Long Road to Democracy in Egypt

December 20th, 2011   Articles | News | North Africa

In mid-November a delegation from the Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation visited Cairo and Alexandria. The purpose of the visit was to research possibilities for future cooperations in the region. Thomas Gür, who was part of the delegation, describes the complex political landscape that reveals itself when the Arab Spring turns into fall and winter.

When we visited Egypt the country faced its first round of elections to the parliament’s lower house – an election which was held in approximately a third of the constituencies on 28 November. The second round of elections took place in mid-December and the third will be held early January. Another three rounds of elections will later be held to the parliament’s upper house in March of 2012.

The complexity of the electoral process is a result of an Egyptian election law which states that there must be a judge present at every polling station to ensure that the process is conducted in a right manner. And since there are three times as many polling stations as there are judges in the country, elections to parliament’s two chambers are held in three rounds each.  After the elections a committee of 100 people will be appointed to write Egypt’s new constitution.

This process is tainted with serious weaknesses – not least as the results of each election are made public which influences the following elections. The complexity of it however reflects that these are the first free elections since before the military coup in 1952.

Aside from this odd electoral process, there were two questions which constantly recurred in our meetings with party-, organization- and the business community representatives: the strength of the Islamists and the role of the military.

That parties representing political Islam would win a large share of the seats in parliament was something everyone we met was certain of – even if their values on the matter differed. They stressed the importance of not perceiving these Islamic forces as a homogeneous group – emphasizing the differences between on one hand the Muslim Brotherhood, with its roots in Egyptian Islam and opposition to the country’s authoritarian rule these past 60 years, and the Salafists, who are inspired by Wahabite puritanism, on the other.

In the final days of our visit, this and the role of the military became clear. On November 18, large-scale protests broke out in several major cities against continued military involvement in the political process.  A few days later the protests had evolved into clashes between security forces and protesters, mainly on Tahir Square in Cairo. Altogether 40 people lost their lives.

The protests were initiated by the Salafist parties and came to be supported by secular and liberal parties, while the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, did not. They did not want to interfere with the electoral process. The Brotherhood was then accused of turning a blind eye on military’s dominance. Some argued that their position would have a negative impact on the Muslim Brotherhood’s election result.

Although the election process is not over yet, that will clearly not be the case. Indications are that the Freedom and Justice Party will receive approximately 40 percent of the votes. The secular and more liberal parties were on the other hand not as successful as many had hoped for and which had been reflected to the world.

Yet it is uncertain whether the Freedom and Justice Party will gain as much influence as in relation to their successes in the elections. The military will continue to be a dominant force in Egyptian politics for the foreseeable future. The governing military council, Scaf (Supreme Council of Armed Forces), in November attempted to appease protesters by bringing forward the presidential election to mid-2012. But the document which prompted the protests had not been formally withdrawn. According to this document, the military budget will remain undisclosed from the country’s elected representatives, and the military will control the composition of the committee which is to write the new constitution.

As a mark of their aspiration to dominate Egyptian politics, the military recently appointed an advisory group with several political parties’ representatives as members. The group will act until a president is elected and function as an interface between Scaf and society. Parliament will not be the only institution to appoint the members of the committee on the constitution, a general in the military council underlined.

The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party tellingly opted out of the advisory council marking that no third part can limit parliament in matters of legislation.

The Muslim Brotherhood will use its power in parliament to reduce the military’s dominance and to transfer political power from a presidential rule to parliament. The determining question is whether the Brotherhood in this will seek support in the more liberal side of the political spectra or if it will ally with the Salafists and submit to a more radical, fundamentalist and purist interpretation of Islam. The answer will come after the remaining rounds of elections.

A determining factor is whether the liberal and more secular forces are able to unite and perform a better election result. As an observer wrote, this will, in a country like Egypt with 30 percent illiteracy, require less opinion pieces in newspapers and on the Internet and more town meetings and door-to-door campaigning.


Text: Thomas Gür,
Writer and Senior advisor to the JHF


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