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Egypt's parliament gets to work

The formal seating of Egypt's Parliament today, after a grueling two months of elections and political turmoil, marks the end of one stage of Egypt's transition. The Islamist-dominated Parliament will begin its work without clearly defined powers or responsibilities amidst a fractured, suspicious political environment. We will now see whether this Parliament will be able to deliver on the hopes invested in electoral legitimacy and emerge as an effective check on the power of the SCAF. In many ways, the real struggles start now.

The first test of the resilience of this path will come in two days, the anniversary of the January 25 revolution. I expect that there will likely be a large turnout that day, with all political forces joining in. The question, though, is what happens after the big crowds go home: do activists decide to try another sit-in and force themselves back onto the political stage? And if they do, has the SCAF learned anything from the past few months and recognized that again resorting to tear gas and violent assaults on protestors will overturn the plans it has proposed for an orderly political transition process?

I don't expect the coming months, during which a constitution is supposedly to be drafted and Presidential elections organized and the transition to civilian rule completed, to go smoothly or easily. I still believe that Egypt would be better served by holding Presidential elections and transferring executive power to a legitimate civilian government more quickly, and allowing more time for a Constitution to be drafted and fully debated. But that doesn't seem to be the path Egypt is taking. So for now, let's just hope that the Parliament asserts itself quickly and effectively, and focuses on truly important issues and isn't sidetracked by debates over religion. Let's hope that the activists who have done so much to drive change in Egypt can work with this Parliament in a common drive to ensure that the SCAF lives up to its promises for a genuine democratic transition by the summer. Let's hope that the SCAF doesn't destroy its own plans by teargassing or murdering protestors in Tahrir this week.

The elected Parliament and the expected protests in Tahrir represent two different claims to legitimacy in post-Mubarak Egypt. The Parliament embodies democratic legitimacy, with its powers and its authority coming from elections and the expressed will of the people. Many activists dismiss the elections as a sham and continue to claim revolutionary legitimacy. This divide clearly predates the elections, and has indeed been a constant theme of post-Mubarak politics. The electoral success of Islamists and weak showing by others has exacerbated that disconnect, as has the raw fury among many activists over the outrageous violence by security forces immediately before and again in the midst of the elections. But some in the middle have tried hard to find a path by which the two trends can find common ground pushing the SCAF rather than falling into the trap of targeting each other. I hope they succeed.

There are many problems with the new Parliament and the political process which created it. But the common dismissal of the Parliament by many activists is mistaken. For one, the near complete wipeout of former regime, ex-NDP candidates -- the fullul -- doesn't get nearly enough attention. Before the elections, most people expected the Parliament to be split between the Muslim Brotherhood and rebranded former regime elements. Instead, the fullul lost badly despite lavish spending and well-organized campaigns. Their failure should be seen as a major accomplishment of the revolution, and a vindication of the rejection of the old regime by the vast majority of the Egyptian population. The fact is that there is now a popularly elected Parliament, recognized as legitimate by the SCAF, which is almost completely devoid of figures from the old NDP elite. That's an amazing achievement.

The Islamist majority in Parliament will face its own tests. While many fear that the Islamist majority will push to impose religious issues on Egypt, and others anticipate a smooth SCAF-Muslim Brotherhood alliance, I expect the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party initially to focus on popular economic issues and to assert the powers of the Parliament they dominate. Based on their past history, I suspect that they will play it safe and try to avoid the appearance of imposing their hegemony over others -- but they may also be tempted by power, and I suspect are themselves internally divided. The salafis, never especially internally disciplined and lacking political experience, will have to adapt to the glaring political spotlight and figure out how they will approach such issues. Key liberal figures in the Parliament will likely have an outsized voice, despite their limited numbers, in shaping the debates to come, particularly as Islamists look to present themselves as forming broad coalitions.

It's good that the Obama administration has not panicked in the face of Islamist success, in contrast to most previous administrations which abandoned their rhetorical support for Arab democracy whenever Islamists won. I've been very glad to see Ambassador Anne Patterson and the US Embassy in Cairo reaching out to all the political forces in the last few weeks. Her meetings with the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohammed Badie and with Freedom and Justice Party leaders, and announced plans to meet with the Nour Party, are the right thing to do. So are the similar high-profile meetings with visiting senior administration officials. I was sharply critical earlier this year of Embassy Cairo's public diplomacy and engagement, but Patterson really seems to have changed things for the better. There is simply no way that the U.S. could have avoided talking to and dealing with the largest political trends in the new Egyptian Parliament, especially after pushing so hard for the elections. Such relationships are going to be necessary in the trying months to come. This coming period will also be a difficult test of whether the administration's mostly behind the scenes relationship with the Egyptian military leaders, which has opened it to such intense criticism. Will that relationship now allow it to influence them in the many pivotal choices to come?

The seating of the Parliament completes an important stage in Egypt's roadmap to a political transition. It hasn't been pretty. It hasn't been easy. It hasn't satisfied everyone. The Islamist victories scared a lot of people. The repeated outbreaks of horrific regime violence undermined its appeal. And the next stage is likely to be just as contentious or more so. But at last, the stage is set to discover whether an elected Parliament can jump start a transition to real democracy in an Egypt which so badly deserves it.

 

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