When deadly clashes broke out in Tahrir Square on Saturday, it was possible to see two competing narratives, both based on a fear of instability. The first was that protesters had provoked the military and were therefore the cause of the unrest. The ruling military council, in this version, was trying to maintain order under difficult circumstances. The second narrative would be that unrest and violence in the square was itself a product of nine months of sometimes woeful military mismanagement.
All the major political forces have more or less concluded that a transfer of power to civilian leadership is necessary and urgent. The irony is that if the military does what some (not all) protesters want—delay the elections—it could very well spell a continued deterioration in the country’s stability. If the military does what most protesters want—fire the prime minister and appoint a new government—it could end up imperiling what little momentum Egypt’s transition has left. A new government, with a new mandate and riding a wave of optimism, may find itself tempted to postpone elections.
With Tahrir ablaze, some have criticized my calls for holding elections on time. What I do know is that delaying elections—particularly so soon before the date—would be fraught with dangers that could make the last few days look tame by comparison. Others, including Marc Lynch, have made this argument more eloquently than I could hope to.
As someone who studies Islamist movements, what happened in Algeria in 1991 and 1992 figures prominently in my understanding of the region. In 1992, elections were annulled after the first round of voting returned surprisingly strong results for the Islamist opposition. A bloody civil war ensued. A repeat of Algeria is not going to happen in Egypt. But it doesn’t have to be like Algeria to be bad, and to be disastrous for Egypt’s fledgling transition.
There is little doubt that Islamists, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, will dominate next week’s elections in Egypt. Liberals are in disarray, apparently gaining little from an extension of the transition period. Members of the main “revolutionary” list—with little funding and little chance of gaining seats—are threatening to withdraw from the polls. The Brotherhood, meanwhile, is poised to secure, by a wide margin, the largest share of parliamentary seats (I’ve explained why here and here). This has made many liberals and leftists less enthusiastic about elections than they might otherwise be.
If the elections are delayed, Islamists will perceive it as a soft coup, and one directed against them. I asked one Brotherhood official if they would hold mass demonstrations in response. He said yes, but that would only be the “start.” He continued, “At that point, we will be willing to consider all peaceful options.” The same official told me he believed the army may have deliberately provoked protesters to create a pretext for postponing elections.
The polarization that would likely result is difficult to overstate. It is easy to imagine how such a situation could spiral wildly, and violently, out of control. If Islamists—particularly those, like the Salafis, who have entered the democratic process for the very first time—begin to lose faith in the democratic process, it may lead to a radicalization of the Islamist rank-and-file, setting the country back considerably. And once democratic processes are derailed, it can become rather difficult to recover, as in Algeria 1991, Jordan 1993, and Turkey mid-1990s.
There are ample reasons to worry about an Islamist victory at the polls. Islamists are not liberals. They are Islamists and they’re conservative. But if there is anything we should have learned from the Arab spring — and the decades that preceded it—it is that the fear of Islamists, however understandable, should never be used to subvert a democratic process that is already underway.
It is not that a delay in elections is likely—I still don’t think it is—but it has become possible, and certainly more so than it was yesterday. And the mere possibility of such a scenario should give us serious pause.