One cheer for the Egyptian elections

The preliminary results of the first round of the elections in Egypt
for the new constituent assembly were both predictable and sobering.

The strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood was virtually inevitable.
They’ve had at least 30 years’ head start on almost everybody else
since being in effect decriminalized by Anwar Sadat. Their Freedom and
Justice Party is by far the best organized in the country.

Anyone surprised by this result has been sleeping through recent
Egyptian history.

Naturally, the liberal parties fared badly. For the most part they
barely campaigned at all and are fragmented into a dizzying array of

Secularists and liberals have not had time to create effective party
organizations that can actually win elections. However, they have a
far more onerous task ahead of them. The challenge facing Arab
liberals is to define an entirely new political orientation: a
contemporary Arab liberalism free from the stigma of supposedly
“secular” oppressive regimes.

This is inevitably going to take a great deal of time, effort and
public education. At present, post-dictatorship Arab liberalism is
largely defined by what it is against—Islamism and the old
regimes—rather than what it is for.

In Tunisia, the secular groups mainly focused their campaign on what
is bad about the Islamists rather than articulating a clear vision for
the future. In Egypt, most of the liberals barely bothered campaigning
at all, and much of their efforts in the immediate run-up to the
campaign focused on protests in Tahrir Square.

Not only did the Muslim Brotherhood consolidate their competitive
advantage during these last weeks by continuing to focus on the
election, they handled the protest movement skillfully.

By refusing to openly join the protesters but at the same time
strongly condemning the crackdown by the military, they projected an
image of being above the fray and more responsible than either the
military or the demonstrators. Meanwhile, they hedged their bets
slightly by not preventing a good deal of their youth from
participating in the protests, though without any official permission.

It’s not that this won them many new friends. On the contrary, some
people felt betrayed by their ambivalent position. But, crucially, it
didn’t make them many new enemies either. Those inclined to be angry
with the protesters, or with the military, or both, were unlikely to
see the Brotherhood as the chief culprits.

What is most troubling is that Salafist parties performed better than
expected, and they represent a religious extremism of an entirely
different order than the Brotherhood. They too have long-standing
networks that have been quickly transformed into ad hoc electoral
machines, which, along with significant foreign funding, especially
from the Gulf, translated into a deeply troubling success.

Unlike in Tunisia, where the electoral system was fairly
straightforward and people knew they were voting for an assembly that
will be in charge of writing the constitution, in Egypt much remains
profoundly murky. It is distinctly possible that Islamists have, in
fact, peaked too early, given that they have attained dominance in an
assembly with extremely limited powers.

According to the rules promulgated by the military authorities, which
are very controversial but remain definitive for now, the constitution
will be drafted by a 100-member body, in which the assembly will only
receive 20 seats. The assembly can only choose between candidates from
an array of other organizations for the other 80 seats.

Moreover, while the Brotherhood now insists on the right to form a
government, nothing in Egypt’s presidential system permits them to do
so. Egypt still has a presidency, which is in effect being exercised
by the military, and the Brotherhood is in a logical and political
bind because, by placing such an emphasis on the elections, in effect
it has confirmed the role of the military as the de facto president.

They can hardly, at least in the meantime, dismiss its authority on
other matters having upheld it in this most crucial function.

But the potential seeds of a confrontation with the military over
power have obviously been sown. The Brotherhood and its allies are
likely to strongly push for a shift toward a parliamentary system on
the grounds that they have won a mandate. They have certainly acquired
powerful new leverage, but the military remains enormously potent as

In June, I described a potential power-sharing agreement in Egypt
leaving the military in de facto control of defense and national
security, with a foreign policy-oriented presidency and a parliament
with broad powers in domestic affairs.

Nothing that has transpired since has altered my view that this is the
most likely and, indeed, optimistic scenario for the country.

So, it can only be one cheer for the Egyptian elections. In many ways
they are an important step forward, but the results are deeply
troubling, the legal and constitutional framework highly contentious,
and the path forward still very fraught and murky.