USA Today Talks to IRI's Scott Mastic About Egypt's Elections

January 10, 2012

Egypt wrapping up free elections
USA Today

By Sarah Lynch

CAIRO – Nearly one year after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians are concluding their first free and fair elections in decades in what analysts say is a good sign for a country wracked by poverty, injustice and at risk for religious extremism.

"The elections have given Egypt a forward momentum," said Shadi Hamid of Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. "At least now you can say there is something going on here and the process has started, even though there is a long way to go."

The third stage of the voting for the 498 seats of the lower house of parliament will end Wednesday with some run-off votes. The elections were dominated by Islamist parties long banned in Egypt and whose agendas are murky. Their newfound power will give them significant influence over the devising of a constitution in which the rights of women, religious minorities and the role of Islamic law will be enshrined.

"This is the first democratically elected Islamist majority in Egypt that will have a say in the upcoming government, if not form the government," said Mazen Hassan, a political science lecturer at Cairo University. "That's a huge change in Egypt and in the Arab world. Now [Islamists] will be tested."

The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party won almost 40% of seats in the first two rounds of elections, which began Nov. 28. The Salafist Al-Noor Party, which supports full Islamic law, gained more than 20%.

Final results are likely this week. According to preliminary results from the country's election agency, the voting was similar to previous rounds with the Brotherhood taking more than one third and Al-Noor coming in second.

Election monitoring groups say they saw some minor violations at the polls that ranged from campaigning on election days to failing to check the identities of some veiled women. Overall, they say, elections went smoothly and were accepted by most Egyptians as legitimate, as opposed to elections under Mubarak, which were labeled fraudulent by election monitors and the U.S. State Department.

"This election, thus far, appears to have been conducted in a way that is broadly transparent," said Scott Mastic of the Washington-based International Republican Institute, an organization that observed the elections.

A legitimate election is one gain in life after Mubarak, who ruled for 29 years and is on trial on charges of corruption and ordering the deaths of protesters. Others include greater ease in forming political parties. More than 40 parties and 6,000 candidates registered for the new elections.

Still, there are signs that a new Egypt may tilt from true democracy.

The military that has run the country since Mubarak's ouster has continued to crack down on political expression it considers improper. In late December, security forces raided the offices of 10 democracy-building groups as part of ongoing investigations into foreign funding for civil society institutions. The U.S. National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute were included.

State-run media operate under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces headed by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who replaced Mubarak as president.

Security forces have also carried out increasingly violent crackdowns on demonstrators. Seventeen people were killed in mid-December after clashes erupted among protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

The military has refused to rescind Mubarak's Emergency Law, which allows the government to jail people without charges. Gatherings of five or more people are illegal if authorities tell groups to disperse. The military council is also trying civilians in military court.

"The fact that the military has set itself above the law is a real challenge to ensuring rule of law will be respected," said Heba Morayef, researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.

The next test for democracy will be the drafting of a constitution, which will lay out the rights of citizens and the power of the government. The parliament is charged with appointing a 100-person committee to draft the document. Gen. Mukhtar al-Mulla said the ruling generals would assert "authority" over the process, although the military backed off that statement after criticism from political parties.

"It's clear that the biggest obstacle now is the way in which SCAF has handled the transition," said Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations based in New York. "You have a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that is not necessarily dedicated to a democracy and an open Egypt."

Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation, a New York-based think tank, said, "It's not the situation of a coup," alluding to the army officers that toppled the monarchy in 1952, "but they want perks, privileges and enhanced influence."

The Islamist parties that control the most seats in parliament say they will give the military time to relinquish its power over the political process. But they, too, have given rise to worries about democracy's future here. Islamists push imposition of sharia, which generally denies equal rights to women, non-Muslims or even liberal Muslims.

"People are worried about what changes in law and legislation Islamists will bring," said Michael Mounir, president of the liberal Al-Haya Party and a leader of Egypt's Coptic community, roughly 10% of the nation's more than 80 million people. "If they don't believe in holidays like Christmas, will they outlaw celebrations?"

Others wonder what will become of the nation's economy if Islamist beliefs such as bans on alcohol and bikinis are enforced on the tourism industry. Instituting sharia could deter Western tourists, a major source of revenue, from visiting Egypt.

"The reality," Cook said, "is we don't quite yet know what the outcome of these elections will mean for the future of Egypt."