Egypt's military leadership got the ball rolling this week on what many hope will be the first properly democratic parliamentary election in the country's history. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces laid out a complex and confusing new set of electoral rules to guide the vote originally promised for September. No date was set for the poll, but the generals announced that official preparations would begin by the end of September. The terms and timing of the election have become a focal point of mounting political tension as different groups jockey for influence over the direction of post-Mubarak Egypt.
Democracy activists and foreign diplomats have voiced concerns over the Egyptian security forces' ability to stage a credible election in a postrevolution environment characterized by lax law enforcement and an often inactive police force. Liberals and youth groups who demanded more time to prepare for the elections sensing the daunting challenge of competing for votes with the more popular and far better organized Muslim Brotherhood scored a small victory with the brief delay in the polling date, currently indicated to be at the end of November. Still, the organization of new parties remains largely chaotic, and few, aside from the Islamists, have so far managed to launch nationwide campaigns. Many Egyptians fear a recurrence of the Mubarak regime's thuggery at the polls, violence having previously been used to keep opposition supporters from voting. Some even fear that could rehabilitate the old regime via the ballot box.
For all the clamor, Egypt's ostensibly transitional military junta insists it is in charge and that it reserves the right to tell Egyptians how the post-Mubarak transition will unfold. Consistent with rising xenophobia in political rhetoric in the months since the revolution or, as some argue, in keeping with the military's desire to influence the vote the Supreme Council has rejected calls by activists and liberal rights groups for the polling to be observed by international monitors. Instead, the generals have tasked the country's still weak judiciary to oversee the election. They have also allowed that domestic groups would be welcome to monitor the vote, which will play out in three stages, to ensure adequate judicial supervision.
Parties will have the option of running candidates as individuals or on closed party lists, and each polling station will contain respective ballot boxes for each. The military plans to revise Egypt's electoral districts next week. Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, July 20, Major General Mamdouh Shahine discussed female representation (there don't appear to be any requirements beyond including at least one woman on each party list), voting symbols, candidate qualification requirements, conditions for a revote and other details. "One or more parties can enter a single list, or a party can enter its own list," said Shahine, noting that 50% of parliament's members would have to fall into the poorly defined "workers/farmers" category of the current constitution a system that some groups have called outdated. "Those who run as workers should remain as workers during their work as members of parliament. A symbol for each list will be for the whole country, not for the governorate," he continued. "In the old system, the party that has less than 8% does not enter the parliamentary system. Now it's less than 0.5%."
But for a public largely unaccustomed to voting in parliamentary elections voter turnout had been dismally low under Mubarak's rigged polling the new procedures, with more details to come, may prove daunting. As far as the military is concerned, the process may be complicated by necessity; there is so much competing hysteria over the democratic transition that the country's military leadership has struggled to accommodate various factions.
Some fear that the generals may have made the transition more complicated to create a pretext for holding on to power. The Supreme Council indicated last week that it would like to see the Egyptian transition follow the old Turkish model that gave the military an autonomous supraconstitutional role. That sparked an outcry among some youth activists and Islamists who reject such proposals as antidemocratic. "We'll campaign against any supraconstitutional declarations by the army that pass, zenga zenga, bayt bayt," a Salafist preacher from the newly formed fundamentalist Noor Party told his audience at a campaign event in the Nile Delta town of Tukh on Thursday, July 21, raising a laugh for invoking a phrase associated with Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi that means alley to alley, house to house.
Protesters camped out in Cairo's Tahrir Square for the past two weeks have routinely accused the Supreme Council of arrogance in its dictation of new interim laws, including the election law. Many youth activists complain that their demands for speedier prosecution of former regime officials and an outline of basic democratic rights ahead of the election which will ultimately lead to the drafting of a new constitution have been overlooked. Islamist groups have pushed back against talk of an autonomous guiding role for the military, saying the idea lacks popular support. But the military is unlikely to yield.
Indeed, if there's a lesson on the electoral process to be taken from the recent announcements by Egypt's steadfast military leaders, it's that the parties had best begin campaigning if they want to make themselves heard it's only if they can win the backing of the citizenry that they have any prospect of persuading the military.