If Arabs used acronyms and abbreviations, Egyptians would be drowning in alphabet soup. With dozens of political parties registered, uniting in a bewildering array of fronts and alliances and then splitting at the last minute as member parties fall out over how to share parliamentary seats, Egyptians will have to navigate their way through a labyrinth of confusing names when they start voting in parliamentary elections on November 28. As the deadline for nominations loomed, many alliances had still not stabilized and more and more parties decided to stand alone, even at the risk of ending up with few seats. No good opinion polls have come out in recent weeks, but Muslim Brotherhood candidates did perform well in elections for the Doctors’ Syndicate in October, suggesting the movement is still strong in professional middle-class circles.
Political fragmentation is only to be expected after the January uprising opened the floodgates to pluralism; in the first elections in Spain after the death of Francisco Franco, more than 60 parties were on the ballot, though only six of them ended up with more than two percent of the popular vote. In the case of Egypt, other factors have contributed to a widespread sense of uncertainty and an atmosphere conducive to conspiracy theories, especially the indecisive and unimaginative performance by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has been running the country since President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11.
The generals have alienated liberals and leftists by their law-and-order mentality and their reluctance to adopt the revolutionaries’ agenda, especially on human rights issues such as ending military trials for civilian protesters. The slogan: “The people want to overthrow the field marshal (interim head of state Mohamed Hussein Tantawi)” is common at the dwindling demonstrations. The generals’ refusal to allow an independent external inquiry into the killing of 25 people, mostly Coptic Christian protesters, outside the state television building on October 9, has added to the disenchantment among the politicized elite. Despite overwhelming evidence that armed thugs initiated the attacks on the Christian protesters, leading to deadly clashes between the Christians and the army, the military council has thrown no light on who the thugs might have been or who might have mobilized them. The generals have also done nothing so far to meet demands that members of Mubarak’s disbanded National Democratic Party be disqualified from standing in the elections, despite repeated reports that the military council is about to issue a decree addressing that demand. The NDP’s many opponents naturally suspect the generals have a secret agenda to preserve as much of the old regime as they can.
Even the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, generally seen as more sympathetic to the generals, have put the military on notice that they must give way to an elected civilian government as soon as possible. The economy is stagnant as tourists and foreign investors stay away, worried by the political instability and the sporadic incidents of civil unrest, which the demoralized police force is unable or unwilling to prevent. Even if the parliamentary elections go smoothly and produce a new cabinet with a popular mandate, the generals plan to stay around until the parliament approves a new constitution and presidential elections take place, possibly in late 2012 or early 2013. Then another battle will loom — over how to subject the military to permanent oversight by civilian politicians who owe the army no special favors. For 60 years the Egyptian military has been immune from scrutiny. Parliament never saw or approved its budget and did not have the authority to investigate its extensive business dealings, which helped to make many generals very wealthy men. The head of state came from within the military establishment and had no incentive to change the system. That will have to change if Egyptians finally have an elected civilian leader who wants to govern the whole country and turn Egypt into a modern democracy.
But as the Turkish example has shown, taming a powerful military with a history of political influence behind the scenes can be the work of a generation. And as in Turkey, perhaps only a popular movement from an Islamist background will be capable of clipping the military’s wings without provoking the generals back into politics.
JONATHAN WRIGHT is managing editor of Arab Media and Society