Egypt's dangerous run-up to elections is a necessary risk
Last May, when Egyptians queued for hours to vote in a referendum on constitutional amendments, there was a sense of joy and elation about the process. For the first time in decades, a vote was taking place in a climate of enthusiasm, without fraud or police intimidation, and a great sense of civic duty. It is true that the referendum was partly flawed - the ink used to mark the thumbs of voters was said to be weak, electoral rolls had not been updated, there had been no voter registration and there were a few instances of illegal campaigning that were overlooked. But none of that mattered, in the larger scheme of things, even for those Egyptians that did not like the outcome. For once, Egyptians could genuinely believe that their voices had been counted.
As violence between protesters and the military led to blood in Cairo and elsewhere at the weekend, that optimism is all but dead ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections, which are supposed to start next Monday and take place over multiple rounds ending in March. The voting will take place in the tense political climate typified by the weekend's violence. As well as the continued fallout from the mismanagement of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) - the brutality of military police, the shocking crackdown on Coptic protesters on October 9 that has become known as the "Maspero massacre", the widespread use of military tribunals, the imprisonment of activists such as Alaa Abdel Fattah, the censorship of the media - there is also now a major divide over the process by which the next constitution will be drafted.
Friday's protest in Tahrir Square focused on the SCAF's attempt to impose "super-constitutional principles", with an initial draft including provisions to give the military an exemption from parliamentary oversight, as well as powers to appoint the future constituent assembly's members and, if necessary, dismiss it. This rightly caused widespread outrage, and although these terms have now been dropped, what little trust in the SCAF that remained was broken.
Some political forces still back the idea of such a document - mostly liberals who want guarantees against the likelihood of an Islamist-dominated parliament - but many progressives have joined the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists in protest, perhaps seeing in them a lesser evil to the army. This makes the stakes of coming election all the more important, since this fight over the next constitution will be the first order of business in the new parliament.
Between the May referendum, which stipulated that elections should take place by the end of the year, and these polls there has been plenty of time to prepare. That time was squandered, both by the ruling military council and its government that have organised elections in a slapdash, last-minute fashion. Political forces wasted much of the summer bickering over things that only a legitimately elected parliament (and, ultimately, president) can resolve.
These elections, with two-thirds of seats going to party lists and one-third to individual candidates, will be among the most complicated in the world. This in a country with a record of low participation and a 40 per cent illiteracy rate. If even leading electoral experts and members of the official electoral commission admit confusion about the electoral system, imagine how an Upper Egyptian peasant might feel.
Consider too that Nasser-era provisions reserve half of seats for "workers and farmers", complicating the party-list system as the results will have to be adjusted (meaning the electoral commission might have to skip people on top of the list to create that balance). And an ambiguous provision that parties must meet a minimum vote threshold might be another reason that victorious candidates could lose their seats - perhaps only after the rounds of voting are completed. One can imagine the kind of tension this might create: a candidate who thought he won a seat could see himself losing it after several weeks.
As bad as the elections' labyrinthine rules are, the most worrying thing is how they have been prepared at the last minute. The government and political forces did not resolve their disagreements until October, and many regulations - including district boundaries - were not clear until just a few weeks before the poll. Even now it is difficult to get a full list of candidates.
It might be tempting to give political forces more time to agree on broad principles, and postpone the elections to organise them properly. Egypt's transition would have gone better if political forces had not squandered their efforts in appeals to the SCAF and had talked directly, or perhaps even formed their own government rather than hand the reins of power to military-appointed technocrats. Tunisia's relatively successful transition, which put politicians in charge, was a better way to build consensus.
But it is pointless to cry over spilt milk. Egypt's elections, as flawed and risky as they will be, have become a necessary evil to hasten the transition to civilian rule - elections are the least bad alternative to open-ended military rule. Short of the military's acceptance of the demands made by some protestors and political leaders for an immediate transfer to civilian leadership, they must go ahead. The next few months will be a rocky ride. Let us just hope that, to get through it, the civic spirit and solidarity seen in Tahrir Square last January will rise above the bloodshed of recent days.
Issandr El Amrani is an independent Cairo-based journalist who blogs at www.arabist.net