Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Parliamentary and Presidential Elections in Egypt: Part 1

Several steps lie ahead in order for the current military government in Egypt to turn power over to a civilian government. Among these steps are writing a new constitution, electing a parliament, and electing a new president, or prime Minister. A cautionary note-- The likelihood that Egypt will become a full fledged democracy in a year is fairly low. To use a mathematical term, democracy in Egypt in the immediate term is a low-probability event. Democracy watchers in Egypt would be well-advised to be patient-- very patient.

Indeed, as a point of comparison, Kenya, received its independence in 1963. The first truly competitive multi-party election in Kenya was held in 2002, resulting in the first Kenyan president who was truly freely and fairly elected by the Kenyan people. The next election, 2007, did not go so well, and degenerated into a bloodbath, with nearly 2000 dead, and thousands of internally displaced people. In a heartening development, the Kenyan people passed a progressive new Constitution in a free and fair election in August, 2010, giving succor to those who were worried that Kenya's fledgling democracy would not make it. The 2012 election will be a test of the strength of Kenya's emerging democracy. Forty eight years after Independence, Kenya is not yet a full-fledged democracy, rather, it remains a hybrid regime, with some authoritarian tendencies. That being said, Kenya is one of the freest countries in its vicinity. I provide this example to remind the Egypt observer that this is a long path Egypt has started down. Hopefully, they will attain full democracy in a year. My fingers are crossed that Egypt will be so blessed.

One debate that has raged in Egypt the entire spring has been the timing of elections.The military has committed to holding parliamentary elections, followed by a new constitution, and presidential elections. One problem with this schedule is: 1) it does not provide sufficient time for developing a new constitution, and 2) It seems to foreclose the possibility of a true parliamentary system with a prime minister, in favor of a "strong president" system.

A threat to the emergence of a full democracy in Egypt is the SCAF's reluctance to "renounce its role in managing the affairs of the country during this crucial time in Egypt's history." (Staff, "Egypt's Deputy PM resign amid protests," Al Jazeera, July 12, 2011). Indeed, the military is moving to protect an even expand its authority. Observers had been heartened that several parties had agreed to adopt a "declaration of basic principles," to govern the drafting of the Egyptian Constitution. The thinking was that this declaration would protect a civil state, and reign in the Islamists. (Author interview with Abdel Ghaffr Shokr). However, legal scholars working on the document now suggest that the military might use the declaration to spell out the military's role in the civilian government.

One worrying provision in this declaration of basic principles, is that it could potentially make the defense budget unavailable for public or parliamentary review. (David D. Kirkpatrick, "Egypt Military Aims to Cement Muscular Role in Government," New York Times, July 16, 2011) Given that the defense budget is a huge proportion of Egypt's current budget, this provision could be extremely problematic. (Author interview with Samer Soliman). If the military retains the right to intervene broadly in Egyptian politics, it would limit popular sovereignty, constraining the emerging Egyptian democracy.

Further, I worry about the wisdom of rushing the constitutional process. In general, constitutions take years to write. By sandwiching the constitutional drafting process in between parliamentary elections and presidential elections, the SCAF is de facto limiting the time available to deliberate on the provisions of the constitution. We saw hints of this kind of a rushed process in the military's rush to put the constitutional amendments to a referendum in a matter of weeks. After little public debate, and an accelerated process, the referendum went well enough. But it was then followed by a military decree of over 50 constitutional amendments with no public input whatsoever. This process is not really a process, and is not really a democratic process.

Steps should be put in place to ensure that the parliament has a strong role in the new constitution, both on paper, and in practice. The old parliament under Mubarak, dominated by the state sanctioned National Democratic Party, was little more than a rubber stamp. Indeed, a fact-finding judicial committee recently ruled that Safwat al-Sharif, the former speaker of the Shura, and other parliamentarians masterminded the "Camel Battle" on February 2, 2011, that left several protesters dead. (Staff, Egyptians demand post-revolution changes," Al Jazeera, July 15, 2011)

The conventional wisdom had been that parliamentary elections would be held in September. Nonetheless, this schedule seemed rushed, given that Ramadan ends on August 30th (more or less). In an interview with Abdel Ghaffr Shokr in late June, Shokr explained that given the multiple steps that are required to hold elections, September elections simply were not feasible. This analysis was confirmed when the SCAF said preparations for the vote would begin on September 30th, 2011. (AP, "Arab Spring hardens into Summer of Stalemates," The Washington Post, July 14, 2011). In many ways, this delayed schedule is good news, as it gives more time for civilian, non-Islamist, non-NDP political forces to prepare for the parliamentary vote.


  1. Every process takes time to succeed. In fact, the paths toward democracy should be carefully taken. There are many obstacles that need to be solved; for instance, the ongoing demonstrations across country, political immaturity of some new parties and ideological crush among them, and the definition of SCAF’s role in this process.
    Above all, it’s clear that September is the start point, not the end.

  2. Yes, Bernadette. I agree with you that we are at the beginning, not the end.