Round One of the Elections Over. Now What?

In the wake of consistent rigging over the past 60 years, it’s hardly surprising that everything about these elections, from the spectacularly inefficient organization by the High Elections Commission (HEC) to the behavior of the parties competing, has been so eccentric. At this point, however, those Egyptians (and international observers) who are susceptible to panicking — presumably secular liberals and ethnic and religious minorities — should take a deep breath and consider the significantly more practical question: “Now what?”

That’s probably a question that everyone needs to mull over because it is time to take stock. As far as I can see, here’s where we stand.

More than 60 percent of seats voted on so far will go to Islamist candidates. Anyone who is surprised at the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) did well has not been paying attention over the last 80 years or so. Admittedly, their performance — an estimated 40 percent — has exceeded even their expectations (I personally would have capped their gains at around 30 percent, which is why you should never listen to analysts). The tepid success of the liberal parties was entirely to be expected. Over the months leading up to the elections they have presented the Egyptian voters with a sorry, splintered front. Unable or unwilling to take the long view, they have failed to coalesce or address the voters in any relevant manner. It might have been more efficient if there had been fewer newspaper editorials (in a country with a 30 percent illiteracy rate) and more street campaigning. While the Egyptian Bloc alliance (Free Egyptians and Egyptian Democrats) made a surprisingly decent showing, placing right behind the ultra-conservative Salafi Nour Party, the dismal performance of Egypt’s oldest liberal party, the Wafd Party, was a huge shock to many.

The biggest surprise, however, has been the runaway success of the Nour Party, which has raked in around 20 percent of the seats, posing a tough challenge to the combined liberals forces. Its success is terrifying liberals and minorities due to the party’s extremist views on women, minorities and personal freedoms.

It’s something of an odd situation because the upcoming parliament might not have any legislative power. It’s possible that it may be dissolved if the new constitution calls for such a move. Ostensibly, its main, potentially vital, task will be to help elect the constitutional committee that will rewrite Egypt’s constitution. This is where matters can potentially get very messy.

Power in Egypt currently lies with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). It would be difficult to overemphasize the extent to which the SCAF has whittled away public support for itself. Shortly before the elections, it presented the country with what became known as the Selmy Document (after Deputy PM Aly al-Selmy, who was unlucky enough to have to present it). The document was essentially a supra-constitutional charter, which enshrined the power of the military, protecting its budget from pesky civilian oversight and giving it control over the writing of the new constitution. According to the document, only 20 members of the 100 would have been elected by parliament, with the rest essentially coming from Mubarak-era institutions. The SCAF also had the power to ask for revisions and refer them to the Constitutional Court; one part of the judiciary that was also a Mubarak-era institution. However, the document did have its supporters, mostly among secular elites who saw it as a way of keeping the Islamists on a leash. The “it’s us or the Islamists” approach had worked out well for the former regime, and the SCAF apparently sees no reason to change a popular tune. Of course, this is why fascist governments were elected in Germany and Italy during the 1930s; they appeared cuddlier than the communists.

The Selmy document bears a great deal of responsibility for the November Tahrir uprising. Although massive public mobilization resulted in the SCAF announcing that presidential elections would take place in June 2012 (a year earlier than last announced), the document has still not formally been withdrawn.

So what happens next? The Brotherhood has no equal in terms of grass roots organization, and that includes all the former political parties. It has shown tremendous strength of will, risking popular disdain by refraining from joining the Tahrir uprisings; it had its eye on the elections and refused to be swayed. However, it has never ruled. Even when it won 20 percent of parliamentary seats in the 2005 elections, it was carefully denied any opportunity to influence policy-making by the National Democratic Party (NDP). It has gone to great lengths to reassure secular parties that it intends to rule by example rather than by imposing draconian religious law. It has said that it will work with secular parties and indeed formed an alliance with several before the elections. On matters of finance and economy, with the exception of an emphasis on social justice, it doesn’t actually differ all that much from the NDP.

However, that was when overwhelming success was a probability. Now that it appears a certainty, the promise of finally attaining what’s been denied it for almost a century is apparently making the Brotherhood tremble. The party contested significantly more seats than it had first promised to; it saw secular members of its alliance flee before the elections. It leapt up and insisted that the majority in parliament had the right to appoint the cabinet. In its excitement, it appears to have forgotten that this is an utterly moot point since Egypt actually has a presidential system and not a parliamentary one; parliament doesn’t pick the cabinet. It has since recanted. However, it seems very likely that the amount of weight the Brotherhood throws around will be directly proportional to the number of votes it gets. And that it will go head to head with the SCAF, which it has carefully avoided doing.

The Brotherhood has to make some difficult choices. Once the excitement of an obliging ballot box dies down, it will have to decide what to do about the Salafis. By aligning with them, it increases its parliamentary influences but risks alienating the secular parties and the West. And winning the elections will put the burden of fixing Egypt’s considerable ails on its shoulders. Under that kind of pressure, it will not do to alienate swathes of your population or foreign investors.

The liberal parties, if they are to emerge with any significant voice in parliament need to regroup, coalesce and run fewer candidates to avoid splitting the vote. And they must be willing to work with the Brotherhood, if only to make it easier to marginalize the Salafis, who have expressed no interest in democratic reform. Above all, all the parties need to put Egypt first, rather than short-term political gain. And that’s the one thing that none of the parties seem to be able to grasp.