Egypt's Tense Waiting Game: What's at Stake in the Elections

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Bernat Armangue / AP

Banners supporting candidates in Egypt's upcoming parliamentary elections line Cairo's streets on Nov. 27, 2011

As Egypt heads to the polls for its first democratic election since the February ousting of President Hosni Mubarak, it appears the ruling military junta has weathered the storm — for the time being. "They have a black eye, there's no question about that," says Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, who is currently in Egypt. And the nine days of clashes between protesters and Egyptian security forces, which have left 41 people dead and more than 2,000 injured, have certainly tarnished the ruling military council's image for at least some Egyptians, he adds. In Tahrir Square, where thousands gathered to protest for the ninth day running on Sunday, demonstrators continued to attribute responsibility for the violence to the military council, even though the police force carried out the bulk of the attacks on demonstrators. Even so, Shehata says: "At the end of the day, they're still standing." The timetable for transition to a civilian authority has been pushed forward to July. But the military will still run the country until then.

The elections will be a test — both for Egypt's nascent, and still floundering democracy, and for the military rulers whose resignation has been called for by thousands of Egyptians gathered in protests across the country. Mere hours ahead of the vote, the country's security situation is tenuous at best. Analysts say it's unlikely that the military — or even the central security forces that have been engaged in violent attacks on protesters in recent days — will fire on voters as they go to the polls. But Egypt will still be struggling to overcome the unsavory electoral legacy of the Mubarak era, in which supporters of rival candidates and parties have actively participated in voter intimidation, fraud and violence.

The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party has been among the most active and organized campaigners in the months since Mubarak's ouster, and it's widely expected to capture a sizable chunk of Monday's votes. Liberal parties — many of them newly formed since the uprising — have complained that the 83-year-old Brotherhood has the advantage because of its years of opposition organizing under the Mubarak regime's repressive gaze. But Brotherhood members point out that it's the only group with grassroots appeal; for years, the organization has rallied new members at the community level — in mosques, universities and charities. And its leaders have earned street credibility through the prison sentences they served under Mubarak. The Brotherhood may have been betting on that street popularity last week when it opted to sit out the mass protests in Tahrir Square and across the country, even as other parties joined the confrontation with the military to contest its grip on power. "I think the Muslim Brotherhood is waiting to see what the political atmosphere is, and they think there are people here who want to postpone the elections," said Osama Hosni, an electrical engineer, who visited the Tahrir Square protest.

Many of Tahrir's liberal activists have accused the Brotherhood of striking a deal with the military ahead of elections or of prioritizing its own political goals over the fate of the country. Shehata says that's a strategy that has likely hurt them with some constituents, but which hasn't necessarily hurt them politically. "I think they're playing a sophisticated political game, and I think they probably know their interests more than anyone else," he says.

Who played it shrewdly may indeed be revealed on Monday, when Cairo, Alexandria and several other major cities go to vote in the first phase of the parliamentary race. (The second takes place on Dec. 14). The national news agency on Sunday reported that the country's ruling general, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, had warned of "extremely grave" consequences if Egypt doesn't weather its latest protest crisis and proceed with the vote. And despite more than a week of violence, most still believe the election will attract a far larger voter turn out than any race under Mubarak. So the question is, How large?

The junta has a high turnout in its best interest. "A high turnout validates the legitimacy of the elections and the transition process. So it shows acceptance of what the military has put forward," says Shehata. But he doesn't expect turnout to come anywhere close to rivaling that of Tunisia, which recorded a 90% turnout last month in its first election since the winter overthrow of its own dictator, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. "I think if it gets over 50%, [the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] will be happy," says Shehata. "If it's below 50 — in the 30s or something, that will be a condemnation of the process."

As for who wins, the military may prefer to wait and see. Analysts and activists believe the military council will work with any government that agrees to maintain the military's power, relative immunity and complete independence from parliamentary or judicial oversight. A constitutional committee will be set up to draft a new constitution in the months following parliamentary elections. And Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have been among the most vocal critics of a proposed set of "supra-constitutional" principles that would establish the military's status well before a new constitution is drafted. But if votes are split, as they may well be with thousands of independent candidates on the parliamentary ballot, the winners still might pose less of a threat to the ruling junta's authority than Tahrir Square. "We'll see a somewhat fractured parliament with representatives of many different political parties and currents and no one group in the majority," predicts Shehata. "That might make it easier for the military to divide and conquer, as it were. And it will also make it harder for parliament to agree on a corrective course of action."