Daniel Brumberg, a senior adviser in USIP’s Center for Conflict Management, analyzes the implications of Egypt’s ongoing parliamentary elections, which began this week.

December 5, 2011

Daniel Brumberg, a senior adviser in USIP’s Center for Conflict Management, analyzes the implications of Egypt’s ongoing parliamentary elections, which began this week.

What is the significance for Egypt of the ongoing parliamentary elections in Egypt?

It is no exaggeration to say that these are the first relatively free parliamentary elections in Egypt since the late President Anwar al-Sadat initiated his “political opening” in 1974. There have been numerous parliamentary elections since then, beginning in 1976, but these were all controlled elections whose ultimate purpose was to help prop up what I have called Egypt’s “liberalized autocracy.” The current elections, by contrast, take place against a region-wide political rebellion that began in Tunisia and moved quickly eastward to Egypt in January, thus resulting in the departure of former President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11, 2011. The subsequent intervention and its very qualified but still significant support for a process of political reform creates the possibility that the current election could be the first in a long process of substantive political change, one that in time will shift real power and authority to an elected assembly. If the latter should indeed occur, this election—which will unfold in phases from this week until mid-March 2012—could turn out to be the beginning of a democratic transition.

What are the primary obstacles to this coming election serving as the point of departure for a wider political transformation? There are several obstacles, one originating from within the state, and the other from within society. In terms of the state, the primary obstacle is the continuing efforts of the military – as represented by the Supreme Council of the Military or “SCAF” – to structure the political reform process in general, and the upcoming constitution-writing process in particular – in a manner that will protect its role as the ultimate “guardian” of the political system. Towards this end, the military has favored a revised electoral law that will probably create a fragmented parliament, or at the very least, one that will contain a plethora of independents, many of whom might be aligned with the previous ruling party. Under these conditions, the military would maintain its role as a kind of arbiter of the political system, even if in formal terms, it “retreats” to the barracks. Whether such a goal is shared by all 20 members of the SCAF is not clear. But twice the SCAF has issued a set of “supra-constitutional principles” that seemed designed, in part, to buttress its corporate interests and influence, particularly during –but perhaps also beyond—the upcoming period during which a new parliament will select a special committee to revise the constitution.

Indeed, when members of the military suggested that the military would appoint up to 80 members of this 100-member constitution-writing committee, they sparked widespread concerns among many of the key parties, and within the wider society. Such concerns were further magnified by the military’s decision to hold presidential elections in 2013 rather than in 2012, as was initially agreed. Taken together, these positions provoked the revival of mass protests in Tahrir Square. The subsequent violent repression by the security forces of the protestors attests to the determination of the military to make sure that nothing gets in the way of a reform process that the military is doing its best to define, or at least confine.

As for the societal obstacles, one of the largest is the persistent split between Islamists and non-Islamists – and in particular, the secular forces and Coptic-Christians, who make up a crucial part of the non-Islamist camp. Fearing that an Islamist electoral victory might produce an assembly that would undermine the freedoms of non-Islamists, several of the key non-Islamist groups initially looked to the military to protect their interests. The military was happy to exploit their fears to justify its proposed “supra-constitutional principles.” But in so doing, it provoked a split within the non-Islamist camp between those who were ready to support a tacit kind of alliance with the military and those who totally rejected any effort to impose “conditions” on the transition to democracy.

Meanwhile, the strongest and most well organized political force, the Muslim Brethren, initially supported the revival of protests in Tahrir. Then they negotiated a compromise agreement with the military that provided for presidential elections no later than June 2012, and the appointment of a new prime minister and new cabinet. This agreement assured that elections would take place, but they also further widened the Islamist and non-Islamist divide. Absent a credible effort by legitimate leaders from both the Islamist and non-Islamist political parties to heal this wound, and to define a common vision of political reform, the army will continue to wield influence, and the resulting parliament will be weakened by its divisions. Such a development could undercut the vital process of revising Egypt’s constitution in the coming year.

What are the regional and global implications of the elections?

Egypt is the largest and most powerful Arab state. Therefore, what happens in this important country will resonate throughout the region. A failure to advance a reasonably coherent and peaceful transition could discourage democratic forces elsewhere, while it could embolden authoritarian elites to resist demands for change. Conversely, some measure of success in Egypt could offer symbolic and psychological encouragement during a period of increasing conflict generated, in part, by the drive for political change in Syria and Yemen. In those two countries, the hopes generated by the Arab Spring have given way to a very cold Arab Winter. If Egypt can defy predictions of growing internal dissension, it will signal hope, even for these two more difficult cases. Finally, if the Muslim Brethren and its affiliated Freedom and Justice Party win a significant plurality of votes, such a victory will surely encourage other Islamist parties to demand change. With Morocco’s Justice and Development Party having just secured roughly a third of the parliamentary seats, and with the Nahda Party taking the lead in the formation of a democratically elected cabinet after its recent electoral victory in Tunisia, it certainly appears that democratization is going hand in hand with the increasing power of Islamist parties throughout the region.

Will the results of the first round of elections further widen the gap between Islamists and non-Islamists?

The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political wing of the Muslim Brethren, appears to have won some 40 percent of the vote. The more conservative Salifi Movement, represented by the Nour Party, took a surprising – perhaps shocking—22%. On first blush, this would seem like a crushing Islamist victory, one that would make it temping for secular forces to turn to the military for cover. Knowing this, the leaders of the FJP have thus far suggested that they will not seek an alliance with the Nour Party. Indeed, some members of the FJP have suggested allying with the liberals, who took approximately 16% of the vote. Thus, paradoxically, the split in the Islamist camp might invite an Islamist-non/Islamist alliance. This might be preferable, since absent such an alliance, many secular leaders may feel that they have no choice but to look to the military as a guarantee of a “democratic consensus.”

What implications could such a trend have for the Arab-Israeli peace process and for U.S. regional influence?

Inevitably, democratization will compel elected leaders to take into account public opinion in shaping regional and global policies. The influence of public opinion under autocracies was not completely negligible, but it hardly figured as a structured part of foreign policymaking because governments were not held accountable by the populace. Any democratically elected government in Egypt will be bound to revisit Egypt’s regional and global policies, particularly if such a government is led by the Freedom and Justice Party. This will certainly make the Israelis nervous, given that Egypt’s peace treaty is central to Israel’s security and to its overall geo-strategy.

What about the U.S. and its allies?

The U.S. also will find itself confronted by a government that will feel compelled to indulge a populist hand. Such a dynamic has been well underway since the “Egyptian Revolution,” stoked in part by a military trying to secure its domestic legitimacy by tolerating –if not encouraging—some measure of anti-U.S. feelings. However, even if the incentives for continuing along this path remain, we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that a democratically elected government will set the stage for conflict with Israel, or for a kind of cold war with the U.S. Egypt’s military receives some $1.3 billion in U.S. aid per year, and will not tolerate changes that endanger this support. Moreover, it has no interest in allowing for a further deterioration of the security situation in Sinai, a development that could open the door to mistakes and possibly an unwanted military collision with Israel. Finally, once in office, Islamist leaders will be responsible to the electorate for their policies.

The most pressing concern of the voters – as always – is economic. Egypt’s newly elected leaders – many of whom are Islamist professionals and businessmen with roots in the private sector – will inherit an escalating economic crisis marked first and foremost by the near collapse of the tourism industry. These actors cannot afford—quite literally – to ignore the economic challenges in favor of populist adventurism. Moreover, many of these leaders – including prominent Islamist elites – will for the very first time have an opportunity to demonstrate to the U.S. and its Western allies their legitimacy on the domestic, regional and global fronts. U.S. foreign policy must prove nimble and subtle enough to respond to this challenge.

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