The Coming Elections: Parliamentary or Presidential First?

With the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, Egypt entered a new transitional phase, the country’s third in recent years. Driven by Morsi’s policies since assuming power, a grassroots movement that eventually swelled to millions calling for his outright removal had in fact begun with a different demand: early presidential elections. Elections, they believed, would either reveal the real scale of Morsi’s popular support after a year in power, or would see him removed from his position, democratically. With Morsi rejecting the call for early presidential elections, the army stepped in on July 3 and announced a new ‘roadmap,’ outlining Egypt’s trajectory for the coming months. This roadmap is embodied in two documents: the statement made by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the night of July 3 and the temporary Constitutional Declaration announced by interim President Adly Mansour on July 8. The three primary steps laid out by that roadmap are to amend the suspended 2012 constitution, hold parliamentary elections, and lastly hold presidential elections. Falling back on the demand of the people and holding presidential elections before parliamentary elections, however, is in Egypt’s best interest. 

Early presidential elections were the main demand made by those who protested on June 30 and this popular demand should have been met. After all, the crisis facing Egypt prior to June 30 was a result of Morsi’s poor governance, rather than the absence of a parliament. Prior to Morsi’s removal, holding parliamentary elections was not, in principle, a point of contention. The roadmap, instead, launched an entirely new transitional phase, which guaranteed complete constitutional changes and the scheduling of parliamentary elections. This is a diversion from the primary goal of the protests that were held against Morsi.

The issue becomes clearer after taking into account the fact that the country’s roadmap is being implemented by a government which clearly harbors hostility towards political Islamist groups, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood. These groups are in essence barred (or barred themselves) from engaging in any form of participation in today’s political process, a fact which undermines the ability of this process to guarantee political stability in the short and long term. As a result, holding parliamentary elections before presidential elections in such a polarized and crowded political atmosphere, and under the rule of the country’s interim government, means that the outcome will not represent the true balance of political power in Egypt. While Islamists will likely abstain from fielding a presidential candidate after the disastrous effect of Morsi’s presidency, they will focus instead on parliamentary elections. Parliamentary elections are the true measure of political balance in any country, however, in the first post-Morsi parliamentary elections, the level of equal opportunity available might be reduced for Islamist parties. For these reasons, presidential elections should be held first, as they will not be as impacted by the polarized situation as would parliamentary elections.

Holding presidential elections before the parliamentary ones The election of the President of the Republic before that of Parliament will ensure the elected power possesses popular legitimacy, and will be one of many factors that ensures, to a big extent, political balance and stability. In addition, it will open the door for the new president to launch a new political process which absorbs all political factions, including the political Islamist movement. This newly elected president’s legitimacy can have a direct impact on the ground, since he is not the de facto leader, but rather has the will of the electorate behind him. In this situation, the Muslim Brotherhood would be forced to accept the new political equation, particularly if Sisi is no longer a part of it. This is the only means, when taking into account the country’s comprehensive political and social interests, to ensure political stability.

That said, administering the new parliamentary elections process under the supervision of a new president, in a less hostile and heated political atmosphere, will reflect on the credibility of this process, and most likely allow for the election of a new parliament which represents all segments of the Egyptian people including the Muslim Brotherhood.  All this will occur if the new president possesses a political vision that enables him to deal with Egypt’s political crisis, from more than just a security perspective.

Egypt’s current state is one in which the government has been unable to address the country’s concerns, except on issues related to security—while matters of economy and institutional reform have been set aside. This underlines the urgent need to emerge from this transitional period and hold presidential elections in order to transfer power to an elected civilian president. This will provide a strong impetus towards stimulating both administrative and economic activity, which has almost stopped, to say nothing of political stability. This necessary transition will not come with the election of a parliament; the position of the president in Egypt will always be the highest power capable of bringing about action, change and effect, provided that finding political solutions to the country’s most pressing crisis with the Muslim Brotherhood begins through the initiation of a comprehensive political and national reconciliation. There exists a modern Egyptian precedent in this regard. During the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), during the country’s first transitional period, a parliament was elected – towards the end of 2011. However this had little effect on political stability, as power remained almost completely within the grip of the army. This was a part of the wide ranging negative effect which resulted from the first transitional period.

Holding presidential elections after the constitutional referendum could shorten Egypt’s third transitional period by bringing to power an elected leader. The fifty-member committee tasked with amending the new constitution left the question of whether presidential elections can be held prior to the parliamentary polls up to the interim president (in Article 230). This could contribute to creating a new political climate, one which would allow parliamentary elections to proceed in an atmosphere that is less congested and more reflective of the Egyptian street. 

Yussef Auf is a fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. His work focuses on Egyptian constitutional issues, elections, and judicial matters. He has been a judge in Egypt since 2007.

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Image: Photo: Ahmed Abdel-Fatah