With Egypt’s parliamentary elections starting this week, the largest country involved in this year’s mass Arab protests has gone to the polls for its most meaningful vote in decades. To find out what impact the results may have on Egypt’s contentious political dynamics and across the region, we talk to CIGI Senior Fellow and Middle East economics expert Bessma Momani.
CIGI: In contrast to what might have been expected after last week’s violent clashes in Tahrir Square, the first few days of Egypt’s parliamentary elections have seen high voter turnout under relatively calm conditions. How do you account for the change in atmosphere among Egyptian citizens?
Bessma Momani: In should be noted that there are still a few thousand protesters inside Tahrir Square that have refused to leave, but in a country of 80 million that is a relatively small amount. The rest of the country, as you said, is engaging in this election quite peacefully, and have been very patient waiting in long queues to vote. And I think that’s because of the historic nature of the vote — people feel that this is a chance to make a powerful statement. Nobody is forgetting the violence of last week, but Egyptians are also looking at the election as a way to make democracy legitimate and loud so the Supreme Council of Armed Forces will be forced to listen.
CIGI: The lingering question hanging over these elections seems to be how the military will interact with the newly elected parliament, once it is elected. No matter who ends up in the legislature, is it likely that the Supreme Council of Armed Forces will share power with elected officials moving forward?
Momani: The new parliament will not actually be sitting until March, so we’re still looking at a long transition period with the Supreme Council running the show. The question is what happens afterward. If there’s a presidential election in late June, as promised, the transition will take even longer. The hope is that the council will pull out of politics and go back to its barracks, so to speak, and allow elected officials to start governing, but there are legal provisions that make the council a higher authority than any potential president or parliament. They instituted that law about a week ago, and it was one of the reasons behind the demonstrations we saw in Cairo.
The council also passed a provision that ensured there could not be civilian oversight over their budget. We can’t forget that the Egyptian military has a deep involvement in the entire economy. It’s not just relegated to defence spending — they are also involved in industrial production, making things like washing machines and pots and pans.
CIGI: Initial reports from Western observers have indicated that the Muslim Brotherhood is playing a constructively partisan role in these elections — sending out thousands of volunteers to direct citizens to polling stations, promoting the party’s own candidates in the process. Is the Brotherhood primarily concerned with electoral gains in parliament, or is it also using its organizational power to ensure that a credible election takes place?
Momani: From the reports I’ve heard, all political parties are trying to get out their votes, and there have been accusations of everyone breaking electoral laws by campaigning at polling centres. But we are probably inflating how much of that is coming from the Brotherhood, because it has historically been the strongest and most organized political party — it has important legacy in Egypt and that has made it very popular. Particularly with the economic difficulty that Egypt has been through in the past 20 years, the Brotherhood has stepped in where the state refused — providing health care, daycare and social services, usually free of charge. Its philanthropic wing has given it enormous respect in the country and it will use that to its advantage in these polls.
CIGI: If the Brotherhood wins the most seats in the Egyptian parliament, do you think it will stand by its pledge not to run a presidential candidate?
Momani: The Brotherhood will likely be the largest bloc in the parliament, but by no means will it be a majority: they’re not running in every electoral riding, and we’re expecting a huge fragmentation of parties in the legislature. I don’t think it will change its mind on putting forth a presidential candidate, though. Frankly, the Brotherhood doesn’t have anybody with the charisma or the reputation to run, and all of the names mentioned for president have come from the secular or liberal camps.
CIGI: After Tunisia’s relatively successful election in October, how important is a credible Egyptian vote to sustaining the momentum for reform across the Middle East?
Momani: In some respects, Egypt is more problematic that Tunisia because its economy and population are much larger, with deep-seated corruption and a strong populist tradition. Tunisia, by comparison, is highly educated, well-integrated into the global economy and has a strong diaspora community in Europe — so all of that has made it easier for them. Chances are we will see the same in Libya. It doesn’t have the same overseas population, but it does have two percent of the world’s oil wealth, so chances are it will be a smooth transition there, too, short of seeing a regional conflict within the country that the National Transitional Council is working hard to avoid.
Egypt is more complex in the sense that it is full of problems. It has rampant corruption, very high underemployment, a large, highly urbanized population and a 40 percent illiteracy rate. So it’s unique in many ways, and a test of one of the worst-case scenarios one can imagine. If Egypt can succeed, then chances are that others can as well. Many other countries prone to revolution today would be easier fixes than Egypt, particularly on the economic front.