Parliamentary elections in Tunisia this past week shed an optimistic light over the future of the Arab Awakening. The elections met international standards for election transparency, voter turnout, and international oversight.
All signs point to an enthusiastic and optimistic Tunisian public who gave overwhelming support to the moderate Islamist party, Ennahda. The well-known opposition party under former President Ben Ali won a plurality of seats (90 of the 217) in the parliament.
The success of the Tunisian elections exemplifies the country’s capacity for democratic governance, civic engagement, and civilian-led political reform. It is not likely however, that the Tunisian model will be replicated throughout the Arab world.
Egyptian parliamentary elections this month are a cause for concern. The Supreme Council of the Armed Force’s revival of the Emergency Law in September of this year, which reserves the military’s right to arbitrary detention and the use of military tribunals to try civilians, is one of many red flags. Civil society leaders, including many youth activists, have widely cited a crackdown on NGOs and other reputable and well-established public institutions. Last month, the SCAF declared 39 civil society organizations “illegal”. Rumors of incitement of recent Coptic-Muslim clashes and a refusal to cede executive power until after the drafting of a constitution have also kept tensions high.
SCAF’s attempts to blatantly muzzle the voice of civil society in Egypt as well as its refusal to accept calls for foreign monitoring present some of the most serious challenges to prospects for fair and free elections come November. Voter turnout and voter confidence is also likely to be low for these reasons.
Egyptian leadership’s major decisions regarding the electoral process will be hugely problematic, including opaque gerrymandering policies and a highly criticized “parallel” electoral system. This system blends both proportional representation and traditional district-level, individual-candidacy based representation, ultimately favoring larger and more organized political blocs such as the Muslim Brotherhood. This candidate-centric system used under Mubarak’s regime also stresses a winner-take-all approach to elections and could ultimately perpetuate entrenched family and tribal-oriented voting practices in rural areas, which make up 57% of Egypt’s population. The burden of quickly approaching November elections will be largely held on the shoulders of newly formed liberal-secular parties.
The general discontent in the Egyptian public surrounding the clear façade of a democratic post-Mubarak transition could lead to a resurgence of large-scale demonstrations next month. As tensions build, the Egyptian people will undoubtedly continue their demand for a transition to civilian-led governance. The SCAF will be obligated to answer this call. Until that time however, the November parliamentary elections could very well be a step back for the Egyptian revolution.
The success of the Tunisian elections is indeed a testament to the strength and commitment of the Tunisian people and the values of the Arab Awakening itself. However, the far greater geopolitical importance of Egypt’s elections and the possibility of its failure could spell disaster not only in Egypt but the region as well.
Rena Zuabi is with the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative.