It is sad that Egypt's first post-Mubarak elections – in which millions of Egyptians have cast their votes, reportedly with a 70% turnout – are being held under the continued rule of the military council, in order to choose a parliament with very limited powers.
Initially, as per the Constitutional Declaration issued by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in March, this parliament was set to select a 100-member constituent assembly to draft a constitution. But this landmark task has been jeopardised since SCAF put forward a "supra-constitutional principles document" that put strict limits on the parliament's role in the selection process. It stated that 80 members of the constituent assembly should be non-MPs, and laid out detailed guidelines about the entities to be represented; most of these are governmental or functioning under SCAF's authority. Although SCAF has not declared the document binding yet, the possibility that it will come into force in the future cannot be ruled out.
The parliament's powers have been undermined further by the statements made by a SCAF member days before the election that the parliament will not have the authority to appoint the government or withdraw confidence from it. The statements accord with the Constitutional Declaration that grants SCAF presidential powers until a presidential election is held; this is not expected before mid-2012 at the earliest.
All such limitations have sparked a debate, especially among pro-democracy activists and political forces, about whether or not they should boycott the elections. This debate was fuelled by violence perpetrated by the Ministry of Interior and, it is claimed, the military police against protesters in Tahrir Square last month. The dozens of protesters killed and hundreds injured prompted some activists to call for a boycott of the elections which they feared would strengthen SCAF's legitimacy.
Ultimately, the massive participation of the Egyptian people, with a 70% electoral turnout (according to SCAF), undermined that debate. Since November 28, numerous intellectuals and commentators have hailed the Egyptians' extraordinary participation in the election's first stage. Some analysts saw popular participation as a desire to get rid of military rule by electing a legitimate civil institution able to defy SCAF's monopoly of power. Others saw it as a form of support for the roadmap drawn-up by SCAF in the constitutional amendments and Declaration. Nevertheless, one message is undisputable: the Egyptian people have definitely decided to participate in this election.
Their votes, according to unofficial preliminary forecasts, have gone primarily to the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, the Salafi-oriented Nour Party, and the Egyptian bloc (led by the Free Egyptians Party, which liberal billionaire Naguib Sawiris founded after the January 25 Revolution). It's too early to have a clear picture of the new parliament's composition at this point, because we have only seen the first stage of a three-stage election; one more will be held this month and the third will be in January.
Broadly-speaking, it looks likely to be a good election for the so-called Islamists, with a large, strong "liberal" minority represented by the Egyptian Bloc/Free Egyptians Party. This means that the parliament will more or less reflect and strengthen the polarisation between Islamists on the one hand and liberals or secularists (they also call themselves the civic bloc) on the other, a division that started to surface during the constitutional amendments referendum in March and which has continued to be fed over the past months. Since March, this polarisation has replaced the unity which prevailed in January and February, when the Egyptian people, revolutionaries and political forces were together against Mubarak and his regime. Some accuse SCAF of fuelling the secularism versus Islamism rift to divert Egyptians from the revolution's aim to topple the regime and its remnants, and bring them to justice. The revolutionaries also sought to hold the ruling military council accountable for failing to live up to its promises about completing fair trials against Mubarak and his aides, and ensuring citizens' safety and security. As part of its divide and rule tactics, SCAF has at times claimed to side with the Islamists, and at other times with the liberals.
The constitutional amendments are thought by secularists to have favoured the Islamists because they imply that the transitional process starts with parliamentary elections rather than drafting a constitution or electing a president; during Mubarak's reign, Islamists proved to be the best organised political force able to perform better than other opposition groups in free elections. Islamists respond to this argument by pointing out that it is not their fault that Egyptians vote for them and that other forces are less organised and have poor popular following.
Observers say that SCAF has also changed its alliances by cooperating with some of the secularist forces to produce the supra-constitutional principles document. Notably, besides the limitation that the document seeks to impose on the parliament's powers, the document also exempts SCAF from parliamentary/popular oversight.
The questions needing answers are whether the parliament will be able to form a government; how long will this parliament stay in power, especially after a president has been elected, potentially in 2012; and whether the new constitution that is set to be drafted after the parliament is elected will establish a parliamentary or presidential system.
The game is not over yet for Egypt. Since January 25 Egyptians have been surprising analysts and politicians in one round after the other, rendering predictions and established political calculations obsolete. For now, demands of this parliament made by the people, revolutionary activists and the intellectual elite include the restoration of internal security and a stable economy, and bringing to justice those responsible for killing protesters since January until today.
In the meantime, the revolutionaries persevere in Tahrir Square, refusing to leave before military rule has ended and all the revolution's demands first put forward in January and February have been achieved.
Sara Khorshid is an Egyptian journalist and columnist who has covered Egypt, as well as relations between the Muslim and Western worlds, for the past 9 years. Until July 2009, she was the managing editor of the Politics in Depth section at IslamOnline.net (now OnIslam.net). Her articles are published in The Guardian, Al Shorouk, Daily News Egypt, Alarabiya.net, Common Ground News Service, Middle East Online, and numerous other media outlets. She holds a bachelor's degree in political science from Cairo University and can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.