x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Egypt's difficult task of stability ahead of ballot

Egypt's parliamentary election now has a framework law, with some good things about it. But the real fight to build a new Egypt involves much more than this election.

There is much to like about the election law that Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces unveiled this week. But legislative elections are just one part of the country's post-revolutionary rebirth, and many hard questions still must be answered before the new Egypt takes shape.

The first thing to like is that elections will proceed on a reasonable schedule. Early complaints that hasty elections would unduly favour Islamist opposition groups, who were better organised, were part of the reason for a delay from September. The current plan calls for a month-long process to be completed by the end of the year.

Any further delay would have risked reaching the boiling point in relations between the army and a sizeable section of the public. Even now it will be a challenge to keep the lid on, as violence this week suggests.

The law cuts the eligibility age for the People's Assembly, the lower house, to 25, down from 30. There will be both individual candidacies and party lists. Judges will supervise polling places. That's all fine.

But how can the military explain banning outside election observers, as Hosni Mubarak did? There has been some confusion about observers among opposition groups, but decades of stolen elections seem to be building a consensus in their favour. If this election is suspect, it could do more harm than good.

There are also some deeper concerns. However fair the elections, they are just part of the process of creating a new Egypt. Any road to this goal should reduce the military's eminent, not to say pre-eminent, role in Egypt's governance and economy. Since 1952, when General Muhammad Naguib and Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the monarchy, Egypt's presidents have all been from the military. The armed forces are in many ways a state within a state, and there is a long tradition of a civilian facade masking the real power.

Legislative elections will start a busy process: new lawmakers will name a 100-member assembly to draft a new constitution; already the military council is manoeuvring to keep the armed forces above civilian control.

Then a presidential election is expected for early next year. Any reformist president and prime minister will have to cope with the army's entrenched power somehow, and any who are not committed to reform will find Tahrir Square reflecting public anger again.

Egypt has so many challenges ahead. It cannot confront any of them if society degenerates into violence before these elections.