Egypt’s parliamentary elections kicked off in the midst of enormous political turbulence. With an all-time high turnout for the first round of voting, at nearly 70 per cent of registered voters, Egyptians are electing the first post-revolutionary parliament to replace the eroding legitimacy of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), ruling the country since Mubarak’s ouster in February.
SCAF earned its temporary, de facto political legitimacy when Mubarak stepped down in February. Promising to hand over power to an elected president and parliament within six months, SCAF’s legitimacy has been eroding with its failure to deliver on these promises, as well as devastating performance on the economic and security fronts, ongoing assaults on freedom of speech, militarisation of the state through pushing civilians through military tribunals, and the massacre of tens of Egyptians and injury of thousands during confrontations between demonstrators and state forces in November.
While elections were already scheduled to kick off 28 November, this erosion of SCAF legitimacy intensified the need for elections to create an alternative legitimate body to which power is transferred. Protestors demanded an immediate ousting of SCAF and the appointment of a national salvation government, a presidential council of different presidential candidates, or a council of judges as an alternative. Failure to create consensus due to divides amongst revolutionary and societal powers (most significantly the divide between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Bloc), alongside the revolutions’ need for popular support, necessitate the resorting to democratic means to create alternative legitimacy.
But the battle of power transfer is not limited to parliamentary elections. According to the temporary constitutional declaration of March, SCAF would retain presidential powers and authorities even after the election of a parliament. These powers will only be transferred to civilians when a president is elected. Field Marshall Tantawi — head of the SCAF — announced that presidential elections will take place by June 2012, after the ratification of a new constitution. SCAF, according to this scenario, would have sufficient power to influence the drafting of the new constitution in a manner that preserves its political and economic powers.
A draft document of constitutional principles announced by the former cabinet’s deputy prime minister sheds light on SCAF’s intentions. It assures SCAF’s full authority over the military’s financial and political decision making, and broadens its scope of work to include "defending the constitution". It also allows for its intervention in the selection of the constitution-drafting committee, and in the procedures governing the work thereof.
This, in the final analysis, leads to a situation of dual sovereignty, where people and the military assume sovereignty in different domains. However, these domains are not mutually exclusive, and the overlap of sovereignty would lead to a conflict between the elected and non-elected components of the state, hence impeding developmental efforts and jeopardising the revolution’s very objective. Turkey’s experience with the Kemalist military since the 1950s, and particularly since the 1970s, illustrates the destructive impact for this dual sovereignty on both the military and civil domains.
While elections are important to merge democratic and revolutionary legitimacy in a broad institution representing different trends, protest is important to give legislators sufficient legal and political power. The ongoing protests have wiped out the notorious El-Selmi document of constitutional principles, but very little has been achieved on other fronts so far. The SCAF has not yet made a clear statement on withdrawing from all aspects pertaining to the drafting of a new constitution, and it still insists the elected parliament will not form a government.
Protestors should fight the battle for people’s sovereignty through insisting on the transfer of power from SCAF to parliament and the immediate election of a new president. SCAF insists that the transfer of power to parliament violates the constitutional declaration. This declaration, however, is comprised of three sets of articles. First are the articles of the 1971 Constitution amended and ratified during the referendum in March. Second, are the articles of the same constitution that have not been amended. Third, are the articles defining the role of SCAF and the time intervals of the transitional period. While the first and second components enjoy complete and partial democratic legitimacy respectively, the third is purely the making of the SCAF, the reversing of which does not violate any democratic procedures. Rather, it is more democratic to amend it, since the legitimacy of a democratically elected parliament supersedes the eroding de facto legitimacy of SCAF.
The fear from an Islamist majority in parliament should not shake the persistence of protestors. Not only should the acceptance of democracy mean the acceptance of Islamists when democratically elected, but it is also much easier to resume the struggle over Egypt’s roadmap against civilian politicians not army officers. Further, a few measures could be taken to marginalise fears, including resorting to a two-thirds majority instead of a simple majority parliamentary vote of confidence for the cabinet. This would ensure wide representation and facilitate the building of consensus required for the selection of the constitution drafting committee.
March’s constitutional referendum allows for presidential elections to take place immediately after parliamentary elections and mandates that they take place before a new constitution is ratified. The election of a president in January is therefore necessary to push SCAF out of the political scene whilst defining Egypt’s political future.
Parliamentary elections are necessary but insufficient in the battle to retain sovereignty and ensure revolutionary success. Parallel paths of elections and protests, whilst continuing to pressure politicians and activists to come closer together and collectively closer to people’s demands and aspirations, are essential for the revolution to continue, and for Egypt’s future to reflect the will of its people.