Egypt's Bumpy Road to Democracy

By David Cortright 12-08-2011

Initial results from Egypt’s first round of elections produced an unexpectedly large showing for Islamists. The Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood gained approximately 37 percent of the seats selected from political party lists, in line with predictions. The real shocker was the 24 percent vote obtained by the al-Nur party of the Salafi movement. The Salafis are extreme conservatives who favor restrictions on the role of women and Saudi-style controls on public morality. Liberal-left parties in the various party blocs gained about 37 percent. The results are very preliminary, with two more rounds of voting still ahead.

As Juan Cole notes, the party list results differ from the individual candidate results, so it is much too early to say whether the Islamists will dominate the parliament. The Freedom and Justice Party is relatively moderate compared to the Salafi party.  It is unlikely, according to Cole, that the two parties will be able to form an alliance. Dire warnings of an extremist Islamist takeover are premature.

The greatest threat to Egyptian democracy remains continued control by the military. The generals have asserted the right to appoint up to 80 percent of the constituent assembly that will write a new constitution. They have also insisted that, regardless of the composition and form of the new government, the budget and operations of the armed forces will remain exempt from parliamentary control and civilian oversight.

Some may be tempted to see the military as a bulwark against extremism, invoking the original ‘Turkish model’ that began with Ataturk in the 1920s. Over the decades Turkish generals sought to neutralize Islamism and ‘modernize’ the country. A very different ‘Turkish model’ has evolved over the past decade. The generals have returned to the barracks, free elections are now routine, and the moderate Justice and Development Party, led by President Erdoğan, has consolidated civilian democratic rule.  Many in Egypt today hope their country can follow this contemporary Turkish model—the removal of the military from power, and the evolution of Islamism toward political responsibility in a system of guaranteed free elections.

The road ahead will be bumpy and uncertain. Mostly the United States should stay out of the way and cheer for democracy from the sidelines. We can use our influence, however, to pressure the generals to step aside in favor of civilian democratic rule. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have issued statements to that effect. Washington provides $1.3 billion per year in military assistance to Egypt. We should not be afraid to use this aid as leverage to insist that Egypt’s military leaders accept democratic rule. A sign I saw in Tahrir Square recently said it well: “The army should defend the nation, not rule it.”


David Cortright, a Sojourners contributing writer, is director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. His books include Ending Obama’s War: Responsible Military Withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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