In Egypt, Will Democratic Legitimacy Trump Military Legitimacy?

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Egyptian voters line up outside a polling station in Cairo on Nov. 28, 2011

Egypt has an immense and lengthy history, but the country may just be writing its most important chapter now. Many of the voters here tell me the significance of Egypt's elections won't be who wins or loses. In fact, the exact composition of the new parliament will not be known until well into 2012. The test of Egypt's elections will be durability and credibility. Will they stick as a legitimate barometer of the popular will and help establish democratic stability?

Egypt needs to see these elections through to the end. It's not going to be quick. There will be no U.S.-style countdown till the polls close, no projections on legislative seats in the middle of the night. That's because the elections are being staggered from November to January. They will take place over six weeks, with only nine out of the 27 governorates voting during any given round. The process must therefore keep its momentum and, more important, its integrity as it moves from round to round, governorate to governorate. The elections will most certainly test Egyptian patience and jurisprudence and the ability of political forces to compromise and coalesce. The key principle is legitimacy.

Egyptians are still torn about how to move forward in these uncertain times, beyond the need for military rule or having to resort to constant and continued sit-ins in Tahrir Square. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which assumed temporary rule over the country after Hosni Mubarak's fall, has taken advantage of the mixed sentiments and pressed its own claims. Indeed, human-rights organizations, politicians and activists have warned that the SCAF is monopolizing legitimacy — illegitimately.

The SCAF argues that since there is no designated entity to which it can hand over power, it is the only legitimate supranational decisionmaking body in Egypt and is thus entitled to make laws by decree. But its initial adherence to democracy and the principles espoused by the protesters in Tahrir appears to have eroded quickly. In March, shortly after the SCAF appointed Essam Sharaf as Prime Minister, he went to Tahrir for a symbolic swearing-in and told the masses that he drew his "legitimacy from Tahrir." But Sharaf was not given the power to form his own Cabinet or policies; when his Finance Minister attempted to secure loans from the World Bank and the IMF, the SCAF overruled the decision.

Despite claiming to safeguard the revolution, the SCAF has dismissed many of the demands of Tahrir — including an end to military trials for civilians. At a press conference on the eve of the elections, the SCAF said, "Egypt is not Tahrir." But protesters are demonstrating once again that they are as potent a force as the military. They have argued and shown that ignoring the will of Tahrir can be perilous for Egypt's leaders (just ask Mubarak or Sharaf, who resigned in late November). If there is one thing the revolution has proved, it is that Egyptians no longer fear their rulers and have the will to take them on if they fail to deliver.

If Egyptians can weather the storms of uncertainty that arise as these elections are taking place — including legal challenges and disputes and the shocks inherent in politicking and forming alliances — many voters hope to see the emergence of a legitimate, nationwide institution acting as an alternative to the SCAF and the rule of the streets. If a legislature with a mandate from the people is put in place, political forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, believe the SCAF"s monopoly on legitimacy will weaken significantly. Meanwhile, a forum for arguing, advocating and designating the future path of the country will exist — one outside of Tahrir Square but far more representative of the will of the Egyptian people.

The question then will be whether such a parliament would be able to define its role in the new Egypt. Liberal activists concede that the Muslim Brotherhood, by way of its Freedom and Justice Party, is likely to be a dominant force in the body. If the legislature then fails to assert itself as the fulcrum of political power — indeed, if it is perceived to be pro-SCAF — then the Brotherhood itself is likely to be tarnished. But a robust parliament would be welcomed.

The military has repeatedly said it will hand over power only to an elected body. In the simplest terms, a legislature that has the vocal support of millions of voters is too large for the SCAF to ignore or marginalize. At that point, if the military rulers refuse to hand over power, there will be two institutions that can claim legitimacy, but as pro-democracy advocates point out, only one will have a direct mandate from the people.

Mohyeldin is a foreign correspondent for NBC News based in Cairo.