Dispatch from Port Said: An Observer’s Perspective on Egypt’s Pivotal Elections

On November 30, the Atlantic Council organized a conference call briefing with Michele Dunne, director of the Rafik Hariri Center, who called in from Cairo to provide a firsthand perspective on Egypt’s fiercely contested parliamentary elections.
As part of a monitoring delegation organized by the International Republican Institute, Dunne closely followed all aspects of the two-day polling process in the coastal city of Port Said, where she had the opportunity to engage directly with the candidates and parties that will shape Egypt’s future political landscape.

After decades of fraudulent elections under the authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian voters queued up by the thousands on November 28 and 29 to vote in what may go down in history as the country’s first free and fair polling process. Due to the staggering of the electoral process over three stages running through January 2012, Dunne said it was too early to pass judgment on the overall integrity of parliamentary elections. But the voters she encountered – who turned out in record numbers – expressed cautious optimism and pride after an initial round of polling that saw relatively few irregularities and low levels of violence compared to past elections. Noting that her observations reflect the activities around one-third of the polling stations in one city and might not be representative of the overall process, Dunne identified several key trends and issues that will dominate political debates in the coming months:

Egypt’s transition will be a long and messy process:  Although this week’s elections mark an important step toward empowering an elected, representative government with a popular mandate, the electoral process itself will be dragged out in three separate rounds of voting until January, and the new parliament will not hold its first session until March 2013. “This is the beginning of the beginning,” Dunne said. While voters seemed to hold positive views of the process thus far, Dunne noted that rivalry and resentment between competing parties might escalate in successive runoffs and later voting rounds as the release of additional results stokes competition. In addition, results from the first round – which are based on voting in only 9 districts including the most urban and educated segments of the electorate – might not be representative of final results, which will reflect the preferences of voters in more rural districts where Islamist groups have a strong grassroots following and candidates affiliated with the former ruling party may benefit from their longstanding patronage networks.

Large turnout: Official statistics are not yet available but early estimates indicate that voter turnout may have exceeded 70 percent in some districts. Even if the overall turnout only reaches 50 percent, it would still mark a significant departure from past elections, where voter turnout rarely exceeded 10 percent due to fears of violence and frustration with pervasive fraud.

Irregularities and violations: Although Dunne noted a number of minor irregularities in Port Said – such as filling out ballots outside of closed voting booths and failing to enforce the requirement that voters dip their fingers in ink – she did not witness outright fraud. However, numerous candidates and party representatives flagrantly violated the ban on campaigning 48 hours prior to elections. During the voting process itself, Michele observed campaign workers distributing propaganda, and this flurry of last-minute campaign activity might have influenced results significantly, due to the fact that many voters went to the polls undecided. The largest, most organized parties – the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafi Nour Party – had set up computer-equipped voter education booths, where they directed voters to the correct polling station and distributed leaflets promoting their own candidates. Faced with long and confusing lists of candidates and forced to make decisions on the spot, voters could easily have been swayed by the overtures of persuasive party volunteers.

Islamists make a strong showing:  Official results for Port Said were not expected until December 1, but early reports suggested a strong showing by three Islamist parties: the FJP, Nour, and the moderate Wasat. One of the two single-winner seats in the district went to an FJP candidate, while the other was expected to go to a runoff round between a leftist and a Salafi candidate on December 5. Early results suggest that Islamists are poised for significant wins across the country, leading polls in Alexandria and Fayyoum and certain districts in Cairo.

Elections in perspective: Some observers have suggested that the massive voter turnout represents a repudiation of ongoing anti-government protests in Tahrir Square. However, Dunne suggested this is not the case. Although Egyptians overwhelmingly opted to vote rather than boycott, public opinion still favors a swift end to military rule. Many voters viewed elections as an essential mechanism for expediting a transfer of power to civilian leadership, and thus chose to participate as a means of advancing the democratic transition. Dunne predicted that tensions between protesters and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will escalate again if the military tries to curb the powers of the next parliament and preserve its political privileges in the new constitution.

A new political system? Elections could also lead to a rebalancing of power within Egypt’s political system, currently dominated by the executive branch. The FJP and other political forces favor a parliamentary system, in which the authority to form and dismiss a cabinet lies with the People’s Assembly rather than the president.

Economic recovery is essential to political transition:  Dunne highlighted Egypt’s rapidly deteriorating economy, which has come under increasing strain from persistent street protests, strikes, capital flight, rising inflation, high levels of domestic borrowing, and costly subsidies that could lead to a budget crisis in the coming months. After rejecting much-needed loans from the IFM and World Bank earlier this year, Egypt is now being forced to renegotiate these assistance packages under more urgent circumstances. Although the current political climate is not conducive to large-scale trade initiatives with Egypt, the U.S. and Europe should be working to lay the framework for future economic partnerships that could play a crucial role in stabilizing Egypt’s economy once a civilian government is in place.


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