Lessons and the way forward
Regardless of how deep are the political cleavages in Egypt, even after the presidential elections, the real test now is meeting the needs of the people, writes James Zogby
The near interminable announcement of Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) and Supreme Presidential Elections Commission head Farouk Sultan on the outcome of Egypt's presidential election tested the nation's patience. Twitter commentary on the speech's almost mind-numbing detail, while hilarious, masked an underlying nervousness that this was but an effort to wear everyone down preparing the ground for the announcement that the winner was, in fact, General Ahmed Shafik. The speech was an over-wrought defence of the work of the commission. It was also a testy rebuttal to earlier attacks delivered by the Muslim Brotherhood. And it was boring. At one point, I thought that decades from now we might forget who won the election, but we would never forget Farouk Sultan's speech.
In hindsight, I believe there might have been logic to Sultan's endless detail. This was, after all, Egypt's first truly democratically contested presidential election. And so his report of incorrect counts, faulty ballots, etc, could be seen as a reminder of the fact that in a democracy elections are always messy affairs. As the old adage goes, "Elections are like sausage-making. You don't want to see how they're made, but they taste delicious." We don't see the mess in a landslide, but in close contests, the errors born of petty (and not so petty) corruption and human error become all too evident. Remember Florida's "hanging chads" in 2000, or Ohio's Diebold machine malfunctions in 2004.
This was, by any measure, a close contest. Here, too, Farouk's report was a useful reminder of the deep, nationwide divisions in the Egyptian electorate. In the end, one-half of eligible Egyptians voted, and little more than one-half of them chose Mohamed Mursi to lead them. And it is important to note that not all of Mursi's votes came from supporters of the Brotherhood; many came from those who were quite simply voting against Shafik and the military. So too many of those who voted for Shafik were in fact casting a vote against the Brotherhood.
Even those wary of a Muslim Brotherhood win must acknowledge that history has been made in this openly competitive contest. President-elect Mursi will now occupy the seat once held by Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak -- but with a difference. If this is to work, there can be no new Pharaoh, nor will the generals be able to exercise unfettered control, by themselves or through a surrogate. Mursi now has a mandate to govern. But he would be wise to proceed with caution.
There are two essential components to making a democracy work, both involving recognition of the reality of divisions in society. The losing side, despite their bitter disappointment, must accept the legitimacy of the outcome, and the winning side must accept the reality and legitimate rights of the losing side.
These are the hard tests of democracy and real challenges lay ahead. If we look closely at this election, and indeed everything that has transpired since February of 2011, we can see that Egypt's nascent democracy is still a work in progress. There are clearly two poles in the contest for power, and an emergent third pole in the making.
On the one side there is the Muslim Brotherhood, a powerful national movement, an effective provider of services, and a now proven vote-getter. On the other side is the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the elements of Egyptian society they represent. They too have demonstrated that they have supporters and have the capacity to organise. The revolutionary youth remain a potent force, but have recognised their electoral limitations and have embarked on a five-year organising plan.
In any case, the shape of Egypt's new democracy will be determined by the interplay between these poles, with no one group being able to claim it represents all Egyptians, or even all those who voted for them in the last election (democracy being a fickle mistress). It is advisable, therefore, that both sides approach this next stage with a degree of humility and that neither side over-reach, as they unfortunately have in the recent past.
The Muslim Brotherhood set off alarm bells when it tried to exercise too much control too soon, in parliament and in the selection of the body that was to write the new constitution. They then compounded their over-reach when they broke their earlier pledge not to field a presidential candidate and were seen as trying to control everything. This was seen as a step too far. One party control can be a problem in an established and divided democracy, like the United States. How much more so in an emergent democracy.
For its part, SCAF created deep concern when in reaction to the Brotherhood's over-reach it suspended parliament and then issued the addendum to the March 2011 Constitutional Declaration, stripping the powers of the presidency and establishing its role as final arbiter of the constitution.
At this point, after the election, the two main established poles of power in Egypt are what they have been all along -- the Brotherhood and SCAF. The military will seek to maintain as much control as it can, while President Mursi will make a determined effort to wrest as much control as he can. The two groupings will continue to test each other, and the interplay will determine whether or not Egypt moves forward. The test of wills that will now occur will shape the future of Egypt's democracy.
But the real test for the new president and SCAF will be their ability to perform. The public will have limited patience with their contest for power. At the end of the day our polls show that a majority of Egyptians could care less about which group rules. Uppermost on their minds are jobs, improved healthcare, better education, and a government that can deliver services without corruption. This is the real work of democracy, and, in this context, the election and its outcome mark not the end of a process but its beginning.
The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.