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.

It could have been different 

For a few days it looked like the elections might be postponed, even though Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, SCAF and the Higher Election Committee confirmed again and again that the parliamentary elections will go ahead as planned, despite the chaos of recent days and the continuing standoff in Tahrir Square. What probably should have happened, a long time before the recent event, is that the elections should have been postponed to allow for a different transition plan altogether. The current one is legally nonsensical (being based on a constitutional declaration and March referendum of dubious legitimacy, since referendum voters only voted on a few articles). And then there was the last minute adjustments to the electoral law, the debate over what kind of system to adopt, the fact that district lines were not published until a month or so before the elections, and finally candidate lists not available until a few days before the poll. During this time there were few efforts at voter outreach. The Egyptian government initially refused any help from foreign institutions, but in the last couple of months was forced to turn to them for some technical support, although it was already too late to do much.

There are some real risks still ahead because of this lack of preparation. One could be that the long lines and confusion provoke anger among candidates' supporters and ordinary citizens that turn into riots. SCAF implicitly recognized this problem when it decided, just two days before the poll, to extend the voting period by a day (and tonight to add two hours before closing stations.) But this introduces new problems, such as the sanctity of ballot boxes as they are kept overnight, and the creation of incentives for those candidates who, fearing they are losing, can gain by attacking the buildings were the ballot boxes are held to invalidate the vote.

This is why I did not understand why the US kept focus on elections even through they knew — the entire diplomatic community knew — they were so problematic. Or rather, I understand: they preferred to stick to the plan, however flawed, that would bring the transition process to an end rather than enter the unknown.

The problem is that the Egyptian political class, and the protestors in Tahrir, was split on the question of elections and could never form a united boycott front to push SCAF to take the elections seriously (or push for a better transition plan). There was never a credible alternative presented to SCAF's transition plan, and Islamists in particular, by endorsing the flawed referendum process, made it impossible to call SCAF's incompetence. Over the summer it was because secular-Islamist arguments squandered the attention and energy of the political class. More recently it was was in part because of the MB (although the argument that liberals wanted to postpone elections because they were afraid of the MB does not hold: the MB will do well now or in three months' time), which saw in the elections a chance to consolidate their newfound political legitimacy as well as a better source of legitimacy then Tahrir with which, should it choose to, it can confront the SCAF (assuming it does well in the elections.)

Remember that even the #2 in SCAF was expressing doubts about the elections — see this good reporting by WSJ last week:

In Tuesday's meeting with opposition leaders, Gen. Sami Enan, a member of the military council, raised questions about the military and police forces' ability to secure the elections, according to Mr. Abu Ghar of the Social Democrat Party, who was present.

"We asked them about how they are going to secure the elections. And they said we have a big force, but we cannot work without the police," said Mr. Abu Ghar. "And apparently, the minister of interior told Enan that he cannot guarantee that at all, that he doesn't have enough force to secure the elections."

What will be the legacy of these elections?

Today might very well be seen as a positive step in Egypt's transition — both because of smiling people boasting of their purple thumbs, signaling public buy-in into the democratic process, and because the elections will result in a symbolic shift of power away from SCAF and towards parliament. But because of the piss-poor preparation done by the government and lack of serious scrutiny by political parties, even if there is no massive state fraud in this election as in past ones (and there does not appear to be any) there will be a lot of grounds to seed doubts about the process and perhaps eventually, declare the elections partly or fully invalid. Remember that in the last 20 years most Egyptian parliaments were seen as invalid, with the state preferring to gloss over the results of lawsuits contesting results (even by the Supreme Constitutional Court) rather than accept the invalidity of successive parliaments (and hence the laws they passed.) The next parliament may be on shaky legal ground, although this will probably (as under Mubarak) be ignored for convenience's sake. Except this parliament will produce the next constitution. 

We have court decisions all the time that affect the running of the election, such as this one:

Daqahlia - The Mansoura Administrative Court on Tuesday halted the announcement of parliamentary election candidacy lists, saying the committee supervising the elections violated the constitution by indicating the religious status of candidates. The court ordered it removed.

The ruling was issued in response to a lawsuit submitted to the court by two lawyers, who considered the indication of the religious status a clear case of discrimination because, they claimed, it suggests citizens to vote for a particular religion.

Even the SCAF's recently announced "political corruption law" cannot be applied to the elections, meaning that they will go ahead with illegal candidacies that will be contested in the courts later.

The year ahead may be full of decisions regarding the elections, and the government and parties will probably want to ignore them, subverting the rule of law for stability's sake. All because they did not spend enough time thinking their decisions through.

The other issue is what a new parliament will produce. Under the constitutional declaration that is currently Egypt's interim constitution, parliament's powers are vague. Here how they might be important or not important:

  • Presidential candidates need the support for at least 30 MPs to be nominated, or 30,000 citizens. This will help narrow the field. (Art. 27)
  • The declaration's Article 33 states:

Immediately upon election, the People’s Assembly will assume the authority to legislate and determine the public policy of the state, the general plan for economic and social development, and the public budget of the state. It will also oversee the work of the executive branch.

But this is contradicted in part by Article 56, which gives vast powers to SCAF:

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces deals with the administration of the affairs of the country. To achieve this, it has directly the following authorities:

  • Legislation
  • Issuing public policy for the state and the public budget and ensuring its implementation
  • Appointing the appointed members of the People’s Assembly
  • Calling the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council to enter into normal session, adjourn, or hold an extraordinary session, and adjourn said session.
  • The right to promulgate laws or object to them.
  • Represent the state domestically and abroad, sign international treaties and agreements, and be considered a part of the legal system of the state.
  • Appoint the head of the cabinet and his/her deputies and ministers and their deputies, as well as relieve them of their duties.
  • Appoint civilian and military employees and political representatives, as well as dismiss them according to the law; accredit foreign political representatives.
  • Pardon or reduce punishment, though blanket amnesty is granted only by law.
  • Other authorities and responsibilities as determined by the president of the republic pursuant to laws and regulations. The Council shall have the power to delegate its head or one of its members to take on its responsibilities.

Of course none of these articles were among those that voters could vote upon during the March referendum.

In other words, this parliament has few powers apart from the unresolved issue of whether it appoints some or all of the members of the constituent assembly. Egypt's is a presidential system, not a parliamentary one. I think that considering the changing tide against SCAF, there is a good chance that leading parties will want recognition of their political importance by being given cabinet posts. But they will have to fight for it, possibly getting into a new game of brinksmanship with SCAF or doing deals with it. There might be political leeway, and the overall situation in Egypt remains volatile.

Next time get it right

In my decade or so in Egypt, one of the things that struck me the most about the country was the degradation of the state's institution, its ability to implement (or defend) the rule of law, and the very little legitimacy the state enjoys. In global surveys, I remember seeing Egypt ranked alongside Congo in terms of "legitimacy of the state". I was reminded of this today when I saw that Congo was holding its own elections:

Holding elections in a postwar country with few roads, dense jungles, a weak judiciary, deep ethnic divisions, and roving bands of armed militants might seem like a daunting task. Add in the politicians – 19,000 of them, running for 500 parliamentary seats and nearly a dozen candidates for president – and the Democratic Republic of Congo's Nov. 28 elections take on a complexity that staggers the mind.

I don't want to compare Egypt, a country that has been largely stable and at peace for nearly three decades, with the failed state that Congo is, with its two decades of civil war and millions dead. But the shortcomings of this process is something every Egyptian should be aware of, and they should make sure that the people who put them in this position — SCAF, the interim government, and the political class (notably Islamists and parties loyal to SCAF like al-Wafd). Egypt is capable of better, and I hope some of the proposals for a better transition model (those by revolutionary groups or Mohamed ElBaradei, for instance) get a hearing. The big question will be whether the new parliament will use the legitimacy of having been elected to change things, and work to establish a solid base for the country.

Right now, with so many things being up in the air, it's hard to know. Which is why I'll hold back the electoral triumphalism and simply note that public participation is not always legitimization of the process. Egyptians deserved better than the process they got today, and they should work to get the people who put them in this position out of power as soon as possible.