Should the Egyptian army and police get to vote?

That is the question that has riled Egypt over the past week, as the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), in its latest bout of judicial jujitsu, has decreed that – in accordance with the new constitution – since the electoral franchise is supposed to be universal, the previous ban on uniformed services from voting should be lifted. This has triggered howls of outrage by Islamists, who see the judiciary giving the police and army the right to vote as tantamount to vote-rigging, and has been welcomed (to various degrees, and not by all means unanimously) by their opponents.

The recommendation came as part of the SCC's review of a new elections law and a law on parliament – a review that itself is mandated by the new constitution. The SCC's ruling appears correct: since the new constitution guarantees equal rights for all citizens, and makes no mention of an exemption from voting for employees for conscripts, officers, and/or policemen, it stands to reason that they should not be denied the right to vote. Of course, there were no provisions preventing the military and police from voting under the previous constitution, so the SCC appears to have, in this case, made a recommendation that went against longstanding practice – or perhaps more simply it had never had the occasion to rule on this issue before, since it did not get to review legislation under the previous constitution.

A first take to this decision is that it shows, yet again, how foolish the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists were to rush ahead with a constitution that has already come back to bite them in many respects. And their reaction is proving yet more foolish, notably in the shape of calls for the SCC to be abolished altogether because it is seen (despite having been purged by the new constitution of many of its most anti-Islamist components) that are escalating the crisis between the government and the judiciary (judges are now threatening a national strike in response to a draft judicial reform law).

Secondly, it does raise the question of whether – in free and fair elections – giving policemen and soldiers the right to vote would make any difference. Their numbers, including conscripts, amount to nearly two million, enough to make a difference in the last presidential elections, when it is assumed many would have preferred to vote for candidate Ahmed Shafiq.

But whatever their voting preferences, the question may be more whether these institutions would direct their members to vote a certain way – or even lead to the spreading of the hyper-partisanship that characterizes Egyptian politics into the military, an institution that is most keen on maintaining its internal coherence, chain of command, and remaining "above" politics. Thus the striking quote from a retired general in this Washington Post article:

“This is a threat to national security. Divisions in the streets will be reflected in the military — the sectarianism, the partisanship,” said Hossam Sweilam, a retired general who served in the military for more than 30 years. “We are different from other countries. We have political problems. ... This (ruling) would be in the interest of the Muslim Brotherhood and could be a problem for the cohesion of the military.”

The objections by the Brothers and other Islamists have not been particularly reasonable – they argue that this would bring politics "into the barracks" and ask whether the list of conscripts, soldiers and officers would be released to political parties, or whether the people who guard voting stations will then choose this or that candidate. All of this is moot, since barracks can still be made politics-free, the only list political parties should have access to is the national register, and it's easy enough for army and police people to go vote when they are off-duty and out of uniform. After all, as Mohamed ElBaradei points out, most democracies grant a universal right to vote. (See a wider range of reactions by political leaders here.) There is little reason, in principle, to deny the military and police the right to vote ordinary citizens have. It is the logic of a praetorian state, where somehow these stand apart (or actually above) ordinary society, that considers such people "special".

The better argument is that granting a universal right to vote is that these institutions are not ready to implement the safeguards against abuse that exists in democracies. The police is clearly still mostly hostile to the Brotherhood in particular and many of the revolutionary parties. The army, with the backing of the Islamists, has placed itself above oversight in the new constitution. There is very little trust between any political actors, and between these institutions and the political class at the moment. This is not the time to experiment with a major change in regulation – it would be better to actually get elections organized at all, around a formula that is politically consensual. As Egypt continues to pay for the mistakes of the SCAF-led transition and the Brotherhood's go-it-alone style of politics (and their almost comically poorly written constitution), it limps from crisis to crisis with still no horizon for a normalization of politics – one in which the reforms that would, among many other things, enable everyone to vote could be carried out.