Thousands of candidates from dozens of parties will vie for power in Egypt next week, marking the latest phase in a nation's struggle to forge a viable democracy in the post-Mubarak era.
Election marks next phase in Egypt's democratic struggle
Barring an election delay, Egyptian voters heading to the polls next week could put their country on the road to becoming Turkey, that regional beacon of Muslim democracy, or Iran, that dark, authoritarian theocracy - or a military state somewhere in between. Some 6,000 candidates from over 50 political parties are running, but Islamist groups led by the Muslim Brotherhood are likely to gain a near-majority of parliamentary seats.
What they do with that power - whether they push for a more Sharia-influenced constitution, how aggressively they confront the military - may well decide the fate of the new Egypt. Few are better placed to read the shifting political landscape than Gunes Murat Tezcur, who has studied Muslim political actors across the region, particularly in Iran and Turkey. If Egypt's Islamists hope to establish a legitimate democracy, he urges them to strike a balance: be patient enough to gain political legitimacy, yet stay vigilant for opportunities to confront the military.
"A reformist government has the best chance of reducing the power of the military when it is confrontational, but has also accumulated enough power to overcome the military's resistance, as in the case of Turkey," Tezcur says during a recent interview in his office at Chicago's Loyola University, where he lectures on political Islam and democracy.
Tezcur's book, Muslim Reformers in Iran and Turkey: The Paradox of Moderation, applies moderation theory to Turkey's Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and the Reform Front in Iran. The theory describes the process by which radical political actors - such as Islamist parties, or socialist parties in Europe at the turn of the last century - begin to accept pluralist electoral politics and the rule of law and move away from provocation in order to win the necessary votes to gain office.
The AKP is among the most successful contemporary examples. "Here you have an Islamist party rising in the late 1980s ... and it soon became clear that they could not get the votes they needed to win elections," explains Tezcur, a 32-year-old Turkish national. "So a younger generation led by Tayyip Erdogan helped the party shift to a more centrist platform."
Today, the AKP's grip on power is practically unchallenged. In Iran, however, former president Mohammad Khatami and his Reform Front lost traction several years ago because "they failed to use their leverage to gain concessions from the Guardian's Counsel and other Iranian institutions," says Tezcur. "Ultimately they could not change the power structure."
The question, then, is whether Egypt's Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, can successfully navigate the shoals of transition like the AKP, or are doomed to smash against the rocks of authoritarianism like the Reform Front. Meanwhile, some western observers continue to question whether Egypt's Islamist groups are working towards liberal democracy at all.
Tezcur argues that, for Islamist parties, embracing pluralist politics and becoming more open-minded (ideological moderation), helps move along the process of democratisation. But becoming less confrontational and building coalitions (behavioural moderation), can be problematic. "Behavioural moderation is not necessarily conducive to democratic progress," he says. "In certain contexts, as happened in Iran recently, it actually hampers democratisation. This is the paradox of moderation."
He sees this tension between behavioural moderation and the process of democratisation as central to politics in post-Mubarak Egypt. Indeed, many have pointed to Turkey as a model for Egypt, both as a successful, modern Islamic state, and for its leadership, in the AKP.
Egypt has a powerful, politically influential military, as Turkey had for decades. In both countries, Islamist groups have been oppressed for long periods - the Muslim Brotherhood under Mubarak; the AKP before coming to power. Turkey's Kurds and Egypt's Copts have faced varying degrees of marginalisation for half a century. Finally, millions of secular, modern urbanites in both countries must accept that more conservative, more religious voters in smaller cities make up the balance of the population.
"Turkey is a model because of its success in politics, economics, foreign policy in recent years," says Tezcur. "But there are so many differences between Egypt and Turkey." Turkey has a half-century of mostly free and fair elections, while Egypt is having its first legitimate vote. Turkey's middle class is larger and more influential. And most importantly, there has never been a mainstream demand for Sharia.
Tezcur believes the Egyptian military is unlikely to gain the type of power long held by their Turkish equivalents, mainly because of the Kurdish insurgency. "Their argument is that 'We are fighting against the terrorists, the insurgents, so we need more power,' which basically means they can dominate the civilian government," says Tezcur. "Unless the Copts become insurgents, I don't think you'll have the same problem in Egypt."
Yet Egypt's military leadership, known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), has been consolidating its power. Scaf generals recently drafted supra-constitutional principles that would increase military controls and leave the generals free of civilian oversight. Muslim political parties have vehemently rejected the principles, and tens of thousands of protesters returned to Tahrir Square last week calling for the military to reduce its grip on power. Back and forth clashes between protesters and security forces on the square - the most violent since the departure of Mubarak - have resulted in several deaths and hundreds injured.
The Scaf "has emerged as the most serious threat in the transition to democracy," Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote last week. "The military rules Egypt - and it intends to maintain its control indefinitely."
Some generals have begun to depict Scaf as the guarantor of Egyptian secularism - much the same role as Turkey's military held for decades. "We want a model like Turkey, but we won't force it," an anonymous Scaf general told The Washington Post in July. "Egypt as a country needs this to protect our democracy from the Islamists. We know this group doesn't think democratically."
Of course, the AKP has in recent years pushed the Turkish military from its lofty perch, from where it had muscled out a handful of civilian regimes since 1950. In consolidating its current position, the Egyptian military hopes to keep the Muslim Brotherhood from doing the same.
Still, a quick glance at the list of political players in Egypt reveals the AKP's influence: the Building and Development Party, Change and Development, and Equality and Justice, all Islamist parties; the Justice Party, a liberal group; and of course the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice.
"These groups look at the AKP as very successful, because it's kind of a cross-class party, with large support among merchants, traders and the middle class and also lower classes," says Tezcur. It has also managed to run a sizeable country rather well for a decade, and has made the military its subordinate. "For these Egyptian parties, this is the model."
Three party lists are most important: the Islamist Alliance, including Nour and the Islamic Group's Building and Development Party; the Democratic Alliance, led by the Brotherhood; and the liberal Egyptian Bloc, featuring the Free Egyptians and Social Democrats. Liberal groups and secular parties led by youths who fomented the revolution in Tahrir Square are expected to garner about a fifth of the total vote, while Islamist parties are likely to receive about half (40 per cent for the Brotherhood; five to 10 per cent for Salafis).
Once in power, Egypt's Islamist reformers are likely to fare better than Iran's Reform Front, as the Scaf has nowhere near the deep roots and influence of Ayatollah Khamanei and the Guardian's Counsel. Yet Iran still offers a cautionary tale for Egyptian parties: being patient is good, but being too patient could be disastrous.
"On the one hand, they may pursue a patient or gradual strategy in order not to provoke the military," says Tezcur. "The risk is that they miss unique opportunities and lose their influence over time. On the other hand, they may directly confront the military and risk repression." Another concern is how the Brotherhood and the Salafis will treat Copts and Muslim minorities. "The real challenge is more about how to protect individual liberties and minority rights," says Tezcur.
If Islamist groups are to achieve lasting success, their leaders must be charismatic, open to new ideas and willing to challenge the party hierarchy. About a decade ago, Erdogan appeared at the forefront of a new, open-minded generation of Islamists in Turkey.
When the Turkish prime minister landed in Cairo for a September visit, a Brotherhood-organised crowd of thousands greeted him at the airport with shouts of "Allahu Akbar!" Erdogan spoke of secularism and later met a handful of religious and political leaders, including Muslim Brotherhood chairman Mohammed Badie.
Details of their meeting were kept secret, but Tezcur thought Erdogan might have advised Brotherhood leaders to follow the example of the AKP, which held power for years before going after the most powerful generals. "He would tell them not to get overexcited, to be more strategic, and pursue your policies more patiently and gradually," says Tezcur.
Patience is likely to be a virtue for all the candidates. It will require more than four months of staggered rounds of parliamentary votes for all of Egypt's 40 million eligible voters to have their chance at the polls. Many observers are convinced the organisational strength of the Brotherhood will win out, and Islamists will gain a high percentage of the early vote. This could put the fear of Sharia rule in both the military leadership and liberal youth, sparking more widespread protests and violence.
Either way, Egypt's path to democratisation is only beginning. Tezcur says it takes years for a single party or group of parties to gain the strength required to stare down entrenched powers.
"It takes a couple of elections before you see which party becomes most prominent, which has the best social networks and can draw votes from the various sectors of society," he says. "In Egypt, there may only be a few opportunities on which to capitalise to achieve a breakthrough towards democratisation. If you miss them, who knows when they will next be available."
David Lepeska is a freelance writer who contributes to The New York Times, Financial Times and Monocle, and previously served as The National's Qatar correspondent. He lives in Chicago.