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Egypt elections beyond ideology: A return to common sense politics

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By Hamid Eltgani Ali and Warigia Bowman

The first round of Egyptian parliamentary elections is drawing to a close, but in another sense, Egyptian multi-party politics is just beginning. After a partially successful revolution, Egypt is now on a crash course to multi-party democracy. Other countries that have gone through major political transitions from dictatorship to democracy generally have had decades to make the transition. The question many Western observers are asking now is what shape will Egypt’s nascent democracy take? Will it more closely resemble the secular Turkey, or the more theocratic Iran?

As news reports have indicated, the results of the first round of elections have been discouraging for those who support a secular state in Egypt. Based on our quantitative analysis of publicly available ex post election data after the first round of voting, the Islamists performed exceptionally well in comparatively rural areas with low political capital such as Fayoum and Luxor. By contrast, liberal and moderate parties, taken altogether, won only 27 percent of total votes and performed relatively well in highly urbanized areas of high political capital like Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said. Liberal candidates are likely to do worse in the second and third rounds of voting which will be held in parts of rural Egypt that are likely to be less progressive and politically sophisticated than Cairo, the Red Sea and The Delta.

Given results in the first round of the Egyptian elections, what lessons can be learned?

First, scholars and observers would do well to focus on the positive. Despite the fact that the Egyptian Bloc was formed only a few months ago, it made an impressive showing in this election. As a corollary, liberal parties made a serious miscalculation by running numerous separate lists. Many of the parties in the Revolution Continues Alliance (RCA) withdrew from the Bloc allegedly due to inter-party conflicts. The only liberal party that has done well in the elections has been The Egyptian Bloc, which has captured 14 percent of the available seats thus far. In the first round of runoffs, 47 of the FJP made it to the runoffs. The far right Islamist party Al Nour has secured 27 candidates in the first round of runoffs. By contrast, the Egyptian Bloc only had 9 candidates in runoffs. The liberal and secular parties, including Al Wafd and Al Wasat need to resolve their differences and work as a unit.
Second, Egypt is a big tent: it encompasses liberals and Islamists, leftists and capitalists. Third, democracy is a process. The ultimate goal is increasing the general welfare of citizens and ensuring their rights and liberties. To use the language of game theory: the election is not a one- time game, it is a repeated game. Accordingly, observers should take a long term view, and avoid the politics of fear.

Fourth, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, the more moderate Islamist party, the FJP, (who, to their credit were part of the revolution) should be more inclusive and extend an olive branch to liberal camps. In particular, the FJP should consider working with Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, the icon of the Egyptian revolution, respected figure and Nobel Laureate. This will give the FJP the respectability they crave and strengthen their position among the youth. An FJP and ElBaradei combination is a politically smart deal; the FJP could control the legislative branch and ElBaradei could serve as President to heal this nation and give assurance to the international community that Egyptian democracy is on the right track. The world’s fears of Islamists will be diffused by President ElBaradei. However it will be a disaster if the FJP repeats the mistakes of Islamists in Algeria and tries to go it alone to control the whole process. That will only strengthen military control, an outcome that even the Islamists do not want.

Finally, for liberals to match the success of the Islamists, they must meet them in the trenches, where Islamists have been successful at providing food to voters deeply worried about their economic security. It’s time for parties across the political spectrum to figure out what matters to them and campaign on issues, not ideologies. The Egyptian people do not know what “social justice,” means yet. But they do know what a hunger feels like. If the liberal parties can show that they know how to deal with these visceral issues, they can increase their share in parliament, and become an effective counter to the Islamists.

Hamid Eltgani Ali and Warigia Bowman are Assistant Professors of Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.



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