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Egypt's elections: don't panic!

Egypt's first post-Mubarak elections are scheduled to begin in less than two weeks. It would be hard to exaggerate how badly the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has prepared for these pivotal transitional elections. The election law is baffling and incoherent. Election preparations seem haphazard. The rules keep changing. People barely know what or who they are voting for. Some activists plan to boycott. Islamists seem poised to win big. The election is shaping up to be far messier and difficult than it needed to be. 

And yet despite all of that, holding these elections is still the right move. For Egypt to make a transition to a more democratic, legitimate and accountable political order it has to actually start making that transition. And that means elections. And here, there are some all too rare good signs. There has been no backsliding on the SCAF's commitment to hold these elections despite ample opportunity to postpone them, and there will even be international observers of a sort. On the other side, while some activists have decided to boycott the election they seem to be in the minority. And the Obama administration recognizes the importance of the election and is determined to do what it can to hold the SCAF to its commitments and to assist with the transition. Holding elections now still remains the best choice for Egypt. But everyone needs to prepare for the likely outcome to make sure that the vote actually does begin a real transition to a democratic Egypt rather than digging its early grave.

I remain broadly optimistic that Egypt, like Tunisia, will make its democratic transition despite all the turbulence. This is not because the SCAF has demonstrated any real commitment to democracy or the rule of law. It is because there is a broad and deep public consensus in support of democracy, and enough powerful competing forces to prevent any easy return to Mubarak-style authoritarian rule. It is also because the Obama administration at the highest levels is determined to help get Egypt right, and has been working hard -- often behind the scenes -- to push the SCAF in the correct direction. 

It is also because the SCAF has proven to be politically incompetent. Even if they do hope to remain in power and are scheming to abort the revolution, they just aren't very good at it. For all of their deep and justifiable frustrations, Egypt's activists and the ornery, contentious Egyptian media and new political class have succeeded in making life miserable for the SCAF. The military hasn't gotten comfortable in power. Nor has it been able to demonstrate that it holds the key to restoring public order or getting the economy back on track. Its efforts to impose its authority, with its continued resort to military courts and arrests of prominent activists and increasing censorship, have only made things more unstable. The violence against Copts last month, as well as the military clashes with protestors, left many people frightened. And this may be taking a toll. While public opinion surveys have consistently shown strong support for the SCAF, a new survey published last week shows their public approval dropping by twenty-five points in the last five months (from 86 percent to 61 percent).

There has been a lot of criticism of the decision to hold these elections now. But the other alternatives are all worse. The turbulence, chaos, abuses and violence of SCAF's months in power have proven that their remaining in power does not guarantee stability, a steady hand, or economic revival.  If the SCAF had postponed elections further, as some had hoped, everyone would now be rightly complaining that this proved their intention of holding on to power. If the SCAF had opted to first draft the Constitution, everyone would now be complaining about the composition of the drafting committee and the content of leaked drafts while elections remained only on the distant horizon. 

And that's why it has always been so important that the elections go forward. That said, the election process in Egypt has been an inexcusable mess. The election law wasn't announced until shortly before the election, and then amended again in the face of political uproar. This left little time for political parties to organize electoral strategies or coalitions. The law itself is nigh-incomprehensible, allocating two-thirds of the seats by lists and one-third to individual winners. Two weeks before the election, it is difficult to get even basic information about the parties, electoral coalitions, or candidates. That's worrying.

What's more, the rules keep changing, creating extreme uncertainty. The election law took forever to be released, and then changed. Right in the middle of the short election campaign, the SCAF dropped a controversial document of constitutional principles, which seemed to enshrine the military's power in the emerging political order. It will probably back down on parts of it in the face of public pressure, including Friday's threatened Islamist protest / campaign rally. But nobody really knows. Same thing for the presidential election, which will probably not really be postponed all the way to 2013, but nobody really knows. And then, of course, without a constitution nobody really knows what the Parliament will do. Ex-NDP candidates may or may not be banned. Egyptians abroad got the right to vote less than a month before the election. It's obviously not good to have this kind of uncertainty about the basic rules in the midst of such a transition. 

The other big source of incipient panic is the one thing upon which almost everyone now agrees: that the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party is likely to do well. There's no great secret to the FJP's likely success. After years of electoral participation, and with a large, disciplined organization and significant financial resources, the Muslim Brotherhood has a very effective campaign machine. It has been organizing in the field for many months, at a time when most of its competitors were not. It has been carefully selecting candidates, holding rallies, constructing a Get Out the Vote machine, hanging banners, and doing all the things which political parties which want to win votes are supposed to do. The FJP has many problems, and its efforts could still be short-circuited by a massive turnout which swamps its organizational advantages, but for now it is looking strong compared to its rivals. 

It's hard for anyone, even the MB and FJP's leaders, to say exactly how well it will do in the election. When I spoke to a number of them in late September, they said that their goal of winning 30-40 percent of the seats remained unchanged. Tunisia-like numbers would represent something of a best-case scenario, forcing them to form coalitions rather than ruling alone. But their electoral strategy, they told me even then, was complicated by the confusion surrounding the election law, the rapidly shifting electoral coalitions, and the weak preparations by some of their chief rivals. It is all too plausible to see something like the 2006 Palestinian election unfold, where Fatah's disorganization handed victory to Hamas (for example, multiple liberal candidates contesting the same seat handing a safe liberal seat to a unified Islamist vote). It now seems possible that the MB, alone or in coalition with other Islamists, could end up winning a Parliamentary majority. Even that would not be cause for panic, given the limits on Parliament's power, but it would be far more difficult to navigate than an Islamist bloc under 40 percent.  

With or without a majority, everyone needs to be prepared for Islamists to do well. It is almost impossible for there to be a free and fair Egyptian election in which Islamists do not win a sizable share of the vote. But even though it is expected, their success will likely prompt a media and political frenzy. This will be made even worse by the fact that Egypt's election will extend over three rounds, rather than being completed in one day. This means that there will be long weeks for rumors of Islamist victories to circulate, for polarization and recriminations, and -- worst of all -- for calls for the army to step in and cancel elections as in Algeria in 1991.

To avoid such a catastrophic failure, everyone will need to avoid over-reaction. The Muslim Brotherhood will need to demonstrate a lot more political maturity  than it has shown in recent months. It will need to emulate Tunisia's Rached al-Ghannouch, who has since al-Nahda's big electoral victory done everything possible to reassure Tunisians and the West that his party will not impose Islamist rule on Tunisia. The Egyptian MB will need to do the same, and back those words with deeds by proving that it will not seek to dominate or to impose its agenda. I have heard a lot over the years from MB leaders about their true democratic convictions, their recognition of the fears they provoke in others and their desire to avoid repeating the Algerian or Palestinian experiences. This is their chance to prove it.  

Egyptian secularists, leftists, liberals, and Christians will also need to show restraint, especially with regard to the temptation to call for the elections to be interrupted if they seem to be going badly. That doesn't mean rolling over -- those forces should absolutely continue to challenge and push the MB on their democratic commitments at every opportunity, and call them out when they don't live up to them.

The U.S. and outside observers will also need to resist the tidal wave of recrimination and scare-mongering which is nearly certain to flood the media as the election unfolds. The Obama administration has tried to show that it will respect the outcome of democratic elections, and that it will be willing to work with Islamist parties which demonstrate respect for democratic rules, human rights, and non-violence. There has been a growing recognition that you can't have a representative democracy which excludes a major political trend such as the Islamists, and that including Islamists in the political game is better than forcing them into the shadows. Most now see that lumping together the wide variety of often sharply competing Islamists into one vast Islamic menace is shoddy analytic bunk. 

But that balance is going to be far harder to maintain in Egypt than it was after al-Nahda's victory in Tunisia. The stakes are higher, the media glare hotter, and the Egyptian MB less forthcoming than their Tunisian counterparts. But doing so has never been more important. For years there was a bipartisan rhetorical consensus in the United States about supporting Arab democracy. This will be the most important test yet of that commitment to Arab democracy -- for the administration, for Congress, for the media, and for the academic and policy communities.  Did they, and we, really mean it? 

The best advice, as in most parts of the universe: don't panic. The election isn't going to be pretty, but it's necessary.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Bohn

Marc Lynch

Arab leaders shouldn't kill their people?

The Arab League is today considering the demand by the Syrian National Council, human rights organizations and a wide array of other actors that it freeze Syria's membership over its killing of civilians. Few expect that the Arab League will seriously affect the Assad regime's behavior.  But the very fact that it is even considering such a move is frankly astonishing.  Since when do Arab leaders agree that a regime's legitimacy can be forfeit if it kills too many of its own people?

The rapid spread of a new norm against Arab regimes killing their own people is a frankly astonishing, but largely unremarked, change in the regional game.  Since the Arab League backed the UN intervention in Libya in March, the idea that regimes might be sanctioned for their domestic brutality has become a normal part of the Arab political debate and enshrined in official Arab League resolutions. Both the GCC's political transition plan for Yemen and this month's Arab League peace plan for Syria condemned regimes for their violence and called for far reaching political changes.  They haven't stopped the violence.  But the idea that they should is something genuinely new -- and has major implications beyond the immediate outcome in either country.

Let's recall how odd it is that Arab leaders would agree with even an empty principle that regimes which kill their own people should forfeit their legitimacy. Almost every regime in the Arab world has been doing exactly that for decades. Jordan's King Hussein kept his throne in 1970 when his troops massacred Palestinians in the infamous Black September. Syria's President Hafez al-Assad didn't forfeit his Arab legitimacy when his forces leveled Hama in 1982. Iraq's President Saddam Hussein suffered no great normative sanctions for his genocidal campaign against Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s.  Arabs responded tepidly to the Sudanese brutality in Darfur in the 2000s. There was certainly great public concern over Israel's treatment of Palestinians or the suffering of Iraqis under international sanctions in the 1990s, but those were framed as the abuse of Arabs by hostile foreign powers rather than as a condemnation of Arab leaders for their repressive ways. For decades, then, rejection of any external standards for regime legitimacy lay at the very core of Arab norms of state sovereignty. 

What's more, it's not like those leaders can now look back smugly on their past moral blindness from a safe distance. Almost every Arab leader is either currently repressing protestors or knows that within weeks it could be them in the docket.  The Saudis endorsed the intervention in Libya at the exact same moment that they sent troops into Bahrain and supported a crushing, blanket repression which violated a wide range of international human rights norms.  If Amman, Rabat or Algiers decided to send in the military against unarmed protestors, could they really be certain that they would not be held accountable to the same standards they have endorsed for Damascus, Sanaa and Tripoli?  Most likely, these leaders did not believe that they were creating a precedent when they moved against Qaddafi. But they did. 

What explains the embrace of this new norm, then? I doubt that the Arab leaders thought they were setting a precedent which might be used against them.  I wouldn't doubt that the Saudis and Qataris were just motivated by personal animosity towards the Libyan leader, or hoping to pursue their regional ambitions at Libya's expense.  It's possible that many Arab leaders simply hoped to distract Western attention from their own repression by pointing the international community towards North Africa. They may have been confident that such norms would only be wielded against those outside of the West's alliance structure -- Libya and Syria, sure, but not Saudi Arabia or Jordan.  But whatever their intent, the Libyan intervention has established a new normative framework and language of political contestation in Arab politics which is driving the regional agenda. Its use now in Syria suggests that this will not be easily controlled or set aside. 

The new norm has traction at multiple levels.  Arab public sphere is filled with complaints at various levels against the repressive acts of almost every sitting government, any of which could in principle be taken up by concerned outsiders. NGOs, youth activists, and activist media from independent websites and newspapers to al-Jazeera have all for many years devoted their energies to shining a harsh spotlight on human rights abuses. International organizations and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch have been empowered to demand the consistent application of the norms used. The relentless barrage of graphic videos documenting the brutality, circulated over the internet and routinely broadcast on al-Jazeera, makes the violence visceral and undeniable.  Now, any one of these leaders who signed on to the revocation of legitimacy from Qaddafi, Assad or Saleh can be called to account if he unleashes military force on his own people. 

That makes it all the more remarkable that these leaders have now largely accepted the normative principle that regime legitimacy can be forfeited at a certain level of internal violence. Nobody would say that the Arab League has acted effectively to defend this new norm -- the ongoing bloodshed in Syria, the decimated civil society of Bahrain, and the grim stalemate in Yemen attest all too clearly that they have not.  But they now speak almost all speak the language of international norms against impunity. Norms do not need perfect behavioral compliance for them to be significant in international relations.  The simple fact that both popular and official Arab political discourse now begins from the premise that domestically violent regimes should be sanctioned or even removed from power has already significantly changed the game of Arab politics. 

Obviously this has not deterred Assad or Saleh from unleashing the hounds of war.  But it has fundamentally and undeniably changed the regional and international response to those decisions -- raising the political costs, shaping media coverage, giving meaning to the public's revulsion, guiding the strategy of opposition movements.  It has introduced into the strategic equation the potential (though of course not certainty) of novel responses such as International Criminal Court indictments, UN-backed sanctions, the freezing of Arab League membership, or even military intervention. The possibility that calls by the Syrian National Council or by Yemeni human rights activists for Arab and international protection might just be answered changes everyone's strategic calculations. 

Beyond the specifically Arab dynamics, the Libya intervention, the Obama administration's rhetoric, and the new international discourse on the Responsibility to Protect clearly also matter.  UN Resolution 1973 gave a clear international mandate for the NATO intervention in Libya, even if many complain that it was then stretched to include regime change and military support operations not found in the original mandate.  That mandate was rooted in the controversial but increasingly robust discourse of the Responsibility to Protect. This remains the subject of bitter debate, of course, with many critics complaining that RTP represents thinly veiled imperialism or that it actually encourages more civil conflict.  

This perspective would place the demonstration effects and the strengthening of global norms against impunity as a core component of the strategic and normative logic of the Libya intervention.  Beyond the immediate, and worthy, goal of saving Libyan lives, the architects of the intervention likely hoped to deepen and strengthen the global norm against impunity. That means taking the lesson of Libya and applying it broadly to other cases in the region and around the world. Thus Obama's statement that Assad, like Qaddafi before him, had lost legitimacy could not force the Syrian President from power but did reinforce this evolving norm.

This shouldn't be seen as a happy ending, of course. The fact is that these international norms continue to be flouted.  The body count in Syria is growing every day.  The Yemeni stalemate shows no signs of breaking.  Bahrain is mostly out of the news.  The Arab League, the UN, and all other international actors are struggling to find any effective course of action. But nor should this be seen as a simple failure.  It matters that both Arab publics and Arab leaders now work from the shared rhetorical principle that regimes which kill too many of their own people should forfeit their legitimacy.  That unheralded normative evolution should be recognized and applauded. It should be strengthened by taking serious steps to enforce it, and by applying it in an even-handed fashion. 

Building this norm won't be easy, will be rife with hypocrisies and double standards, and like virtually all international norms will be honored more in the breach than in practice. But we've come a long way in the space of one year we have gone from an Arab regional order which rejected any limits on state sovereignty to one where both Arab public opinion and the Arab League could agree that leaders should have their assets frozen, be forced from power or be brought to the ICC because they brutalized their people.

MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images