In Egypt: Are Elections Enough?
Following the removal of the Egyptian monarchy on July 26, 1952, the leader of the “Free Officers” movement, Gamal Abdel Nasser asked Mostafa El-Nahas, the leader of the legendary Wafd Party and a former prime minister what the next step should be. El-Nahas answered that the army should return to its barracks and for fair and free elections to be held. Mostafa El-Nahas spent the rest of his life under house arrest until his death in Alexandria in 1965. Nasser, subsequently became president of Egypt until his death in 1970, not through fair and free elections but through referendums. Ironically, one of the declared goals of the “Free Officers“ was to establish a real democratic system in Egypt. In 1967, following the disastrous defeat in the war with Israel, Nasser declared his responsibility for the defeat and announced his resignation. Yet there was no hope for arranging new elections. He appointed another member of the ‘free Officers” to succeed him but Zakaria Mohyiddin, his interior minister in charge of the police and security declared: It is inconceivable for anyone to replace Mr. Nasser. This came as thousands of Egyptians took to the streets chanting: “We want you to stay on Mr. President. You can’t leave us with anybody else.” So, Nasser stayed on as president until his death in 1970. History will testify that the other main problem for democracy in Egypt is that not only successive leaders failed to plant a seed of democracy early on but that the Egyptian people also lacked the culture of election.
Lack of Election Culture.
From 1970 to President Sisi’s election in 2014, multiparty elections were held only twice. In 2005 the first election to feature more than one candidate was held. Incumbent President Hosny Mubarak was re-elected for a fifth consecutive 6-year presidential term with official results showing he won 88.6 percent of the vote. His main opponent, Ayman Nour, of the Tomorrow Party, received 7.3 percent of the vote and Noman Gomma, another candidate, received 2.8 percent.
The second time a multiparty presidential election was held occurred in May 2012 when about 13 candidates competed. The result of the first round was a division between an Islamist and a former military officer, the two groups that have dominated life in Egypt since 1952. Ultimately, the Islamist, Mohamed Morsi, won by receiving 51.73 percent of the vote while his opponent, Ahmed Shafiq received 48.27 percent. The map of the election shows that the overwhelming support for Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, concentrated in the Mediterranean coastal and desert portions of the country while Shafiq’s support came mainly from voters in the Eastern coast of the Red Sea and the Nile delta and valley.
Sisi’s View of Democracy
Incumbent President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who came to power through a popular-supported coup, removed Morsi and again brought into focus the division between the military and Islamism. He was Morsi’s defense minister and Mubarak’s chief of military intelligence. That division was clear throughout recent history starting with the Brotherhood’s attempt to assassinate Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954. Yet, despite his tense relationship with the Brotherhood Nasser tried to co-opt the group by appointing one of its leaders to a cabinet position. But the appointment of Ahmed Hassan al-Baquri as minister of endowment did not stop most members and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood from leaving for Europe and Saudi Arabia. Those exiled members returned by the hundreds under Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor, who wanted to use them as a counterbalance to Nasser’s strong circles of aids. Those former aids came mainly from the military, including Ali Sabry and Shams Badran, who allegedly plotted to topple Sadat. Again the division between the Islamists and the military was clear. President Sisi recognized “the Islamic cast” that would inevitably overshadow any election in Egypt. While in a military training fellowship in the US in 2006, Mr. Sisi wrote in his research project that emerging democracies in the Middle East would likely have a strong religious component. “History has shown that in first ten years of a new democracy, conflict is likely to occur either externally or internally as the new democracy matures,” he wrote. “Simply changing the political systems from autocratic rule to democratic rule will not be enough to build a new democracy,” he added.
In his research paper Mr. Sisi also made the point that democratic elections can result in less than the desired outcome, referring to the Hamas victory in the Palestinian election of 2006. He also was critical of the kind of democracy that followed the US invasion of Iraq. President Sisi’s skepticism of election and of western democracy in general is displayed in his actions as well as his words. And there is a great deal of discrepancy in his actions and words. He doesn’t belong to a political party, a fact that has diluted the role played by the political parties in building a democracy. Like his predecessors he sought to extend his rule. In his case, a constitutional amendment to the presidential term limit was approved by a rubber-stamp parliament which would allow him to stay in power to the year 2034. Responding to a question from a reporter Mr. Sisi ironically said he believed Mubarak’s worst mistake was that he stayed in power for too long. Unlike Mr. Nasser who tried to co-opt moderate Islamists President Sisi detained Abdel-Monem Abu el- Futtuh, rather than inviting him to join a cabinet post and extending a hand to the opposition. In fact, rivals from Islamists and former military officers (General Sami Annan and Mr. Shafiq) were detained at some point. Furthermore, there was no lesson to be learned from the late Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi, who formed a political coalition with his Islamist opponents from the an-Nahda Party.
Yet, Mr. Sisi who is fighting the Muslim Brotherhood at home and abroad has been extending a helpful hand to Hamas, the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood group in Gaza. The discrepancy in President Sisi’s words and actions brings into a focus 3 important conclusions:
- Egyptian leaders need to plant the seeds of democracy today so it may grow and mature over decades. That has been lacking since 1952.
- The culture of election has been lacking among most of the Egyptian people for a long time. The citizens’ approach to the importance of election has ben simplistic. Relatives and acquaintances have told me they had voted for Mr. Morsi because “he is a man of God.” Shortly thereafter they voted for General Sisi because “he rescued the country from the evil of Morsi.”
- Democracy has its shortcomings, for sure. In Winston Churchill’s view democracy is the best of bad options available. But democracy can best serve people over time and in separation from religion and military rule. That will require decades of cultural, social, political and religious changes. Read More By The Author
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