Since the very start of the current wave of renewed unrest in Egypt, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has repeatedly insisted that the country’s parliamentary elections—scheduled to start on Monday 28 November and run through January 2012 in three regional rounds—would continue as planned, irrespective of the circumstances. Egypt’s generals seem serenely confident that a silent majority of citizens is with them and that any delay in the electoral timetable would spark waves of anxiety far beyond Tahrir Square.
They might actually be right; many Egyptians are deeply weary of post-revolutionary uncertainty and eager for any plan that promises a rapid return to something resembling normality. The SCAF’s latest offer to move Presidential elections (and their promised departure from power) up eight months to June 2012 will probably be acceptable to many. Those who insist upon the immediate departure of SCAF or Field Marshall Mohammed Tantawi run the very real risk of being marginalized and vilified as fanatics.
But at this point, even if those still protesting in Tahrir Square, outside the Security Directorate in Alexandria and other cities do not represent the majority, it is becoming a valid question whether Egypt can realistically hold a credible and clean national election next week.
Keep in mind, even before the renewed demonstrations, the planning and logistics for this election had been proceeding terribly. The system installed by the SCAF was haphazardly rewritten, twice, on the fly in response to demands by political groups. The end result was deeply confusing and complicated, and there was growing mistrust over whether the government’s Supreme Electoral Commission was even up to the job. As of about 10 days ago, it was impossible to even get a proper list of candidates. Part of the reason that some people took to Tahrir again was dissatisfaction over just how badly the SCAF had bungled the electoral process.
All those problems are still there—in addition to the traumas, complications and bad blood introduced by a week of deadly street-fighting in multiple cities. Two of the main focal points for the most violent protests, Cairo and Alexandria, are also two of the nine governorates slated to vote on Monday. A continuation or growth of the current protests could badly hinder and discredit the polls in Egypt’s two largest cities.
Given the massive uncertainties on display, it is no surprise that some parties are willing to consider the prospect of even a slight delay just to let the nation catch its breath. Al-Ahram Online on 24 November reported that “a number of major political parties” are considering asking SCAF for at least a two-week delay. But it is a concept that is going to draw fierce and stubborn resistance from the biggest non-government player in the field—the Muslim Brotherhood.
While SCAF seems to regard the possibility of a delay as an unacceptable stain on its honor, the Brotherhood is dismissing all talk of postponement for a different reason. The venerable Islamist group has been preparing for this vote for literally decades. With most of the liberal and secular parties just a few months into their existence, the Brotherhood is poised to grab a parliamentary share larger than its actual organisational base would merit. It is a cynical strategy and one that has engendered genuine hostility from many in the liberal/secular camp. When senior Brotherhood official Mohammed Al-Beltagy (a genuine hero of the January revolution) visited the square earlier this week, he was basically run off by angry crowds.
One fresh danger created by these new spasms of public unrest is that liberal and secular activist forces could become openly indifferent to the prospect of an election. Many of the parties could feel compelled by street-level pressure to boycott—which would open the door even wider for Islamists and the remnants of Mubarak’s disbanded National Democratic Party to dominate the vote.
“Right now, there are no elections,” said secular activist Mohammed Ghoneim, as he emerged coughing from the front lines this week with a gas mask dangling from his neck. “We’re back to square one and anyone who doesn’t see this doesn’t know these people.”
Perhaps the saddest player in this whole scenario is outgoing post-revolutionary Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. Originally appointed with the enthusiastic approval of most activist forces, he came to the job with a healthy amount of goodwill and street cred. Now he may be hopelessly damaged by his perceived weakness and willingness to play the role of SCAF’s figleaf. At best, people feel sorry for him. When Sharaf and his entire cabinet submitted their resignations, nobody seemed to care.
Emotionally, politically and logistically, Egypt is not ready for these elections. That is a real shame; after the historic achievements of January and February, this country deserved better than what it is about to get.
[Khalil’s book, Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation, will be published on January 3 by St Martin’s Press.]