x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Possibilities and pitfalls as Egypt counts its votes

Egyptians have just started to vote, but already there's something new in the air. A big turnout could in itself signal a change in the civilian-military power balance.

Egyptians in nine of the country's 27 governorates voted Monday and yesterday, in the first round of marathon parliamentary elections that will not be completed until early next year.

Results of this week's voting, and an accurate tally of the voter turnout, will have to wait. But already there is reason to believe that this process is itself changing the rules in Egypt.

Anecdotal accounts of a high turnout - and of a low rate of polling irregularities - signal that Egyptians, in their collective wisdom, are taking the process seriously.

Gains will emerge slowly, considering that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has said it intends to retain authority for months. But Egyptians have waited a long time for free and fair elections, and as they begin to express themselves democratically, their expectations will be high. Cairenes waiting in long queues to vote greeted foreigners with handshakes and greetings: "Welcome to Egypt." Tahrir Square liberals did not want these elections, but many other Egyptians plainly did.

The new legislators will differ on countless policy matters, but the hope is they will share a certain interest in seeing real power in Egypt flow from soldiers to civilians. And this could become a self-fulfilling aspiration. If a big turnout gives lawmakers a certain authority, there will be a corresponding reduction in the authority of the SCAF. Consider the opinion of student and voter Nouran Al Antably, who supports the army in principle but says the generals have to go: "The soldiers are just Egyptians, they are not going to leave Egypt. But the Supreme Council is from the Mubarak time."

There is hope that the military will feel increasing pressure to cooperate with, rather than try to dominate, the civilians. This is, however, the most optimistic of scenarios. If legislators are narrowly partisan, they could waste this historic opportunity. In particular discord between Islamists and secularists runs deep. Or the turnout could dwindle away as the process - with its staggeringly complex voting system - drags on. Or violence and fraud could still imperil the process.

There are, in short, many dangerous possibilities. And these are early days. We need only recall the optimism of Iraq's 2005 elections, and the poor governance there since, to see that elections are not necessarily a panacea.

Whatever the day may bring for Egypt, though, there is no mistaking the brightness of this dawn. After half a century of rigged elections without surprises, Egyptians are waiting attentively, and hopefully, to learn how they will now be governed.