Thursday, June 30, 2011

Egypt's Military and Upcoming Elections


Last night clashes broke out in Tahrir Square between youth pro-democracy activists and Egyptian security forces. The event is a reminder that the political situation in Egypt is far from settled, as the ruling military Council decides whether or not to move the country forward towards elections in September. When the Egyptian military forced out former President Hosni Mubarak in February its mission was very clear: to preserve the military regime that has existed in Egypt since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser. That remains the military’s objective today. The Egyptian military is currently faced with a dilemma. It wants to quit governing Egypt and go back to its old job of simply ruling it. In order to do this it has committed to holding democratic elections in the country. The question now is whether or not to hold them in September, as currently promised, or to postpone them towards a later date.

There are two camps in Egyptian politics when it comes to this issue. The first are the Islamists, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood. The second camp are the pro-democracy youth activists, who organized most of the demonstrations in January and February. No matter what the military decides to do, it will risk upsetting one of these two camps.

The first camp, the Islamists, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, want the elections to be held as promised, in September. This is because the brotherhood is currently the most organized political force in Egypt, but the brotherhood wants to take it slow. It has vowed not to run for more than 49 percent of all the parliamentary seats in Egypt and it has also promised not to put forward a candidate for the presidency. However, the brotherhood still feels that the earlier the vote the better. Other salafist groups in Egypt, which have been allowed to form political parties for the first time in Egyptian history, feel the same. This will give them an advantage when it comes time for rewriting Egypt’s constitution after the elections are held.

On the other side of this divide are the pro-democracy activists that organized most of the demonstrations in January and February. These people are collectively referred to at times as the January 25 movement, but to call it a movement blurs the reality. These people are highly divided, and there is no one group that has emerged over the others that would clearly garner a large number of seats in an election that would be held in September. So they argue that they need more time. This, they say, will be the only way in which they can get more organized to effectively combat the Islamist forces running in the election. That’s why one of their core demands is that the elections be postponed and the constitution be rewritten first. These are the ones that were clashing with security forces last night in Tahrir Square and they are also the ones that are currently calling for regime change.

The military, unsurprisingly, is on edge because of this, especially in light of the fact that the January 25 movement leaders are calling for a return to the sit-ins in Tahrir Square that we saw in January and February. July 8 is the day that they have chosen, and though there have been large demonstrations in Tahrir since the fall of Mubarak, the military is concerned that these protests could be even larger and risk triggering a return to the instability that the Egypt saw in the beginning part of 2011.

Looking ahead, here is the Egyptian military’s dilemma in a nutshell. If it holds the elections on time, it risks giving the Islamists significant political space at the expense of the more secular forces who say they need more time to organize. Or the military could use the instability in the streets as a pretext for delaying the elections, catering to the demands of those who are calling for regime change, yet who could create more competition for the Islamists. At this point it’s not even clear that the military regime itself knows what it will decide.

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