Hussein Ibish

One cheer for the Egyptian elections

The preliminary results of the first round of the elections in Egypt for the new constituent assembly were both predictable and sobering.

The strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood was virtually inevitable. They've had at least 30 years’ head start on almost everybody else since being in effect decriminalized by Anwar Sadat. Their Freedom and Justice Party is by far the best organized in the country.

Anyone surprised by this result has been sleeping through recent Egyptian history.

Naturally, the liberal parties fared badly. For the most part they barely campaigned at all and are fragmented into a dizzying array of groupings.

Secularists and liberals have not had time to create effective party organizations that can actually win elections. However, they have a far more onerous task ahead of them. The challenge facing Arab liberals is to define an entirely new political orientation: a contemporary Arab liberalism free from the stigma of supposedly “secular” oppressive regimes.

This is inevitably going to take a great deal of time, effort and public education. At present, post-dictatorship Arab liberalism is largely defined by what it is against—Islamism and the old regimes—rather than what it is for.

In Tunisia, the secular groups mainly focused their campaign on what is bad about the Islamists rather than articulating a clear vision for the future. In Egypt, most of the liberals barely bothered campaigning at all, and much of their efforts in the immediate run-up to the campaign focused on protests in Tahrir Square.

Not only did the Muslim Brotherhood consolidate their competitive advantage during these last weeks by continuing to focus on the election, they handled the protest movement skillfully.

By refusing to openly join the protesters but at the same time strongly condemning the crackdown by the military, they projected an image of being above the fray and more responsible than either the military or the demonstrators. Meanwhile, they hedged their bets slightly by not preventing a good deal of their youth from participating in the protests, though without any official permission.

It's not that this won them many new friends. On the contrary, some people felt betrayed by their ambivalent position. But, crucially, it didn't make them many new enemies either. Those inclined to be angry with the protesters, or with the military, or both, were unlikely to see the Brotherhood as the chief culprits.

What is most troubling is that Salafist parties performed better than expected, and they represent a religious extremism of an entirely different order than the Brotherhood. They too have long-standing networks that have been quickly transformed into ad hoc electoral machines, which, along with significant foreign funding, especially from the Gulf, translated into a deeply troubling success.

Unlike in Tunisia, where the electoral system was fairly straightforward and people knew they were voting for an assembly that will be in charge of writing the constitution, in Egypt much remains profoundly murky. It is distinctly possible that Islamists have, in fact, peaked too early, given that they have attained dominance in an assembly with extremely limited powers.

According to the rules promulgated by the military authorities, which are very controversial but remain definitive for now, the constitution will be drafted by a 100-member body, in which the assembly will only receive 20 seats. The assembly can only choose between candidates from an array of other organizations for the other 80 seats.

Moreover, while the Brotherhood now insists on the right to form a government, nothing in Egypt's presidential system permits them to do so. Egypt still has a presidency, which is in effect being exercised by the military, and the Brotherhood is in a logical and political bind because, by placing such an emphasis on the elections, in effect it has confirmed the role of the military as the de facto president.

They can hardly, at least in the meantime, dismiss its authority on other matters having upheld it in this most crucial function.

But the potential seeds of a confrontation with the military over power have obviously been sown. The Brotherhood and its allies are likely to strongly push for a shift toward a parliamentary system on the grounds that they have won a mandate. They have certainly acquired powerful new leverage, but the military remains enormously potent as well.

In June, I described a potential power-sharing agreement in Egypt leaving the military in de facto control of defense and national security, with a foreign policy-oriented presidency and a parliament with broad powers in domestic affairs.

Nothing that has transpired since has altered my view that this is the most likely and, indeed, optimistic scenario for the country.

So, it can only be one cheer for the Egyptian elections. In many ways they are an important step forward, but the results are deeply troubling, the legal and constitutional framework highly contentious, and the path forward still very fraught and murky.

Hussein Ibish is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.Ibishblog.com.