Recent elections supervised by the military-dominated government have failed to deliver fundamental democratic reforms to Egypt’s political system. The long-awaited parliamentary elections of November 2011 to January 2012 disproportionately favoured Islamist political parties at the expense of the liberal and secularist forces that packed Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the Egyptian revolution, in the early months of 2011. Although repressed for decades under Egypt’s draconian security services, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists were unofficially tolerated because they provided social services to millions of citizens that the government was either incapable of doing or unwilling to do on its own. As a natural albeit unintended consequence, political Islamists like the conservative Muslim Brotherhood and the hardline al-Noor Party were much better organized, mobilized and recognized at the ballot box than their opponents, be they political secularists, nationalists, leftists, liberalists, and virtually all others.
Though many may disagree with the results of these seemingly skewed elections, the fact is that they were the freest and fairest in modern Egypt’s history. If the price to pay for a more democratic Egypt in the long run is an Islamist-dominated Legislative Assembly in the short run, then surely this is worth it? The successful experiences of comparable parliaments in the Middle East with Islamist-party majorities would seem to support this fact: the governments of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (in power since 2002), Tunisia’s al-Ennahda Party and Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (both in power since 2011) have all managed to reconcile Islamist political stewardship with democratic transitions of power. While many may disagree with the priorities and proposed policies of Islamist politicians, democracy means trying them out until voters decide to change their minds with the next election.
But even this point is moot since on June 14-15, 2012, on the eve of a long and tumultuous race for the presidency in Egypt and in light of parliament’s failure to convene a representative panel and to draft a national constitution, SCAF unexpectedly dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament. This is even more outrageous because after more than a year of gradually repealing Mubarak-era emergency-state laws which restricted political freedoms and civil liberties, SCAF simultaneously imposed a de facto state of martial law, granting the police and security services sweeping powers of arrest and detention – the same powers that had finally just been removed a month earlier! And this is all taking place as Mubarak himself has been sentenced by the Supreme Court of Egypt to life in prison while his health continues to deteriorate and rumours of his health problems and untimely demise propagate unchecked.
As the sole arbiters of force in the country and the only credible mediators between rival political forces vying for Egypt’s destiny, the military deserves credit for at least maintaining stability and control where tens of millions of people are concerned, a chaotic situation threatens to engulf the region where the risk of governmental authority collapsing without them is all-too high. Egypt’s socioeconomic situation is far from stable: poverty, unemployment, crime, hunger and corruption all remain rampant, and after over a year, the youth who instigated the revolution have virtually nothing to show for it. While the military is far from the perfect facilitator of desperately needed democratic reform, it is a far cry better than an Egypt with no Mubarak as well as no law-enforcing, order-imposing military establishment.
So what is the significance of political developments in Egypt for the Middle East and for the rest of the world? First of all, as the symbolic heart of the Arab World, Egypt’s revolutionary turmoil can spillover into neighbouring countries’ internal affairs and influence developments far beyond its own borders. Secondly, Egypt’s massive population (85 million) and demographic issues (a youth bulge, urban sprawl and slum dwellings) have the potential – depending on how quickly a government is formed and which policies it chooses to prioritize – to either help or hinder human development in the Arab World. Third, Egypt has been a critical lynchpin in the region’s Pax Americana since the 1970s, serving as an American ally in the wars against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1990s and Islamic fundamentalist terrorism in the 2000s and since 9/11. Finally, Egypt is key to the broader Middle East peace process, having signed a decades-old peace treaty with Israel (though its long-term survival has been called into question by leading presidential contenders in Egypt) and having mediating several Palestinian-Israeli, even intra-Palestinian, rounds of peace, disarmament and prisoner-of-war negotiations.
Even as Mohammad Mursi wins the first democratic presidential elections, the Muslim Brotherhood’s charismatic moderate has little leeway to influence events as they unfold in Egypt since no functional constitution yet outlines his powers or the relationship his office has with other governmental bodies. Arab revolutionaries can at least find solace in the fact that an Islamist president at the helm of the Arab World’s most populous country was patently unthinkable just one year ago. Having recently arrogated legislative prerogatives and constitution-drafting powers unto themselves, Egypt’s SCAF will continue to call the shots for the foreseeable future and pull the president’s strings, either from behind the scenes or out in the open. For now, there is no difference. The government is in the hands of the military, and so the country’s institutions will likewise continue to dance to the tune of their drums.