Saving Egypt's Elections

Egypt's Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) hastily convened a meeting with a group of political parties on Saturday, September 30, in the face of an uproar over amendments to the election law announced earlier in the week. It emerged with a document that addressed a number of the major popular demands, and which initially seemed to get Egypt back on track for crucial parliamentary elections scheduled to begin in less than two months. But within hours opposition to the agreement exploded, threatening to throw Egypt's democratic transition back into crisis.  

The agreement did include a number of important concessions by the SCAF. It changed the most controversial parts of the new election law, laid out a clear timeline for a transition to civilian rule, and promised to study a more rapid lifting of the emergency law and an end to military trials. It seemed to secure Islamist agreement to a statement of supra-constitutional principles which they had previously rejected. But it introduced new problems -- above all, a timeline which delayed presidential elections until 2013, and vague, unclear promises on key issues which a skeptical public felt little reason to trust. 

I've just returned from a week in Cairo, my third visit in the last four months. It is impossible to miss the atmosphere of mistrust, frustration, anger, polarization, and skepticism consuming the political realm. A month ago I warned of the risk of an election boycott. By last week, such threats had erupted onto the front pages of the newspapers and had caught the SCAF's attention. But despite all this turbulence, I remain hopeful about Egypt's prospects. Any healthy democratic transition is going to involve contentioun and uncertainty and frustration. The SCAF's intentions remain unclear, but the continuing challenges posed by a dizzying array of political forces, movements and parties through a contentious Egyptian media are a good sign that they will not be able to go too far against a popular consensus. The most important thing, in my view, continues to be that Egypt move forward to holding the parliamentary elections on schedule, with a widely acceptable election law, a level playing field, and adequate international and domestic oversight. The SCAF-Parties agreement, for all its many flaws which should continue to be challenged, at least keeps hopes alive for such elections to produce a legitimate parliament which can finally begin to move Egypt toward the democracy it so desperately needs and deserves.

In sharp contrast with earlier critical moments in the months following Mubarak's fall, where massive protests forced the SCAF to backtrack from controversial steps, the revolutionary groups and street protests were not the decisive factors in forcing these SCAF concessions. The disappointing turnout of an estimated 5,000-10,000 at the Tahrir protest on September 29 likely reinforced the SCAF's evident sense of the dwindling power and relevance of the revolutionary groups. Instead, the SCAF's move came in response to a threat by numerous political parties to boycott the parliamentary elections, and to a warning by the Muslim Brotherhood of serious street protests if the law was not changed by Sunday. The SCAF does worry that the elections will not be seen as legitimate, which gives the parties some serious bargaining power -- and Muslim Brotherhood leaders told me last week that they were quite serious about using it. The SCAF therefore invited the Brotherhood and the parties, not revolutionary groups, to the table since that is where they now see the greatest immediate threat. 

The hostility toward the agreement expressed by many activists and revolutionary groups at least in part reflected their dismay at being bypassed as interlocutors in favor of the parties and the Muslim Brotherhood. They also fumed at not being consulted by the party representatives who signed the deal, who in their view lack legitimacy, put electoral self-interest over the collective goals of the revolution, and aren't very good negotiators. Mostafa el-Naggar, the representative of the el-Adl party, actually retracted his signature in the face of internal dissent from party members. This conflict between activist groups and political parties is likely to become ever more intense as elections approach, since they rely on fundamentally different sources of legitimacy: parties on success at the ballot box, activist groups on claims of revolutionary legitimacy and the ability to mobilize street protests. 

The best part of the agreement was the changes to the revised elections law, which had prompted the threatened electoral boycott. The law had reserved one-third of the seats in parliament to be elected as independents, with candidates affiliated with parties banned from contesting them -- which was better than the 50 percent originally allocated that way, but well short of the 100 percent list system preferred by most of the parties. Most political analysts assume that the contest for individual seats will be dominated by well-known former National Democratic Party members, ensuring a dominant political role for the remnants of the old regime. The SCAF modified the law to allow party members to contest the individual seats, which will even the odds a bit. The SCAF also backed down on its original plan not to seat the new parliament until March, two months after the end of the elections. Both changes should be scored as a win for the political forces. 

The worst part of the agreement is the proposed timeline for the political transition. The presidential election had been expected by April 2012, which seemed a bit long but acceptable. Presidential candidate Abd el-Moneim Abou el-Fattouh told me last week that most serious candidates agreed that this was the latest acceptable date, a position stated publicly by Amr Moussa today. The SCAF's new timeline would have the elections deferred all the way to early 2013, after the drafting of the new constitution. Such a long delay would leave the SCAF controlling executive power for another year and a half. It would guarantee continuing political instability, badly undermine the transition to legitimate civilian rule, and violate its own promises to the Egyptian people. Expect to see a lot more mobilization against this timeline and powerful demands that the SCAF go back to the spring 2012 date for a presidential election.

The SCAF also made motions toward some of the key issues which have long generated political opposition. They promised to look into lifting the Emergency Law, to ending military trials for civil offenses, to accept international observers (not monitors) for elections, and various other points. But unfortunately, they offered only promises rather than firm, clear commitments. Most of the Egyptian political class has lost confidence in such promises, for good reason, so this will probably also produce continued mobilization and anger.  It is far too early to score these vague promises as either a win or a loss -- though most think that the parties should have pushed harder to get concrete commitments before signing. Finally, in a gesture toward liberals and secularists, the SCAF seemed to have secured the agreement of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi parties to the supra-constitutional guarantees which had been so controversial over the summer -- but by today, the MB was already backing away from it, showing the slippery nature of such agreements.

I am ambivalent, I must say, about the potential use of the Treason Law to bar NDP politicians from elections, which has been a demand of many political trends in recent weeks. I understand the impulse behind this call, as many fear that the falul (regime remnants) will regain power through the ballot box. What would stop, say, Gamal Mubarak from entering parliament if he avoids conviction? There are many layers of complexity in this move, however. Defining who would be banned from politics is contentious -- only top NDP officials or all of the millions of party members? And would banning ex-NDP members push them (a group including much of the country's economic elite) into active opposition to the emerging political system or provoke escalated capital flight? What's more, with the SCAF openly waging a campaign against the "foreign funding" of liberal and revolutionary groups such as the April 6 Youth Movement, the embrace of a "Treason Law" seems an extremely dangerous double-edged sword. 

The SCAF-Parties agreement therefore has some positive and some negative aspects. It isn't the catastrophe which many are painting it as nor is it enough to rescue Egypt from its ongoing political crisis. I hope that the parties and the political movements can continue to pressure the SCAF to live up to its promises and to reverse some of the bad moves (especially the presidential election date), while continuing to focus on the prize: fair parliamentary elections on schedule to finally create a legitimate civilian government. The SCAF may have every intention of manipulating the process to hold onto power, but that doesn't mean that they will be able to do so. Their consistent pattern of blundering and over-reaching, and then backing down in the face of public outrage, do not suggest that Egypt is being ruled by a masterful, unstoppable super-genius. Egypt's creative, restless and impatient political public should not be sidetracked by side battles or take their bait. If they want a transition to real democracy, now is the time to push hard to make sure that the elections deliver it.


Marc Lynch

The costs of ignoring Yemen

The long stalemate in Yemen took a bloody turn yesterday which was as horrifying as it was utterly predictable. Regime forces opened fire on the tenacious, peaceful protestors in Change Square in Sana'a, killing dozens and flooding the hospitals with the wounded. The internet has been flooded with horrific videos which could easily have come from Libya or Syria. The violent crisis which many of us have been warning would result from neglecting Yemen and allowing its political stalemate to grind on has now arrived. The Sana'a massacre should be a crystal clear signal that the Yemeni status quo is neither stable nor sustainable, and that the failure to find a political resolution ensures escalating bloodshed and humanitarian crisis. It is time to push for an immediate political transition -- and one which does not include immunity for Saleh's men. 

It has been difficult to get anyone to pay attention to Yemen.  For months, ever since President Ali Abdullah Saleh had been rushed to Saudi Arabia for treatment of wounds from an apparent assassination attempt. Distracted by hot wars in Libya and Syria, the struggling transition in Egypt, and the diplomatic train wreck between Israel and the Palestinians, the U.S. and most of the region put Yemen on the back burner. Even though thousands of incredibly determined and resilient Yemenis continued to protest regularly, and analysts warned with increasing desperation that missing the opportunity to bring about a transition would be a disastrous mistake, the urgency faded away. Indeed, Saleh's regime counted on that fading external urgency as part of its strategy of delay and distraction, hoping to outlast, confuse, divide, and where possible crush the protest movement. Now, Yemenis are paying for that neglect in blood.    

The U.S., the GCC, the U.N., and Yemen's opposition need to push for Saleh to leave power now and for Yemen to immediately begin a meaningful political transition. Not in a few months, not in a few years, and not empty promises of future change which no Yemeni any longer believes. This does not mean calling for military intervention. After Libya and the debate over Syria, military action has regrettably become many peoples' first rather than last instinct even when it is very clearly neither appropriate nor likely. It means throwing full political support to Yemen's opposition, making clear that Yemeni officials will be held accountable before international tribunals for their role in violence against civilians, and pushing hard to end a stalemate which too many saw as an acceptable state of affairs.

Months of inattention have made this task harder, not easier. Yemen's protest movement had been one of the most impressive and even astonishing of its Arab counterparts, and by March it seemed inevitable that Saleh's regime would soon fall in the face of a peaceful, mass uprising. But it did not fall, even after Saleh's departure, and a grinding stalemate ensued. The U.S. and the international community essentially delegated the Yemen file to Saudi Arabia and the GCC, which quickly proved that it was either not up to the task or not interested in finding a real solution. The Yemeni regime played on that inattention, looking to buy time and muddle through. The protestors instead proved amazingly resilient, turning out tens of thousands of people even as they struggled to find any way to achieve a political breakthrough. Qaddafi's fall from Tripoli had inspired the Yemeni protestors, renewing hope and galvanizing their efforts --- making this week's escalation and brutality all the more significant not only in Yemen but across the region. 

The atrocities should generate renewed urgency, but there should be no illusion that a solution will now be any easier to find. After long, difficult months the opposition is more fragmented. People are really suffering from the economic collapse. The regime's survival after it seemed on the brink of collapse has baffled its adversaries. Battle lines have hardened, and offers which once might have seemed reasonable now seem unacceptable. With the list of dead and wounded Yemeni civilians growing and rage swelling across the country, few are likely to be interested in the GCC's deal granting amnesty to those responsible for a fresh massacre. I agree with them. One of the most important accomplishments of Libya and of the rapidly evolving international norms around the Arab uprisings has been the rejection of impunity for such atrocities, and Saleh's regime should be no exception.  

This week's violence should be a spur to break this stalemate. But I fear that it is more likely that the world will simply continue to ignore what's happening in Yemen. Most of the attention of the Middle East policy community this week will be directed instead towards the drama of the Palestinian bid for recognition at the United Nations. Few in the West see many major interests in Yemen beyond the narrow, exclusive -- and in today's context nearly indefensible -- focus on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The endless reports of horrors from Syria, and before that Libya, have numbed people to what must seem just one more episode in an endless litany of atrocities. 

But all of this would be a mistake. For half a year now there has been a chance for Yemenis themselves to bring about genuine, positive change and break the dominance of a repressive and corrupt regime. The new round of violence makes achieving that change more urgent -- and, if the U.S., the UN, the GCC and others could only be brought to notice, finally possible. Yemen matters. Yemenis matter. Ignoring them has allowed a hurting political stalemate and a worsening humanitarian crisis. A non-policy of inattention to Yemen has only increased the risk of collapse into a real civil war, which would pose infinitely worse policy choices. Don't wait for that.