Egyptians went to the polls in surprisingly large numbers Monday for the country’s first parliamentary vote since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak earlier this year. The long lines and wide participation offered fresh glimpses of hope amid an otherwise turbulent post-revolution period, as Egypt’s powerful military clings to power.
The question of whether Egypt’s military would eventually cede power to a civilian government loomed over the vote, following weeks of renewed clashes in which peaceful protests have been dispersed, bloggers and journalists have been arrested and dozens of civilians killed. Even as the elections offered new cause for optimism, Human Rights Watch released a report accusing the military of using many of the same iron-fisted tactics as the Mubarak government to stifle freedom of speech and assembly.
The report found, for example, that the military had revived some of the same repressive laws, such as prohibitions on “insulting” the government, to arrest activists and journalists who have criticized the military for refusing to hand over power. “Egyptians need to feel safe when they go to vote — to know they can criticize the authorities and still be protected by the security forces,” Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, wrote in the report. “Removing Mubarak from power is not a substitute for ensuring the basic rights of Egyptians, whatever the generals might think.”
The military’s use of the Mubarak playbook to stifle dissent has prompted concerns that, even if the parliamentary elections go smoothly, they may not bring meaningful democratic reform. The elections themselves, some analysts say, have been engineered to give the military outsize influence over the results and ensure the obedience of a feeble civilian government.
The electoral process is protracted and complex, broken up into three stages that aren’t scheduled to end until January 10th. The 498 winners of the first three rounds of voting will convene in the lower house of parliament, the “People’s Assembly,” on March 17th, giving the military plenty of time to continue wielding power and shape the electoral outcome. There will also be additional elections for the upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, next year, followed by presidential elections set to take place by June. According to an election primer published by Al-Ahram, Egypt’s most widely read newspaper, more than 8,000 candidates have registered to run in the elections.
“The electoral process appears to be deliberately convoluted, providing ample opportunity for the shaping of results as the military regime sees fit,” Reva Bhalla, an analyst for the global intelligence firm Stratfor, wrote in a dispatch on Monday. “The military regime does appear so far to have the controls in place to shape the results and allow for a largely weak and ineffective civilian face to be put on the government while keeping that core regime structure in place.”
Given the confusing and fractious nature of the Egyptian elections, the parties most likely to thrive are the ones that are already well-organized, such as the country’s longstanding opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamist party, which has so far avoided directly challenging the military for fear of inviting a crackdown, seems likely to win as much as 30 percent of the seats in the Egyptian parliament’s lower house. As Al-Ahram noted, the Muslim Brotherhood is also leading a political coalition with more “leftist” and “liberal-oriented” minor parties.
The other dominant coalition, many experts predict, may be the alliance of four hardcore Salafist parties, running under the banner of the “Islamist Alliance.” Though the Salafists are competing with the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, the two could form a powerful coalition once in power, with the Islamist Alliance winning as much as 16 percent of the seats in the parliament’s lower house, according to polls. Another alliance of liberal forces, known as the “Egyptian Bloc” and founded by the Egyptian telecommunications billionaire Naguib Sawiris, has also been running strong in polls, and could form a powerful counterweight, along with the military, to the influence of the Islamists.
In a sign of how far Egypt has come since the birth of the revolution in Tahrir Square in January, a coalition of revolutionary parties closely associated with the original protest movement has failed to gain traction among the Egyptian public. Many members of the “Revolution Continues Alliance” abandoned the campaign to return to Tahrir Square after the military refused to cede power. As a result, their standing in polls has fallen considerably ahead of the elections. “The number of seats is not all we care about,” Someya Adel Torky, a leading coalition member, told Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. “Having seats in people’s hearts is what really matters.”