Jul 3rd 2012

Egypt's Elections:Lessons and the Way Forward

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) Chair Farouk Sultan's nearly interminable announcement of the outcome of Egypt's presidential election tested his nation's patience. Twitter commentary on his speech's almost mind-numbing detail, while hilarious, masked an underlying nervousness that this was but an effort to wear everyone down preparing the ground for the announcement that the winner was, in fact, General Ahmed Shafik. The speech was an over-wrought defense of the work of the Court. It was also a testy rebuttal of earlier attacks delivered by the Muslim Brotherhood. And it was boring. At one point, I thought that decades from now, we might forget who won the election, but we would never forget Farouk Sultan's speech.

In hindsight, I believe there might have been a logic to Sultan's endless detail. This was, after all, Egypt's first truly democratically contested presidential election. And so his report of incorrect counts, faulty ballots, etc, could be seen as a reminder of the fact that in a democracy elections are always messy affairs. As the old adage goes "elections are like sausage-making. You don't want to see how they're made, but they taste delicious.” We don't see the mess in a landslide, but in close contests, the errors born of petty (and not so petty) corruption and human error become all too evident—remember Florida's "hanging chads" in 2000, or Ohio's Diebold machine malfunctions in 2004.

This was, by any measure, a close contest. Here, too, the SCC's report was a useful reminder of the deep, nationwide divisions in the Egyptian electorate. In the end, one-half of eligible Egyptians voted, and little more than one-half of them chose Mohammed Morsi to lead them. And it is important to note that not all of Morsi's votes came from supporters of the Brotherhood—many came from those who were quite simply voting against Shafik and the military. So too, many of those who voted for Shafik, were in fact casting a vote against the Brotherhood.

Even those wary of a Muslim Brotherhood win, must acknowledge that history has been made in this openly competitive contest. President-elect Morsi will now occupy the seat once held by Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak—but with a difference. If this is to work, there can be no new Pharaoh, nor will the Generals be able to exercise unfettered control—by themselves, or through a surrogate. Morsi now has a mandate to govern. But he would be wise to proceed with caution.

There are two essential components to making a democracy work—both involving a recognition of the reality of divisions in society. The losing side, despite their bitter disappointment, must accept the legitimacy of the outcome, and the winning side must accept the reality and legitimate rights of the losing side.

These are the hard tests of democracy and real challenges lay ahead. If we look closely at this election, and indeed everything that has transpired since February of 2011, we can see that Egypt's nascent democracy is still a work in progress. There are clearly two poles in the contest for power—and an emergent third pole in the making.

On the one side there is the Muslim Brotherhood, a powerful national movement, an effective provider of services, and a now proven vote-getter. On the other side is the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the elements of Egyptian society they represent. They too have demonstrated that they have supporters and have the capacity to organize. The revolutionary youth remain a potent force, but have recognized their electoral limitations and have embarked on a five-year organizing plan.

In any case, the shape of Egypt's new democracy will be determined by the interplay between these poles—with no one group being able to claim it represents all Egyptians, or even all those who voted for them in the last election (democracy being a fickle mistress). It is advisable, therefore, that both sides approach this next stage with a degree of humility and that neither side over-reach—as they unfortunately have in the recent past.

The Muslim Brotherhood set off alarm bells when they tried to exercise too much control, too soon, in Parliament and in the selection of the body that was to write the new Constitution. They then compounded their over-reach when they broke their earlier pledge not to field a presidential candidate and were seen as trying to control everything. This was seen as a step too far. One party control can be a problem in an established and divided democracy, like the United States. How much more so, in an emergent democracy.

For its part, the SCAF created deep concern when, in reaction to the Brotherhood's over-reach, they suspended Parliament and then issued the Supplementary Constitutional Decrees stripping the powers of the presidency and establishing their role as final arbiters of the Constitution.

At this point after the election, the two main established poles of power in Egypt are what they have been all along—the Brotherhood and the SCAF. The military will seek to maintain as much control as they can, while President Morsi will make a determined effort to wrest as much control as he can. The two groupings will continue to test each other, and the interplay will determine whether or not Egypt moves forward. The test of wills that will now occur will shape the future of Egypt's democracy.

But the real test for the new President and the SCAF will be their ability to perform. The public will have limited patience with their contest for power. At the end of the day our polls show that a majority of Egyptians could care less about which group rules. Uppermost on their minds are jobs, improved health care, better education, and a government that can deliver services without corruption. This is the real work of democracy, and, in this context, the election and its outcome mark not the end of a process, but its beginning.

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