Egypt without future elections

Mohamed Elmenshawy , Sunday 28 Jul 2013

Free elections are a cornerstone of any democracy, but in Egypt they face serious challenges, not least illiteracy. Is it time to say honestly, 'No to free elections in Egypt'?

While many Egyptian intellectuals and politicians are scrambling to present various recipes for a roadmap for the future, everyone agrees on one thing: the need to “hold elections,” both parliamentary and presidential, within the next few months.

This consensus is logical on the outside since frequent free elections are a cornerstone of building any democratic system. Elections are also the only alternative when it comes to a mechanism for the peaceful transfer of power.

Free elections as experienced in Egypt today, however, hold serious challenges. Since the end of former president Hosni Mubarak’s era on 11 February 2011, the people of Egypt were asked five times to stand in long queues to express their opinion freely by choosing among candidates, or voting on a temporary constitutional declaration or new constitution. Egypt’s political experience since 11 February until today has shown the choices of the majority of the citizenry are ignored.

The first experiment was on 19 March 2011 when 77.2 per cent of the electorate approved the constitutional declaration proposed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). But SCAF went ahead and issued a constitutional declaration that is a different version than what the Egyptian people voted for in a referendum.

The second experiment was in December 2011-January 2012, when millions queued outside ballot stations to vote in parliamentary elections that gave Islamist currents a sweeping victory of more than 70 per cent of the seats. But the elected parliament was dissolved by a court ruling at the beginning of June 2012.

Then came Shura Council elections as the third experiment when the majority once again voted for the same current, giving it more than 80 per cent of seats.

The fourth time around, the presidential elections forced the people of Egypt in the run-offs to choose between two candidates, although nearly 75 per cent of voters did not vote for either candidate in the first round. Mohamed Morsi, representing the political Islam current, won by a slim majority of 51.7 per cent — which was more than US President Barack Obama won with in the same year, at 51.08 per cent of the vote.

The fifth experiment was in December 2012, when the new constitution was approved by 63.8 per cent of voters.

Thus, the experiment of free elections in Egypt shows that representatives of political Islam won an average of more than two thirds of votes in various elections.

This begs two key questions. First, will we continue to use the “mechanism of free elections” in the next phase of Egypt’s political experiment? Or is it better to put it aside, especially since the judiciary or military can annul their outcome if the results are similar to what we witnessed in the past two years? Second, pertaining to the future of political Islamist parties, will they be allowed to contest in the future? Or would it be better to prevent them from participating in elections, especially after they have shown us how successful they are at free elections?

Yes, free elections are not synonymous with democracy, but it is fair to say that free elections are a critical cornerstone and without them we would be talking about something other than the democracy known and practiced around the world. Some say the people of Egypt should wait to practice democracy in the manner of advanced societies, in order to change the culture of political institutions, evolve the culture of the people, build strong political parties, create objective media and build a state of law. But this is what the former regime used to say and what Omar Suleiman claimed during the January 25 Revolution — that the people of Egypt are not prepared to practice democracy until now.

The truth is, there is no sure guarantee for democracy in Egypt except “frequent and just free elections.”

Elections divide society into two camps: “winners” and “losers,” and voters decide the result. Most constitutions around the world uphold the right of adults to exercise civil and political rights. Some countries do not grant the right to vote to all their citizens at once. The US, for example, for many decades only gave Caucasian males above the age of 21 who owned property and paid taxes the right to vote. Women, the poor and non-Caucasians were only allowed to vote much later.

Some believe that in the past two years election results did not reflect Egypt’s reality and argued that nearly 15 million registered voters cannot even read or write, which is about one third of 53 million registered voters. Some Egyptian intellectuals doubted the feasibility of elections with so many illiterates. Positions expressed in tweets by writer Alaa Al-Aswany and statements by Mohamed ElBaradei shed light on the issue of illiteracy, its relation to the exercise of a citizen’s political rights and the outcome of elections.

In an interview with the US-based PBE channel, ElBaradei said: “Today we have an educated middle class on the one hand and on the other a majority known as Islamists and illiterates.” Al-Aswany, meanwhile, tweeted: “Illiterates are our people, we respect them. But they are voting on issues they cannot read. Should we glorify illiteracy or admit it is an obstacle?”

There is no dispute that illiteracy is an obstacle to democracy in general, but the position of Al-Aswany and ElBaradei spontaneously expressed the easy justification for the failure of certain political forces in connecting with voters who are poor and marginalised. Continued illiteracy in Egypt is in fact a good example of the miserable failure of the traditional ruling elite in past decades, and evidence of the end of its mandate in power after a revolution by the people.

Large and influential sectors of Egyptians rejected the mechanism, outcome and essence of free elections, so why the insistence to maintain them in the new roadmap for the future that will rule Egypt after 30 June?

Let us say it courageously and honestly: “No to free elections in Egypt.”

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