Egypt votes today, but it’s a mess

Egypt goes to the polls today in what were supposed to be its first real parliamentary elections but they have turned out to be such a mess that the days leading up to this have seen the largest demonstrations in downtown Cairo since the 25 January revolution. But the farther you get from Mohamed Mahmoud Street the more confusing it becomes as to what the various political actors are trying to achieve and which alliances are forming.  Fortunately, the always insightful blog The Arabist has put together the graphic above to try to make sense of it all.  The great divide here is whether the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which Mubarak left in power, should continue to oversee the parliamentary elections or should appoint a national unity government (NUG on this graph) or civilian council and, if so, when that should happen.  This is an updated graphic — check The Arabist website to see the earlier version — and reflects a drift towards the left, which is calling for an immediate transfer of power by the SCAF.  That is where I fall, for the reasons I outlined in this post.

I believe the SCAF has no interest in remaining in power, principally because it does not want the accountability that comes with the position; they want a compliant body to take over and leave them the independence and privileges they built up in the Mubarak years and that they so shamelessly tried to enshrine in law a couple weeks ago, the move that kicked off the latest protests.  As a result, they have botched the preparations for the elections.  Shadi Hamid argued in the Atlantic last week that to cancel the elections now would push the Islamists (who are poised to do well) to take radical action, as happened with the FIS in Algeria in the 1990s.  I think this misreads the situation: in Algeria, the elections were cancelled and the military stayed in power — such an outcome in Egypt might lead even the civil society groups to radical action.  But to postpone the elections until they can be organized competently is an entirely different matter.

Now that the first day of voting is underway it is up to the Muslim Brotherhood, as the party most likely to triumph in these shambolic elections, to demonstrate that it can be a responsible actor in the new Egypt by pushing for them to be scrapped.  This sounds unlikely, I know, but during the 25 January protests it seemed that the Muslim Brotherhood leadership had come to recognize that they would do well in any free and fair elections and that a share of power that was won legitimately was better than full power without legitimacy.  The whole point of the revolution was to produce a genuinely representative government: the Brotherhood should be a part of that because they represent a substantial constituency.  But as long as the Brotherhood lingers in the righthand box on the graph above, its success in these elections will be tainted by the fact that in large part it was due — by deliberate policy or sheer incompetence — to the military.  That’s not good for Egypt or the Brotherhood.

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Confused about how these elections work?  Al Jazeera has made a noble effort at explaining the system but it only serves as a reminder how unlikely it is most voters will make sense of it all.  But the early turnout at the polls has been significant, despite the poor organization and disarray at some of the polling stations.

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Today, Google Egypt continues its puckish practice of commemorating events of the day with a doodle on its home page by putting up this rendering of a flag-bedecked polling booth.  I am sure when they planned this one out they thought there would be more cause for celebration.

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