Sunday, December 4, 2011

Egypt goes to polls: Is democracy near?

Daily Sun
December 4th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Egyptians have started the process to elect 444 members of their lower house in parliament through a complicated system of election that is partly under the single constituency system (44 seats) but mostly under the proportional system (400 seats). The mathematics involved is complicated that most Egyptians do not fully understand.

Nevertheless, they have gone excitedly into it, at least the majority of them. The elections for the lower house first and then for the upper house would be staggered over the next three months. It would then be followed in the middle of next year with the Presidential elections to elect the successor of ousted President Hosne Mubarak’s successor whose 29 years’ absolute rule ended last February as part of what has been named Arab Spring that has seen dictators in Lebanon, Libya and Yemen also fall and others like Syria’s Bashir Asad in extreme pressure to relinquish power or be ousted.

The Egyptians have gone to a free and fair election for the first time in living memory. In fact the last free election was in 1952! Three decades under President Mubarak left Egyptians believing their deliverance from dictatorship would never end. It was the suicide of an unknown youth in Tunisia that set into motion forces to bring down dictatorships in the region with a domino effect that has sent President Mubarak to jail and opened great possibilities for Egypt.

However, the Egyptians are not sure, nor are outsiders watching the changes in Egypt, what shape the new political system emerging in Egypt would take as the military junta that assumed power after the fall of President Mubarak seem to have a few cards up their sleeve. The movement that brought down President Mubarak was a genuine one where people of all walks of life and profession, young and old, came together. Tahrir Square became synonymous with the desire of 80 million Egyptians to be free at last.

Just before the elections began, the military junta killed 42 people who had started a new round of movement, with Tahrir Square as their meeting point, to push the military junta out. The reason was the attitude of the military that wanted to have a major role in the system to replace the one left by President Mubarak. They have openly talking of the Turkish model or a new one in the new Egyptian political order to evolve.

The desires of those who gathered in the Arab streets in the days of the Arab Spring no doubt had the notions of replacing their dictatorial orders by democratic ones. Unfortunately for them, the dictators that they sought to replace had been in power too long who had systematically destroyed all the institutions except those that they needed to retain their power.

Thus when President Mubarak fell, all institutions except the military and security had been weakened and compromised. The parliament had been turned into a rubber stamp. The official political party of the President, the National Democratic Alliance, consisted of sycophants whose main duty was to sing the praise of the President. All other political parties and all forms of opposition were either disbanded or under constant threat of the security forces. Many Egyptians over the last 3 decades of Mubarak’s rule simply vanished into thin air after being nabbed by the security.

Thus after President Mubarak was removed, there were no political leaders or institutions except the military to take over the political mantle. Those who led the movement in Tahrir came together as individuals or loosely knit groups. The only political party that had succeeded in keeping itself together under President Mubarak, the Freedom and Democratic Party of the Muslim Brotherhood, knew that although they had roughly 20% of support among the Egyptians, they needed time and space to come to power because of the essential secular character of the majority of the Egyptians.

For these reasons, the military junta has managed to not just retain power but have maneuvered their position to be able to choose the time and date for the parliamentary and presidential elections. The military in Egypt has an advantage in addition to their strong organization against weak political groups/parties now vying for power. The Egyptian military has acceptability among the people. In fact, some of the heroes of modern Egypt have emerged from the military. The builder of modern Egypt Gamal Nasser for instance was a Colonel of the Egyptian Army. Hosne Mubarak too was an Egyptian hero having led his country’s Air Force in the 1973 war with Israel. So was Anwar Sadat but although he won a Noble Peace Prize, he lost credibility to Egyptians by signing the peace accord with Israel.

At this stage, it appears like in the elections, the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra conservative Salafis would emerge as the largest winners. The Muslim Brotherhood is likely to have a taste of political power. In anticipation of that, it stayed away from the latest agitation at Tahrir Square to overthrow the military just before the elections to keep the military happy because the latter’s credibility and future role in Egyptian politics would depend on successful transfer of power to an elected government.

The US has no doubt lost badly in Egypt as a consequence of the Arab Spring. There is little to no likelihood of another Hosne Mubarak emerging who would take up US’ and Israel’s case in the Arab world. Nevertheless, the US still provides the Egyptian military US$ 1.5 billion a year in aid and hence has great influence over it. The US’ has a few options to come into reckoning in the new political system in the process of emerging. First, it could back the military and encourage a major role for it in the new Egypt. Given the fact that the Egyptian military is almost completely pro-American in terms of its equipments and training of its officers cadre, a major role for the military in future politics of Egypt would serve US interests the best.

A second option for the US could be to work with the Islamic parties and mould them to consider the US as their best ally for developing the new Egypt. The US has accepted the recent elections in Tunisia where the moderate Islamic party Ennahda has won. The problem in backing the Islamic parties in Egypt who are like Ennahda would be in two areas. First, these parties are overtly anti-Israeli that they would project more if they come to power because it is also the sentiment in Egyptian and Arab streets. Second, the Islamic parties of Egypt have already offered the olive branch to Tehran that would run against the US’ strategy in the region.

The first option would be difficult to implement because the common Egyptians have come very strongly against the military. A predominant political role for the military in Egypt is a dream from the past that the Arab Spring has made irrelevant. The second option would align the US with the current mood in the Arab world and could earn back for the US the acceptance it lost under President Bush and with the pro-US dictators being pushed out of office by the Arab Spring. A solution of the Palestinian problem could take care of the anti-Israel stance and give the US renewed standing in the Arab world to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat in the second option.

However in an election year in the USA with President Obama under serious pressure as he seeks a second term, the chances of the US aligning with the Islamic forces are not good at all. The Israeli lobby and the Republicans would tie a knot around President Obama over it and drag him out of the White House. At the same time, a clear political alignment in Egypt would take the whole of 2010 to emerge. Till that happens, the US and the world would be looking at Egypt for answers.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

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