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Foreign Policy

Election Season in Egypt about more than the Muslim Brotherhood

Election Season in Egypt about more than the Muslim Brotherhood

Before former President Hosni Mubarak relinquished power this past February, major Western media outlets including CNN, the BBC and Agence-Presse had already published a litany of editorials spelling out the inevitable political ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin) in Egypt.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta meets with Egyptian Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi at the Egyptian Ministry of Defense headquarters in Cairo

The argument went that as the most organized, and most infamous, oppositional group in Egypt, the Brotherhood would easily sweep elections and cruise to power unchallenged in any post-Mubarak scenario. Even eight months later, as Egyptians prepare to go to the polls for Parliamentary elections beginning November 28th, this narrative continues to dominate international coverage of the campaign. Yet, in Cairo the political situation is undoubtedly more complex, and the Brotherhood is far from the only topic of discussion.

Since February, the country has seen a steady proliferation of new political parties and the overhaul of many older ones. What once seemed a barren political landscape is now quite crowded. The party established by the Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party (al-Hurriya wa al-‘Adala) is weathering a number of significant challenges. On one side, the unofficial Salafi bloc headed by the Light Party (al-Nour) is competing hard for the exceedingly religious and lower-middle class voters that the Brotherhood considers its base. On the other side, the centrist and more secular-minded Egypt Bloc, lead by the Free Egyptians Party (al-Masriyeen al-Ahrrar), the Democratic Front Party (al-Gabha al-Dimuqrati) and the Egypt Freedom Party (Masr al-Hurreyya) will undoubtedly court significant support in urban, middle-class and Christian communities.

In the lead up to next month’s Parliamentary elections, fears of a Brotherhood electoral romp seem increasingly unlikely. While the tired narrative of an unchallenged Brotherhood victory has been sold to international audiences, Egyptians seem much more concerned with systemic issues that continue to plague the political system, including the uncertain role of the military, the intensification of religious tensions and continued constitutional wrangling.

The Uncertain role of the Military

The primary concern going into next month’s elections is the ambiguity surrounding the transition from military to civilian rule. Since the ouster of Mubarak, Egypt has been administered by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Under the leadership of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the SCAF has displayed an erratic, oftentimes heavy-handed style of rule. From the time the SCAF took power, they have grappled with recurrent and increasingly raucous calls to end the military trials of civilians, to minimize censorship of the media and to hasten the transition to civilian rule.

As one of the most respected and popular national institutions prior to January 25th, the Armed Forces curried significant favour by refusing to fire on unarmed protestors during the revolution. For many Egyptians, this decision ensured the success of the protests and guaranteed the end of the Mubarak regime. However, the reservoir of popular support that accumulated during the Revolution has been largely drained during the political interregnum, as the SCAF has resisted major institutional reforms and taken only minor steps toward a civilian handover.

For their part, the Egyptian Armed Forces are facing an existential crisis of their own. Since the Free Officers overthrew King Farouk in the 1952 Revolution, Egypt has been ruled exclusively by military men. Presidents Naguib, Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak have proven themselves sympathetic to the Armed Forces, ensuring a generous budget beyond the reach of Parliament that has evolved the military into the best-funded and politically influential institution in the country.

In the wake of the revolution, the military has been forced to reconsider its role in Egyptian society. Under civilian leadership, the economic support and political influence of the Armed Forces would almost certainly be restricted. It is for this reason, say many Egyptian commentators, that the military has decided to renew the hated Emergency Law and resist tangible steps towards a civilian transition. As elections approach, this has left many Egyptians to wonder whether next month’s vote will in fact lead to a civilian administration, or whether the SCAF will instead consolidate its grip on power and continue to block authentic political reform.

Religious Violence

A second hot-button issue heading into elections is the bubbling tensions between Egypt’s Muslim majority and the Coptic Christian minority. The stories of interreligious cooperation during the revolution have become the stuff of legend in Cairo. One cannot have a conversation with someone who attended the demonstrations in Tahrir Square without being inundated with stories of Muslims protecting Christians as they prayed in the square and vice versa. Cairo’s bridges, walls and overpasses are covered with thousands of spray-painted crescent and cross combinations, the symbol of Muslim and Christian coexistence. Since the end of the revolution however, a string of high-profile incidents have sown suspicion and discord between the two communities.

The first high profile flare-up took place in May in Cairo’s lower working-class neighbourhood of Imbaba, on the west bank of the Nile. According to the Investigatory Committee tasked with probing the violence, about 500 “Salafi [Muslims]” attacked the Saint Mina Coptic Church in Imbaba, in response to rumours that the Christians were holding a Coptic convert to Islam hostage inside. The attack, carried out with guns, stones and Molotov cocktails resulted in the deaths of 15 people, over 200 injuries, and the burning of three other Coptic churches and looting of Coptic businesses in Imbaba.

The second significant eruption of religious violence took place on October 9th at the television and radio broadcasting building in downtown Cairo known as Maspiro. In response to the burning of a church in the southern Egyptian city of Aswan the previous week, roughly 10 000 mostly Christian demonstrators rallied at Maspiro to demand the protection of Coptic rights and voice their displeasure with the administration of the SCAF. Violence between the demonstrators and the military broke out and in the ensuing chaos 25 people were killed and over 300 left injured.

For many in the minority Coptic community, these violent flare-ups are being interpreted as a harbinger of things to come. These incidents have been fodder for political discussions in the run-up to next month’s elections. Many Christians are unhappy with the support and protection of their minority rights under the SCAF administration. They increasingly feel that their once sheltered place in Egyptian society has been sacrificed to the tyranny of the Muslim majority, and they wonder about the future safety of the Coptic community in the new Egypt.

Constitutional Ambiguity

A third critical concern is the yet unresolved matter of the Egyptian Constitution. On March 19th, Egyptians turned out in overwhelming numbers to cast votes in a referendum on a number of proposed constitutional amendments. By a large majority (77%), Egyptians voted to delay the writing of a new constitution until after Parliamentary and Presidential elections had been held. With Parliamentary elections beginning November 28th and Presidential elections slated for March or April 2012, this delays the constitutional drafting process for at least another six months.

For now, Egypt is functioning under a provisional constitution that was penned by a small group of political and judicial officials to steer Egypt’s transition. The problem is that the provisional constitution gives control of the process to the future President and the future Parliament. It asserts only that a 100 member constitutional assembly is to be appointed by the President and the Parliament within six months of elections to formulate the constitution over a six-month period.

This raises the spectre that the President and triumphant party will have a disproportional influence over the direction and content of the new constitution. The widespread fear is that the victorious Presidential candidate and Parliamentary coalition will stack the constitutional assembly with supportive underlings who will draft a partisan document that does not serve the majority of Egyptians.

If Egypt is to be a civilian administered state, its political DNA will be set out in its constitution. The new constitution needs to reflect the diversity of the country, chart a conciliatory course for political and judicial transformation, and enshrine the rights of Egypt’s minorities. In order to realize this, the constitutional assembly needs to have a diverse and inclusive membership that reflects the true demographics of the country.

A New Egyptian Politics?

As Egypt prepares for next month’s elections, these three fundamental concerns are attracting more attention than the scenario of a Muslim Brotherhood victory. The potential triumph of the Brotherhood in democratic elections simply fails to elicit the apocalyptic reactions here in Egypt that are so often associated with the group in the Western media. The narrative of an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood is simply not accurate in the increasingly diverse Egyptian political sphere. The Muslim Brotherhood may win a plurality of votes in the Parliamentary elections, but it is highly unlikely to secure a majority. To be sure, they will need to cobble together a coalition in order to come to power in Egypt.

Irrespective of the results of the Parliamentary elections, Egyptians are coming to understand that they still face considerable obstacles to a representative political system. The political role of the military establishment needs to be curtailed in order to ensure a smooth and timely transition to civilian rule. The SCAF and any future government need to tamp down on the recent religious frictions by guaranteeing the minority status of Coptic Christians within the predominantly Muslim state. The formulation of the new constitution needs to take into account the demographic entirety of Egyptian society and not be reflective of the political aspirations of one group or party.

It is the resolution of these three fundamental political issues, not the electoral performance of the Muslim Brotherhood that will most meaningfully influence the health and stability of Egyptian politics going forward. If timely and practical arrangements can be implemented, Egypt will find itself well on the way to a civil and representative political system. After all, that is exactly what the January 25th revolution demanded and surely what the Egyptian people deserve.