A Panel Discussion, Post-Elections Egypt

A Panel Discussion sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Michele Dunne, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Emad Shahin, American University in Cairo and Georgetown University
Amr Hamzawy, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Nathan Brown, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Michele Dunne began comparing the 2005 parliamentary elections in Egypt to other elections in Egypt over the past twenty years. This year parliamentary elections have been marked by a number of new features:

¢ Egypt has an electoral commission, albeit not an independent one, as it is headed by the minister of justice. 
¢ Electoral monitors”trained and organized by civil society organizations, many of which funded by international organizations and foreign donors”were allowed access inside and outside polling places and have thus been able to produce numerous reports documenting violations. However, monitors had œimperfect access to polling places, and œvery little or almost no access to counting places.
¢ Egyptian judges, who oversee balloting, were much more organized and vocal in this year elections.

These features have made it much more difficult to rig races in the Egyptian elections, which contributed to the strong performance of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).  There are, however, several old phenomena in this year elections:

¢ The National Democratic Party (NDP) use of violence
¢ The interference of Egyptian security forces, particularly in the second and third rounds of voting
¢ The arrest of MB members after the first round of elections
¢ Vote buying
¢ Low voter turnout
¢ The poor success rate of the NDP, and its cooption of independents who had left the party before the elections, and rejoined it after their election.

Of the 308 seats contested so far, the MB won 76 and has the potential to win 20 more, which will mark an unprecedented Brotherhood representation in the Egyptian parliament.  Other opposition parties, such as the once dominant Wafd party, have thus far only won about 8 seats among them. It not clear, however, whether the elected parliament will serve its full five-year term; many lawsuits have been filed and it is possible that there will be changes in the electoral system, which may lead to the dissolution of parliament, similar to what happened in the 1980s.

Dunne then argued that the U.S. response to the elections has so far have been appropriate to the extent that it focused on the process rather than the results, and the meaning of the MB gains. As the levels of violence increase, however, Dunne hoped that the United States would be more publicly critical of Mubarak regime, as it had been in the aftermath of the May 2005 referendum.

Emad Shahin discussed the strong performance of MB candidates by focusing on the factors that have contributed to their success, the reasons why the NDP allowed them to win a relatively large number of seats, the change of strategy of the MB, and the implications of the MB performance for U.S. policy.

The relatively strong performance of the MB could be interpreted as both a protest vote against the NDP and a positive vote for the MB.   The NDP internal divisions, and its association with corruption, violence, and lack of commitment to reform, are but a few reasons for its loss of credibility.  Not only did the ruling party overestimate its power, it failed to account for the strength of the MB.

The MB™ success, however, is also a product of their long history of active engagement with the Egyptian public and the change in their strategy from self-preservation to reassertion. Over the past year, the MB consistently articulated a general reform platform, confronted the regime in a number of well-organized demonstrations, and showed willingness to cooperate with other political forces, and pragmatically reacted to the presidential elections, and managed a highly efficient parliamentary campaign”naming candidates who had a high probability to win and creatively mobilizing its constituency. 

Several factors have contributed to the Muslim Brotherhood change of strategy from self-preservation to reassertion:

¢ The accommodation policy they had used with the government in the 1990s has not worked.
¢ The ascendancy of the current guide Mahdi Akef, who is close to the middle generation within the Brotherhood.
¢ The MB realized that it is in their interest to benefit from the current transitional phase in Egypt.

The ongoing parliamentary elections demonstrate the vulnerability of the NDP and the weight of the MB as a main opposition force in Egypt, and thus underscore a great polarization in Egypt political scene.  The newly-elected parliament will be faced with challenging reform questions, such as succession and constitutional amendments.  The MB positions on these issues and their ability to deliver campaign promises remain to be seen.

The MB gains in these elections create three possible scenarios for U.S. policy: an Algerian scenario whereby the United States would continue to support an authoritarian regime; a wait-and-see policy; and finally perhaps a much-needed opportunity for the United States to devise a coherent and consistent policy to engage with moderate Islamists.

Amr Hamzawy put the parliamentary elections in perspective by pointing out that they are being seen as a litmus test for whether or not Egypt is moving in the direction of significant political change.  It could be argued that the unprecedented opposition representation in the newly-elected parliament will mark a qualitatively new stage in Egypt politics. Instead, Hamzawy suggested that the elections resulted in a bipolar system, dominated by the NDP and the MB.  The MB has endorsed political reforms but there remain gray zones where the extent of their transformation remains unclear”especially on issues of universal citizenship and the use of religious slogans, such as œIslam is the Solution.

The first two rounds of the ongoing parliamentary elections underscore the marginal status of secular opposition parties”mainly organized under the umbrella of the united opposition front. Creating a united opposition”especially in transitional stages”is a counterproductive strategy. Practically, it meant that opposition parties diluted their positions on important issues, confused the electorate, failed to reach out to their constituencies, and absolved themselves from the need to campaign.  Their poor performance is thus testament to their decaying organizational structures.

The secular opposition poor performance is likely to marginalize it in the coming years.  Hamzawy argued that the MB simply has no incentive to engage with other opposition parties.  In fact, it is possible that the NDP will try to influence the secular opposition to side with it against the MB, as it has done in the past.

Hamzawy stressed that changes in the NDP internal dynamics over the next few years will be just as interesting as the changes in the MB thought and rhetoric. Both fractions of the ruling party failed in the elections; even the new guard credibility is seriously questioned.

During the question and answer period, Emad Shahin commented on the opposition Kifaya movement, arguing that it is a transitional protest movement, which remains elitist in nature and has yet to develop strong grassroots support. On the issue of how to interpret the gains of the MB and the poor performance of the secular opposition, Dunne attributed the MB success to their ability to mobilize their supporters.  Secular parties, she added, are largely bankrupt and their younger generations have yet to prove themselves. At this stage, the United States should focus on promoting a democratic process rather than bargain with any particular political force. Hamzawy agreed, adding that the opposition failure underestimation of the MB popularity, overestimation of its own strength, and adoption of the united opposition front.  Shahin refused the logic of a secular opposition“NDP alliance against the MB and stressed the inherent weakness of the secular opposition.   Hamzawy also commented on the relationship between the NDP and the Egyptian security forces. The ongoing parliamentary elections underscore the centrality of the latter and the regime continued use of the former to run the political sphere.

Synopsis prepared by Dina Bishara, Junior Fellow in the Democracy and Rule of Law Project.

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