Egypt’s elections: don’t panic!

An opinion piece from Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch:

Egypt’s first post-Mubarak elections are scheduled to begin in less than two weeks. It would be hard to exaggerate how badly the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has prepared for these pivotal transitional elections. The election law is baffling and incoherent. Election preparations seem haphazard. The rules keep changing. People barely know what or who they are voting for. Some activists plan to boycott. Islamists seem poised to win big. The election is shaping up to be far messier and difficult than it needed to be.

And yet despite all of that, holding these elections is still the right move. For Egypt to make a transition to a more democratic, legitimate and accountable political order it has to actually start making that transition. And that means elections. And here, there are some all too rare good signs. There has been no backsliding on the SCAF’s commitment to hold these elections despite ample opportunity to postpone them, and there will even be international observers of a sort. On the other side, while some activists have decided to boycott the election they seem to be in the minority. And the Obama administration recognizes the importance of the election and is determined to do what it can to hold the SCAF to its commitments and to assist with the transition. Holding elections now still remains the best choice for Egypt. But everyone needs to prepare for the likely outcome to make sure that the vote actually does begin a real transition to a democratic Egypt rather than digging its early grave.

I remain broadly optimistic that Egypt, like Tunisia, will make its democratic transition despite all the turbulence. This is not because the SCAF has demonstrated any real commitment to democracy or the rule of law. It is because there is a broad and deep public consensus in support of democracy, and enough powerful competing forces to prevent any easy return to Mubarak-style authoritarian rule. It is also because the Obama administration at the highest levels is determined to help get Egypt right, and has been working hard — often behind the scenes — to push the SCAF in the correct direction.

It is also because the SCAF has proven to be politically incompetent. Even if they do hope to remain in power and are scheming to abort the revolution, they just aren’t very good at it. For all of their deep and justifiable frustrations, Egypt’s activists and the ornery, contentious Egyptian media and new political class have succeeded in making life miserable for the SCAF. The military hasn’t gotten comfortable in power. Nor has it been able to demonstrate that it holds the key to restoring public order or getting the economy back on track. Its efforts to impose its authority, with its continued resort to military courts and arrests of prominent activists and increasing censorship, have only made things more unstable. The violence against Copts last month, as well as the military clashes with protestors, left many people frightened. And this may be taking a toll. While public opinion surveys have consistently shown strong support for the SCAF, a new survey published last week shows their public approval dropping by twenty-five points in the last five months (from 86 percent to 61 percent).

There has been a lot of criticism of the decision to hold these elections now. But the other alternatives are all worse. The turbulence, chaos, abuses and violence of SCAF’s months in power have proven that their remaining in power does not guarantee stability, a steady hand, or economic revival.  If the SCAF had postponed elections further, as some had hoped, everyone would now be rightly complaining that this proved their intention of holding on to power. If the SCAF had opted to first draft the Constitution, everyone would now be complaining about the composition of the drafting committee and the content of leaked drafts while elections remained only on the distant horizon.

And that’s why it has always been so important that the elections go forward. That said, the election process in Egypt has been an inexcusable mess. The election law wasn’t announced until shortly before the election, and then amended again in the face of political uproar. This left little time for political parties to organize electoral strategies or coalitions. The law itself is nigh-incomprehensible, allocating two-thirds of the seats by lists and one-third to individual winners. Two weeks before the election, it is difficult to get even basic information about the parties, electoral coalitions, or candidates. That’s worrying.

What’s more, the rules keep changing, creating extreme uncertainty. The election law took forever to be released, and then changed. Right in the middle of the short election campaign, the SCAF dropped a controversial document of constitutional principles, which seemed to enshrine the military’s power in the emerging political order. It will probably back down on parts of it in the face of public pressure, including Friday’s threatened Islamist protest / campaign rally. But nobody really knows. Same thing for the presidential election, which will probably not really be postponed all the way to 2013, but nobody really knows. And then, of course, without a constitution nobody really knows what the Parliament will do. Ex-NDP candidates may or may not be banned. Egyptians abroad got the right to vote less than a month before the election. It’s obviously not good to have this kind of uncertainty about the basic rules in the midst of such a transition.

The other big source of incipient panic is the one thing upon which almost everyone now agrees: that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is likely to do well. There’s no great secret to the FJP’s likely success. After years of electoral participation, and with a large, disciplined organization and significant financial resources, the Muslim Brotherhood has a very effective campaign machine. It has been organizing in the field for many months, at a time when most of its competitors were not. It has been carefully selecting candidates, holding rallies, constructing a Get Out the Vote machine, hanging banners, and doing all the things which political parties which want to win votes are supposed to do. The FJP has many problems, and its efforts could still be short-circuited by a massive turnout which swamps its organizational advantages, but for now it is looking strong compared to its rivals.

It’s hard for anyone, even the MB and FJP’s leaders, to say exactly how well it will do in the election. When I spoke to a number of them in late September, they said that their goal of winning 30-40 percent of the seats remained unchanged. Tunisia-like numbers would represent something of a best-case scenario, forcing them to form coalitions rather than ruling alone. But their electoral strategy, they told me even then, was complicated by the confusion surrounding the election law, the rapidly shifting electoral coalitions, and the weak preparations by some of their chief rivals. It is all too plausible to see something like the 2006 Palestinian election unfold, where Fatah’s disorganization handed victory to Hamas (for example, multiple liberal candidates contesting the same seat handing a safe liberal seat to a unified Islamist vote). It now seems possible that the MB, alone or in coalition with other Islamists, could end up winning a Parliamentary majority. Even that would not be cause for panic, given the limits on Parliament’s power, but it would be far more difficult to navigate than an Islamist bloc under 40 percent.

With or without a majority, everyone needs to be prepared for Islamists to do well. It is almost impossible for there to be a free and fair Egyptian election in which Islamists do not win a sizable share of the vote. But even though it is expected, their success will likely prompt a media and political frenzy. This will be made even worse by the fact that Egypt’s election will extend over three rounds, rather than being completed in one day. This means that there will be long weeks for rumors of Islamist victories to circulate, for polarization and recriminations, and — worst of all — for calls for the army to step in and cancel elections as in Algeria in 1991.

To avoid such a catastrophic failure, everyone will need to avoid over-reaction. The Muslim Brotherhood will need to demonstrate a lot more political maturity  than it has shown in recent months. It will need to emulate Tunisia’s Rached al-Ghannouch, who has since al-Nahda’s big electoral victory done everything possible to reassure Tunisians and the West that his party will not impose Islamist rule on Tunisia. The Egyptian MB will need to do the same, and back those words with deeds by proving that it will not seek to dominate or to impose its agenda. I have heard a lot over the years from MB leaders about their true democratic convictions, their recognition of the fears they provoke in others and their desire to avoid repeating the Algerian or Palestinian experiences. This is their chance to prove it.

Egyptian secularists, leftists, liberals, and Christians will also need to show restraint, especially with regard to the temptation to call for the elections to be interrupted if they seem to be going badly. That doesn’t mean rolling over — those forces should absolutely continue to challenge and push the MB on their democratic commitments at every opportunity, and call them out when they don’t live up to them.

The U.S. and outside observers will also need to resist the tidal wave of recrimination and scare-mongering which is nearly certain to flood the media as the election unfolds. The Obama administration has tried to show that it will respect the outcome of democratic elections, and that it will be willing to work with Islamist parties which demonstrate respect for democratic rules, human rights, and non-violence. There has been a growing recognition that you can’t have a representative democracy which excludes a major political trend such as the Islamists, and that including Islamists in the political game is better than forcing them into the shadows. Most now see that lumping together the wide variety of often sharply competing Islamists into one vast Islamic menace is shoddy analytic bunk.

But that balance is going to be far harder to maintain in Egypt than it was after al-Nahda’s victory in Tunisia. The stakes are higher, the media glare hotter, and the Egyptian MB less forthcoming than their Tunisian counterparts. But doing so has never been more important. For years there was a bipartisan rhetorical consensus in the United States about supporting Arab democracy. This will be the most important test yet of that commitment to Arab democracy — for the administration, for Congress, for the media, and for the academic and policy communities.  Did they, and we, really mean it?

The best advice, as in most parts of the universe: don’t panic. The election isn’t going to be pretty, but it’s necessary.


Hosni Mubarak will not be tried until December 2012

Read a variety of reports on former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s delayed trial.

ABC News: Mubarak trial delayed in Egypt

Gulf News: Egypt postpones Mubarak trial to December 28 due to claim of bias

Voice of America: Egypt postpones Mubarak trial to December

Al-Jazeera: Mubarak trial adjourned until December

The Daily News (Egypt): Mubarak trial postponed pending on decision on judge switch

Reuters: Mubarak’s trial to be postponed again – lawyers 





Can Islamic parties peddle democracy?

Can Islamic parties peddle democracy? By Moni Basu

 (CNN) — In Tunisia, an Islamic party wins the election.

In Libya, statements about adopting Sharia, or Islamic law, raises concerns about the future.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood strategizes about how best to score political gains.

In the West, real fears arise that the Arab Spring will spawn new states more akin to the principles of al Qaeda and Hamas than fledgling democracies.

Political Islam is sure to be a factor as major change sweeps through formerly despotic nations. But exactly how is a question that is up for intense debate.

The idea of political Islam raises eyebrows among secularists, women, minority religions who fear their ways of life will come under serious threat if Islamic parties enforce their will. But some caution against looking at Islam’s role too simplistically — it is, after all, deeply rooted in the region.

“Political Islam is basically Western alarmism,” said Ebrahim Moosa, professor of religion at Duke University.

“It’s lazy analysis to dredge up images of a Khomeini-like prospect for any country,” he said referring to the Iranian revolutionary leader.

So when Libya’s National Transitional Council Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil announces that any law contradicting Islamic principles of Sharia are ineffective, it doesn’t mean that Libyans will have hands cut off for stealing or women will be forced to cover up head to toe, Moosa said.

What Jalil’s comments will mean in practice has yet to be determined, said British writer Patrick Seale in Middle East Online. “It needs to be stressed that each country’s experience will be different.”

Libya’s ambassador to the United States, Ali Suleiman Aujali, said Sharia is not necessarily against democracy and equality. And Jalil quickly reassured the international community that Libyans are moderate Muslims.

Moosa said it’s almost impossible to be a leader of a Muslim nation without paying obeisance to Sharia. Saddam Hussein did it in Iraq; Hosni Mubarak did it in Egypt.

“It’s like the president of the United States saying, ‘God bless America,’ ” Moosa said. “It’s your credibility marker that you are a believer, a way to show religious credentials.”

In Tunisia, Rashid Ghannouchi, the founder of the winning Ennahda party, is known to be a philosophical thinker drawn to the Turkish model of governance and faith — an officially secular country ruled by an Islamist party.

Turkey’s constitution limits the public exhibition of religion.

Moosa sees Turkey as a nation that has internalized Islamic ethics. And Tunisia, he said, could do the same, where Islam could play a public role but with filters.

Moosa, who said he knows Ghannouchi fairly well, said the Ennahda leader was alarmed when Khomeini issued a death fatwa against author Salman Rushdie after the publication of “The Satanic Verses” — a novel written by Rushdie that has been decried as blasphemy by some Islamic fundamentalists.

Ennahda is not looking to impose Sharia as it has traditionally been imposed wrote Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin. The party’s leadership contends Sharia is a set of principles open to interpretation, wrote Rubin.

Rubin recently met with Ghannounchi and Hamadi Jebali, Ennahda’s secretary general, and wrote that both men see Sharia as a “body of immutable demands.”

“We know there are some Muslims who do not believe in democracy or freedoms in society,” Jebali told her. “We consider this a wrong interpretation. For us, the authority in Islam is given to the people, and even the legislative power should come from the people.”

The key is for Western nations to exercise patience, said Akbar Ahmed, a professor of Islamic studies at American University.

“Certain parties may have a tendency toward Islam. They may succeed or they may not,” he said. “But we have to give them a chance.”

Ahmed said democracy is a Western ideal that is foreign to many Muslim nations. It took the United States centuries to perfect its own brand of democracy. Why then, should Washington expect Tunisia, Libya or Egypt to achieve perfection overnight, Ahmed asked.

Part of the problem, he said, is that after three decades of hostage taking, terror threats and attacks by Islamic groups, Western nations now associate Islam with unsavory actions and the word Islamic has taken on a negative connotation.

“It is important to understand that most Muslims in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya want justice,” Ahmed said. “They want compassion. They want incorruptibility, honesty from their rulers. All of them quote Islamic precedence for these features. In the ideal, Islam promises that these rulers must have these virtues.”

Moosa said he would not be surprised if some time down the line, discordant voices rise up in Tunisia to advocate for what they view as genuine Sharia.

“One hopes saner voices will slap them down,” he said.

But it’s that debate that will make the Arab world’s post-dictatorship nations a real test for whether Sharia can ever be reconciled with democracy.

Islamic law, said Moosa, can be interpreted as a need for providing for the poor, stable governance and implementing a rule of law that is in the best interests of the people.

“What does Sharia mean?” he said. “There has not been an honest conversation on what it can be.”

The answers will help define how the people of the Arab Spring try to rebuild their nations.

 © 2011 Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Path of Protest: Infographic from the Guardian

This infographic from the Guardian traces the Arab Awakening from December 2010 to the current period, allowing readers to simultaneously consider the political and societal situations of 17 Middle Eastern states.  View protests, political moves, regime changes, and international responses on the graph, and see links to news articles from various organizations.

Turkish PM launches ‘Arab Spring tour’ in bid to boost influence

The National (U.A.E.) reports:

The Turkish prime minister will press his country’s ambitions to become a leading political power in the Muslim world this week in trips to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, three arenas in a wave of popular revolts that have reshaped the region.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “Arab Spring tour” comes against a backdrop of escalating tensions with former friend Israel over the killing of nine Turkish activists last year – a standoff that has strengthened support for Ankara in large parts of North Africa and the Middle East.

Arab countries, in the throes of popular uprisings, have watched the economic growth and influence of Turkey’s secular democracy with a mixture of fascination and trepidation.

Under Mr Erdogan’s AKP party, rooted in political Islam, Turkey has boosted political and commercial ties with a region the country ruled under the Ottoman Empire.

Last week, Mr Erdogan threatened to back up his growing diplomatic clout with military action by saying he would dispatch the navy to protect flotillas against Israeli patrols – an announcement analysts said could also alarm Arab powers.

The Arab revolts have forced Turkey to rethink its foreign policy, particularly in Syria, where former the country’s former ally, President Bashar Al Assad, has defied Ankara’s calls to end a bloody crackdown on protesters, and in Libya, where Turkey had billion-dollar investments before Colonel Muammar Qaddafi was forced out of power.

Besides seeking closer economic and military ties with the new rulers of regional heavyweight Egypt and oil-rich Libya, analysts say Erdogan will use his trip, which begins today in Egypt, to cast himself as the champion of the Muslim world.

Mr Erdogan is expected to give a speech today at Cairo University, where his aides say he will set out Turkey’s vision for the region.

“With the resounding victory of the elections in June, Mr Erdogan has complete control at home and now he wants to assert himself as the leader in the Muslim world and the Middle East,” said Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based security analyst.

Mr Erdogan’s visit to Egypt, the first by a Turkish leader in 15 years, will be closely watched by Israel and by the United States, which has seen with alarm the deterioration of ties between Turkey and Israel and between Israel and Egypt.

Israel’s peace deal with Cairo has come under increasing pressure since the fall of the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Israel would regard with suspicion signs of closer alliance between Egypt and Turkey at a time Ankara has taken a more confrontational attitude towards Israel.

Mr Erdogan will meet the head of Egypt’s ruling military council, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the prime minister, Essam Sharaf, and representatives of the pro-democracy movement that ousted Mr Mubarak.

Nabil Abdel Fattah, a political analyst at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies said: “Turkey is using the Arab-Israeli conflict and the recent rising tension in the Arab region against Israel to publicise itself.

“All its moves against Israel are only meant to promote itself as a political power in the Arab region and spread its influence on the new generation of the Arab youth who are longing for change and power.”

Ankara has already downgraded diplomatic relations with Israel and halted defence trade following Israel’s confirmation last week that it would not apologise for the 2010 assault on a Turkish boat challenging its Gaza blockade in which nine Turkish activists were killed.

But Ankara is likely to stop short of doing anything to alienate Washington, said Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at Chatham House.

“At the end of the day, Turkey sided with Washington on its key policies in the region – hosting Nato’s radar system, condemning Assad and distancing itself from Iran,” Mr Hakura said. “Americans can live with Turkey’s emotional outbursts unless, of course, they translate into a naval confrontation but I don’t think that will happen.”

Mr Erdogan would be the first head of government to visit Libya since rebels fighting to end Col Qaddafi’s 42-year-old rule entered Tripoli.

Turkey, hesitant at first to dump its one-time friend Col Qaddafi and to back Nato operations, is taking a lead role in efforts to rebuild Libya, eyeing billion-dollar deals.

Egypt’s military ruler fails to turn up to Mubarak trial to give testimony

The National (U.A.E.) reports:

Egypt’s military ruler and one-time confidant of Hosni Mubarak failed to attend a court session yesterday that was expected to bring highly anticipated testimony about the ousted president’s alleged role in the death of protesters and possibly offer revelations about the regime’s final days.

The no-show by Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi was a major disappointment for Egyptians seeking to have the reckoning over the bloodshed reach to the highest levels. It also could reflect hesitation by Mr Mubarak’s former allies to face him in court and possibly shed embarrassing secrets.

The judge immediately requested that Field Marshal Tantawi return to court on September 24.

The report on Egyptian State TV did not give a reason for Field Marshal Tantawi’s absence in court. But a defence lawyer said he had told the court he was ready to submit written testimony since he was dealing with the fallout after the storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on Friday by protesting mobs.

The trial is seen as a test between Egypt’s traditional power structure and the impatience for clear breaks with the past seven months after Mr Mubarak was toppled and power shifted to a military council.

Many Egyptians still see the ruling military as uneasy about putting one of their own on trial. Mr Mubarak was previously commander of the air force and a pilot. There also is speculation that Field Marshal Tantawi and other high-ranking officials want to keep a distance from the proceedings, fearing they could be implicated in the crackdowns that left nearly 900 dead.

Mr Mubarak is accused of complicity in the attacks. It is unprecedented for a court in Egypt to summon such high-level figures – particularly authorities from the highly secretive military and intelligence services.

Assem Qandil, who represents a former senior security official, said Field Marshal Tantawi offered to send written testimony, but “the judge refused and reissued a request for Tantawi to show up in court”.

Mr Mubarak’s trial depends heavily on accounts by the Field Marshal and other members of the former president’s inner circle who are expected to testify in the coming days.

Among the others summoned by the court were his chief of staff, Sami Anan – the second highest-ranking figure on the military council – and Omar Suleiman, who was appointed vice president by Mr Mubarak during the uprising and was his powerful intelligence chief. He is seen as a figure holding many of the regime’s secrets.

The trial is scheduled to resume tomorrow with Mr Suleiman expected to give testimony. The sessions are closed to the media and public. All reporting on the proceedings is banned.

Lawyers of victims’ families have asked for Field Marshal Tantawi’s testimony because he had suggested the army rejected the use of force against protesters.

Addressing a police cadet graduation ceremony in May, Field Marshal Tantawi said the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces convened in the middle of the uprising and decided: “No, we don’t open fire on the people.” But he did not elaborate on who gave the orders for security forces to turn their weapons against protesters.

Mohammed Zarie, a lawyer for one of the victims’ families, said before heading to the courtroom: “Tantawi knows it all.”

Meanwhile, lawyers for Mr Mubarak and other defendants’ also asked for Field Marshal Tantawi’s testimony in what could be an effort to further spread responsibility for the violence and measures such as blocking mobile phones and the internet.

Field Marshal Tantawi was the former commander of the elite Republican Guards, which protects the president and his palaces. He was appointed chief commander of the armed forces in May 1991 and was considered one of Mr Mubarak’s most steadfast backers. A US diplomatic cable, released by WikiLeaks, reported Field Marshal Tantawi was known as “Mubarak’s poodle” for his unwavering loyalty.

In a separate case, a group of Mubarak regime officials began trial on charges, including manslaughter, linked to February 2 “camel battle” when riders on horses and camels charged into protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. A total of 25 people face charges, but 22 defendants showed up in court.

Among those charged is Safwat El Sherif, the former secretary general of the ruling party, and the former parliament speaker Fathi Serour.

The blitz, with riders wielding whips and swords, initially scattered the protesters but they quickly regrouped and wrestled some of the attackers from their mounts. It touched off one of the most violent days of the uprising, with protesters and Mubarak loyalists fighting in Tahrir Square and adjacent streets with rocks, firebombs and slabs of concrete.

Hezbollah: Lebanon immune to popular uprisings

The Daily Star (Beirut) reports:

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s sectarian makeup prevents the rise of popular movements similar to those in other Arab countries, a Hezbollah MP said Thursday.

“There is no doubt that the sectarian makeup in Lebanon, socially and politically, prevents the contagious Arab movements from shifting to Lebanon, since people are loyal mainly to their sects,” Ali Fayyad said during a lecture in Nabatieh regarding Arab revolutions and their effects.

Fayyad added that popular movements require that enough people overcome sectarian barriers and other social and political stratifications.

“The sectarian reality in Lebanon dominates social and political life.”

Among other reasons that make Lebanon immune to uprisings that have swept countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, Fayyad said he believes that the country enjoys a model confessional democracy that safeguards diversity and freedoms.

Fayyad also said that the Arab revolutions should be based on two main principles: facing tyranny to achieve democracy and confronting Israel.

“Therefore, these revolutions should serve both cases. They shouldn’t override each other,” Fayyad said.

Fayyad also warned that revolutions carry dangers. The first, according to Fayyad, is the West’s adoption of the uprisings in a bid to reap the benefits, while the second is the risk of dividing the whole region.

While Hezbollah has expressed support for many of the pro-democracy protesters in the Arab world, it has joined in with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s assertion that protests there are part of a foreign conspiracy.