What to make of these elections?

The events of the last couple of weeks in Egypt have been incredibly complicated, bringing together issues such as whether the elections that started today are well prepared enough, the future role of the military, police and army violence, whether a second revolution is needed, the attitudes towards protests and elections of various parties, the absence of strong political leaders and still much more. The story has flipped suddenly fropm being about a repeat of the January uprising to being about splits in the Egyptian political spectrum and then about elections. Even from yesterday to today, the narrative has changed from a high level of concern about elections taking place in the middle of this mess to a recognition of strong voter enthusiasm in what may be the highest participation rate Egypt has experienced in decades.

We need to slow down and take in what is happening today separately from what happened in Tahrir or what will have in the relationship between SCAF and the future parliament or the rise of Islamists in Egyptian politics.

What we saw today — so far at least — is that even amidst public uncertainty about the future, split public opinion on Tahrir and SCAF, and organizational chaos, the Egyptian people are eager to participate in the democratic process that may have real meaning for the first time in their lives. They are sharing in the fruits of the revolution, with pragmatism and hope, and testing whether the change is real. I don't see the high turnout (or what we think is a high turnout as we await official data) as a sign of support for SCAF. It's a sign of support for the democratic process and hope for its improvement.

That is a testimony of the Egyptian people's seriousness. But it does not change the fact that these elections were prepared with staggering, perhaps even malicious, incompetence and on that basis alone should not have been held, and that the transition blueprint in general is a bad one.

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Interview with a FJP candidate

I ran into this candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party in the working class district of Sayeda Zeinab, near a polling station. He is running as an individual candidate.

Electoral choices

To give you an idea of how complicated the voting process is because of the mixed system used — 1/3 individual candidaies with two seats per district (one each for professional and worker/peasant) and 2/3 for party lists — here are pictures of the ballots being used for a central Cairo district (the pictures were taken inside the polling station on Port Said St, Sayeda Zeinab district)

The first one shows the individual candidacies, which voters have to choose two candidates from — among 122 possibilities:

Much easier is the party list ballot, from which they choose one party out of 16:

What does religion have to do with voting in Egypt?

Dalia Malek send this dispatch from London on the experience of registering to, one day, be able to vote in Egypt's elections.

After months of protests at Egyptian embassies around the world, SCAF announced that Egyptians abroad would have the right to vote. However, at least in the United Kingdom this has been more challenging than it would seem.

A delegation went to the Egyptian consulate in London between 18 and 22 November to issue Egyptian IDs, while online registration for voting closed on 19 November. This overlap of dates appears intentional, but in fact, no one with an Egyptian ID issued after 27 September 2011 could register to vote.

Egyptian IDs and the “new” versions of the Egyptian birth certificates and passports have a serial number (raqam qawmi) that is identified with a citizen’s records, and this is not present on the “old” birth certificate or the “old” passport. Religion is also not written on the passport. Although both of my parents are Egyptian and I have had the old version of the Egyptian birth certificate since I was born, and the old passport since 2007 (valid until 2014), I have chosen not to request an Egyptian ID until now because of the privacy issues.

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Transcript of Arabist Podcast #18 now available

A transcript of last podcast is now available, thanks to the efforts of Arabist reader Akkadia — thanks. Go to the original podcast post to read it.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

The Muslim Brothers are left behind, again

One of the interesting things about the gigantic turnout on Tahrir Square is that it is happening even as the Muslim Brotherhood has officially opposed the protests and most Salafists done the same, in the name of calming the streets before the elections. This decision is very reminiscent of January 25, when they refused to take part in the first protests leading to the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. The same goes for the Salafists, who apart from Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, have opposed protests and even tried to intervene to stop them in Alexandria yesterday.

This is not to say there are no Muslim Brothers or Salafists, or other religiously-inclined people in Tahrir today. There are.

But their leadership has failed them once more. Once again the Muslim Brotherhood has shown that its basic essence has not changed: just as its leader in 2009 said he had no problems with a Gamal Mubarak presidency and had much respect for Hosni Mubarak, just as they rushed ton negotiate with president-apparent Omar Suleiman in late January, just like they preferred to cut a deal with the military in the transition's early days and accepted a slapdash referendum and constitutional declaration, the Brothers are once again swimming against the prevailing tide of the Egyptian people. They prefer to negotiate for their own maximum advantage rather take a principled position.

I often think the Brothers' biggest problem is not that they are fundamentalist, or out of touch with the Egyptian mainstream, or too radical. It's that they are perceived, rightly, as schemers by average people. It's true of their leaders, at least, and it's what has made so many bright young people leave them in recent years and so many others doubt their intentions.

In Translation: Ziad Bahaa-Eldin on the "legal chaos" of the elections

In the last few weeks, we at The Arabist have been sharing our dismay over the slap-dash preparation of the Egyptian parliamentary elections, and our fears that they are so poorly and confusingly organized as to seriously undermine the democratic process. After the violence in Tahrir in the last 24 hours, we're not even sure if they will happen. If they do go ahead, they will take place among great logistical, security and legal shortcomings and confusion. 

For this week's translation -- courtesy our friends at Industry Arabic, as usual -- we have selected a column by legal expert, economic and political analyst and parliamentary candidate Ziad Bahaa-Eldin that appeared in the November 15 issue of the privately owned El Shorouk newspaper that clearly sets out some of the problems: 

How Will the Elections Be Held Amid This Legal Chaos?

My enthusiasm for the elections and for holding them on time has not yet died, due to my firm belief that they are the only means to emerge from this transitional period we are going through. Otherwise, the alternative is for the current chaos to continue and for people to become reluctant to continue the transition to democracy. Although there is a security vacuum, unstable economic situation and a serious disruption in basic materials and supplies, the only way to get out of this bind and achieve even incremental progress is to persevere and hold elections as scheduled.

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Finally, an Egyptian transition plan that makes sense

This idea has been around for a while, but finally some influential people are proposing something concrete:

A number of political forces and intellectuals have prepared a lengthy memorandum that includes a drastically reformed plan for the remainder of Egypt's transitional period.

Al-Masry Al-Youm has obtained a copy of the document, which the drafters said they will submit to the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) within days.

The memorandum suggests postponing parliamentary elections, and in their place forming a "national rescue cabinet," having Egyptians elect a constituent assembly to draft the new constitution, holding presidential elections and fully transferring power to a civilian government. After all this, the memorandum reads, parliamentary elections should be held in accordance with the laws set out in the new constitution.

Among those involved in drafting the memorandum were former President of the Democratic Front Party Osama al-Ghazaly Harb, presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei, Coordinator of the National Association for Change Abdel Galil Mostafa, writer Alaa al-Aswany and journalist Sakina Fouad.

The planning of the current elections are an embarassment to Egypt, and they should be postponed to allow for better preparation (think that by some calculations if the participation is the same as the referendum voters will only get 1 minute each to cast their ballot). The only reason to hold parliamentary elections now is to cut short the part of the transition period that is directed by SCAF. This plan presents a reasonable compromise.

Such an initiative should have been put on the table a long time ago, and it will now be difficult to stop the campaigning that has started. I don't think it has much chance of succeeding, but the basic recipe — civilian control now, SCAF restricted to national security, and a constitution first so you can set up a proper system (and for instance get rid of the pointless Shura Council). The key will be convincing political forces, notably Islamist, that have banked on elections now to move the transition process as fast as possible.

Major update to Egypt political parties map

Jacopo Carbonari has updated his map to include only essential parties that are on the full list of candidates made available by the Higher Electoral Committee. The full document now also includes which governorates the various parties are fielding candidate. You can get the 1.5MB PDF on the link below, or go here for an Arabic version.

Map and list of Egyptian political parties 2011-11-17

Podcast #17: Doom and Gloom

Ashraf, Ursula and I talk about the Arab League's surprisingly tough line on Syria — what what regional games may lie behind it — and then despair about how badly prepared Egypt's elections are, looking at all the things that might go wrong. And we remind you to send in your questions and suggestions at podcast [AT] arabist.net, and donate or advertise to keep this site and the podcast going!

Links for this week's episode:



The Arabist Podcast #17


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.