.

Many Egyptians still see more practicality in voting than protesting in Tahrir, even if the actions in Tahrir work as a check on the SCAF.

Revolutionaries will find the developing outcome useful to their advance if they respond accordingly. Egyptians are enthusiastically casting their ballots in what they consider to be the first free election in three decades, and this overflowing democratic spirit must be bottled. Media accounts, foreign and domestic, ooze with passion. Some Egyptians admit to never voting, the female turnout is reportedly huge, and only a small percentage appear to be voting due to a potential fine. The consistent knock on Tahrir’s protesters, whether from nearby residents or the SCAF, is that one square doesn’t represent Egypt as a whole. True or not, Monday’s election possesses a national reach and drew millions of inactive Egyptians into the political process. This participation should strengthen the country’s new democratic foundation.

“We did not expect the high turnout," explained Abdul Moez Ebrahim, chief of the independent commission tasked with arranging the election.

Fears of an MB sweep also appear exaggerated; the group is likely to bank 30-40% of the vote. Although the Brotherhood and its allies would be left as the leading bloc in a plurality, Egypt’s secular parties hold an electoral mandate to challenge the Brotherhood. Christians also turned out in big numbers to counter the influence of Islamist parties, a positive development in Egypt’s long-term growth. Furthermore, some Egyptians and observers believe that the Brotherhood’s heightened organization represents the most feasible option to evict the SCAF.

The fact remains that Egypt’s protesters distrust the Brotherhood’s intentions, but these forces may subconsciously operate on the same side.

Monday’s immediate obstacle still stands: interaction between parliament and the SCAF. None of the council’s political proposals, which designated significant power to author a new constitution, have been resolved and the SCAF is bent on leveraging secrecy to maintain its authority. The SCAF refused to bow to protesters’ demands, instead poking them in the eye by promoting Kamal Ganzouri, a former prime minister under Mubarak, to his old position. The opposition is expected to clash with Ganzouri over a new constitution and many other legal reforms dealing with ex-Mubarak officials.

Monday’s rousing election has already sowed the seeds of future conflict. While many Egyptians dissociate themselves from Tahrir Square’s perceived radicalism and continue to lean on the SCAF, the council will keep a tight grip on power until forced to relinquish. Parliament has no authority over the SCAF; many political misdeeds may occur between now and mid-2102, when Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi pledged to transfer Egypt’s executive control to civilian authority. Some Egyptians also openly admit to being uninformed about candidates and parties, and participation can become a dangerous act without awareness.

Capitalizing directly on its relatively stable sympathy, the SCAF wasted no time flaunting its true colors. Amid glowing headlines from state, national and foreign media, SCAF members have deployed to soak up credit for Monday’s success. On top of spinning the record turnout as a refutation of Tahrir, the SCAF is busy comparing Monday to the first three days of the Yom Kippur War.

"When we plan, we execute and, at the end, we succeed," Maj. Gen. Ismail Etman, a member of the ruling military council. "The armed forces pulled off this election like they pulled off the crossing in 1973.”

Equally suspicious, Monday’s election was vigorously approved by the Obama administration, which backed the SCAF throughout the protesters’ latest standoff. The White House would surely beg to differ, believing itself to be positioned on the right side of Egypt since January, but measured condemnation of Tantawi says otherwise. Any sincere transfer of power involving a friendly regime is suspect to doubt. Given parliament’s weak authority, the SCAF and Washington have no reason to influence Monday’s election.

The term “free” remains conditional.

Committed revolutionaries await Monday and Tuesday’s results with mixed feelings, welcoming Egypt’s enthusiasm but incurably suspicious of the SCAF. Through increased organization and integration with the wider population, Egypt’s revolutionary movement can stay active and relevant in the ongoing political transition. Whether cleared or packed, Tahrir’s space is vital to maintaining momentum and venting opposition.

Protesters and non-protesters must realize their symbiotic nature. Both need each other to create a new democratic era in Egypt.


  1. You add a timely note of caution, James. Even revolutions have to compromise. The Egyptian nation may be lucky in the compromises to be reached between the Brotherhood and military. I hope they are. But it will take years before the mist clears and the landscape can be mapped.I would only add that I don't think a civil war is brewing in the way I think it is in Libya.

  2. It is always calm before the storm.
    I doubt the military will just fade away.
    The Brotherhood will want their say.
    outside forces have been hard at work.
    Israel also has a lot to gain/lose from this election.
    U.S. and its 1.3 billion $ a year in mostly military aid is also in play.

  3. The protesters' must find a way to integrate with Egypt's entire society; compromise should be used as a stepping stone towards ideal revolutionary goals.

    The MB and Salafi's estimated 65% win-share could prove counterproductive, as the groups might obstruct secular opposition and attract deeper U.S.-Israeli influence. Getting the SCAF out before 2012 is the next stage of Egypt's lengthy revolution. I'm still optimistic long-term, but some protesters don't seem to understand the protracted nature of revolution.