Monday, November 28, 2011

Egyptians Go to the Polls

by Rick Moran

Egyptians will go to the polls on Monday to take the first of several steps in voting for a new parliament. Up to 30 million of the nation’s 50 million eligible voters may take part in what one Western observer is calling a needlessly “complicated, contradictory and non-transparent” process. And with the threat of violence hanging over the election, it is believed by most observers that any reduction in turnout will almost certainly help the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

The bewildering array of dozens of political parties will field up to 7,000 candidates for the 498-member “People’s Assembly,” or lower house of the new parliament. Further elections in January will fill out the upper house, or Shura Council, with the voting for a new president sometime after that.

With thousands of young Egyptians occupying Tahrir Square, there is fear that violence may break out once again. Thousands of protestors were injured last week while 42 died in street clashes with the military. Although relative peace reigned in the square over the weekend, there is no guarantee that the youthful demonstrators won’t take out their frustration at what they see as a corrupt process by trying to stop the election from going forward. Their demands are simple; no elections until there is an end to military rule and the transfer of power to a civilian council to guide the country through the transition to democracy. There is no chance of that happening — not with the Muslim Brotherhood cautiously backing the military’s plan for parliamentary elections.

Indeed, after initially backing the protestors, the Brotherhood then pulled out of Tahrir Square and left it to the youthful demonstrators who organized the protests that overthrew Hosni Mubarak early this year. The young activists are calling for elections to be delayed until January, but the FJP is supporting the military’s position that the vote should go forward as planned. This has engendered some bitterness among activists who see the Brotherhood’s support of the military as a cynical move to assure that the largest percentage of the vote will fall to the Islamist group.

“Even without Tahrir, there are a million ways this could be a disaster,” said one Western observer. He is hardly exaggerating. The vote will be held for two days — a twist only announced on the election commission’s Facebook page last Friday. The first round of voting will be for certain sections of the country only. The rest of the nation will vote on two days in December. There will also be runoff elections for those seats where no candidate receives a majority.

The ballot process itself is excruciatingly complex. As Joshua Hersh notes, “Once in the booth, voters will have to select a party list, as well as two independent candidates. If they do not choose two independents, their entire vote will be invalidated, a technicality that few voters seem to be aware of.”

The “party lists” are incredibly confusing:

Two-thirds of the assembly are elected using a complex, closed proportional list system via 46 multiseat districts, while the remaining third, or 166, of the members are elected via 83 two-seat constituencies. In both cases, half of the elected members must be classified as “workers and farmers” (see Eligibility, below).

Voters cast two ballots, the first for one candidate list of their choice, and the second for the two-seat constituency where they choose two candidates.

Needless to say, experienced international election observers are appalled. “If we had to do it over again, I think it would be better if the rules weren’t changing every day — even up to today,” said Les Campbell, an observer with the National Democratic Institute. Said another observer, “The larger problem is that many procedures for the actual conduct of the voting remain undefined and could be interpreted and implemented differently in every polling center.”

But most of the international observers are taking a hands-off approach. “I’ll let the Egyptians define what is legitimate or not. What we can do is amplify whatever that decision is. If the politicians are willing to compete, we should be willing to observe. But we will not pull punches on what we see,” said Campbell.

Consider also that voters are electing a parliament with no defined constitutional duties. Once parliament is seated sometime next January, members will select a committee to write a new constitution. No doubt the military will have a lot to say about the drafting of the document, as Chief of Staff Mohamed Hussein Tantawi has said that there will be “no change” in the role of the military in the new constitution. If Tantawi gets his way, it would mean that the Egyptian military would still have virtual immunity from scrutiny, as well as continued domination of the economy.

Significantly, the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have come down on the side of the military in trying to dismiss the Tahrir Square demonstrators. Tantawi upbraided the protestors, hinting that they were being manipulated by foreign powers. “None of this would have happened if there were no foreign hands. We will not allow a small minority of people, who don’t understand, to harm Egypt’s stability,” he said. The leader of the Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, echoed the junta’s line, saying, “There are powers inside and outside Egypt that don’t want stability for Egypt or development, and this is something that is being pushed and paid for,” he said.

How this cozying up to the military will affect the Brotherhood’s vote is unknown. If the turnout tops 50%, it is estimated by some that the FJP could receive as much as 35%-50% of the vote. But there is no track record to go on except for the vote in 2005 when the Brotherhood’s candidates ran as independents. At that point, it received 20% of the vote — a total it is sure to exceed this year.

Protecting the military’s economic interests, particularly in the Western-oriented tourist industry in which one in eight Egyptians work, means no radical changes will immediately take place, despite the fact that the Brotherhood has been promoting the idea of change during the campaign. It is a delicate balance and could mean that the FJP follows the example of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party in slowly adapting its Islamist agenda over a longer period of time.

As for other parties, the more secular and liberal parties are poorly organized and have little name recognition. Surprisingly, the prospects of Mubarak-era politicians in the countryside are better than one would expect. The Wall Street Journal quotes a candidate from one of the provinces saying, “Tribe, family, and religion-this is how people vote here.” The people have been voting for the Mubarak-era politicians for decades and will vote for them again because, like feudal lords, they dispense patronage and favors over their districts.

Whatever promise the future held in those giddy days following the departure of Hosni Mubarak​ has been strangled by the harsh reality of military rule and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Even if the country makes it through this torturous electoral process, the government that emerges from the confusion will be nothing like the activists and idealists who put their bodies on the line to oust a dictator imagined.

Rick Moran


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