CAIRO – Egypt’s upcoming general election could help to consolidate its nascent democracy and provide legitimacy to the government’s efforts to address the social, political, economic, and security challenges facing the country.
But no election, however successfully conducted, will be enough: Unless Egypt overcomes its current political polarization and builds a broad consensus that includes ruling Islamists and the secular opposition, its problems will persist, jeopardizing the prospect of a democratic future.
Egypt’s lack of strong democratic institutions and its ongoing economic crisis are fueling social unrest and crisis, division, and hostility within the political system. At the same time, insufficiently trained and inadequately supervised police and security forces have become targets of public anger, and Egypt’s security may collapse.
In this context, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s proposal to hold an election in the next few months should be welcomed. Indeed, it is supported by most of the parties that performed well the last time — in the country’s first free election following former President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in 2011. But, citing concerns that the elections will not be free and fair, the opposition National Salvation Front (NSF) — composed largely of secular parties that fared badly in the last elections — has threatened a boycott.
In the last parliamentary election, held between November 2011 and January 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) won 213 of 508 seats; the Salafist al-Nour Party won 107 seats; and the liberal New Wafd party won 41 seats. That June, the FJP’s Morsi was elected president — an outcome that the NSF has continued to challenge. Many self-declared revolutionaries are even hoping that the fragile social situation and deteriorating security will compel the military to intervene, thereby returning the struggle for power to the street.
This dangerous polarization has hindered Morsi’s ability to attract wider support and, in turn, has pushed the Muslim Brotherhood to become more defensive and less open to compromise. Last December’s attacks on the presidential palace and FJP offices, including their headquarters in Cairo, intensified this hardening. The incidents, allegedly led by radical members of the secular opposition and supporters of Mubarak’s regime, were met with relative passivity from the security forces, further undermining public faith in the country’s transformation.
The attacks came amid criticism of Morsi’s plan to hold a referendum on Dec. 15 to approve a draft constitution that only his Islamist allies had approved, and followed his seizure of temporary emergency powers until the new constitution’s ratification. While Morsi declared after the referendum his intention to resolve the tensions and respect the opposition, the constitution remains bitterly contested by secular parties.
As a result, hope that the FJP might follow the model of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party has given way to fear of a situation similar to that of Algeria in the 1990s, when the military’s brutal repression of the country’s leading Islamist party triggered a decade-long civil war. Avoiding such an outcome will require efforts from both sides.
The FJP must work to ease tensions, focusing on building consensus with the opposition and establishing a more inclusive government. Dismissing secular parties because of their weak performance in the last elections would be a mistake in Egypt, where revolutionary legitimacy remains a critical factor.
For their part, the NSF parties must reconsider their self-defeating plan to boycott the upcoming vote. Their response to demands from the United States to choose the electoral route — including their refusal to meet U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during his recent trip to Cairo — does not serve their interests.
Rather, the NSF parties should prepare to participate actively, using the electoral process to build and expand their influence. By presenting themselves as a credible political alternative to the FJP, they can gain more popular support and secure greater bargaining power. And, by participating openly, without preconditions, in the national dialogue that Morsi has proposed, they would help to guarantee that the election is free and fair. Morsi’s desire for the European Union to monitor the election indicates that such an outcome is possible.
Rather than write off Egypt’s democratic transition prematurely, the West must support Egypt’s electoral process, including through assistance from the International Monetary Fund, which would help to ease social tension. The IMF should grant Egypt the financial support that it needs, and drop demands for cuts in food and energy subsidies, which, if implemented now, amid widespread social unrest, would amount to political suicide for the FJP.
Just as support from the West can bolster Egypt’s democratization process, neglect can undermine it. America’s interest in a democratic Egypt is clear. For the EU, its reputation battered in recent years, the opportunity to provide not only election monitors, but also longer-term incentives for Egypt to consolidate democratic rule, should not be missed.
Alvaro de Vasconcelos is director of Projects for the Arab Reform Initiative (ARI), a consortium of 16 think tanks in the Arab world and the West, and coordinator of the Global Governance Group (GG 10). He was formerly director of the European Union Institute for Security Studies, Paris, and the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (IEEI) in Lisbon. © 2013 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)