The turbulence that has hit Egypt since mid-November seems, at first glance, mostly a testament to the poor performance of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in handling the transition away from the rule of Husni Mubarak. Having assumed power on February 10, the SCAF moved quickly to attain the stamp of popular legitimacy through a March 19 referendum on constitutional amendments. Since then, however, the conclave of generals has stumbled over the flawed logic of its own plan for the transition, as well as ad hoc decision making and a high-handed, dismissive attitude toward the new politics of the country. The SCAF’s plan, in brief, was to engineer a restoration of civilian rule that shielded the army’s political and economic prerogatives from civilian oversight, and perhaps bolstered those roles, yielding a system not unlike the “deep state” that prevailed for decades in Turkey. Such was the system in Egypt, in fact, under Mubarak.
Residents of Cairo’s Darb al-Ahmar neighborhood have gathered at a streetside café on a late October Friday night to get their first glimpse of a political party founded by revolutionary activists. Men play backgammon and sip from their glasses of tea as members of al-‘Adl, one of 35 new parties vying for a role in Egypt’s next government, rush to set up a table and microphone at the café entrance. The first round of parliamentary elections, scheduled to commence November 28, is only a month away, but the campaign season has just begun. In the eight months since widespread demonstrations and Egypt’s military leadership forced former President Husni Mubarak to flee to Sharm al-Sheikh, the country’s political class has been caught up in divisive battles over election laws, party alliances and timetables — all complicated by the ruling military council’s thorough mishandling of the rocky transition. As a result, many parties have turned to electioneering with the sudden intensity of a student doing his homework on the morning ride to school. When it makes its debut at the Nasif café, al-‘Adl will be only the fourth party that Darb al-Ahmar residents have seen in their area. The others — the Muslim Brothers, al-Wafd and al-Ghad — are all Mubarak-era opposition parties with experience running in parliamentary elections.
Tunisia was the first Arab country to have a pro-democracy uprising in the winter of 2010-2011, and now it is the first to have held an election. Tunisians took to the polls on October 23 to choose a constituent assembly that will be tasked with drafting the country’s first democratic constitution and appointing a new transitional government. The elections were judged free and fair by a record number of domestic and foreign observers, testimony to the seriousness with which the interim government approached the poll. In the eyes of many observers, Tunisia is lighting the way forward where others — notably Egypt — are faltering.
The Egyptian parliamentary elections that ended on December 5 defied expectations, not because the ruling National Democratic Party again dominates Parliament but because of the lengths to which it proved willing to go to engineer its monopoly. Official and unofficial ruling-party candidates garnered 93.3 percent of the seats in the national assembly, while marginal opposition parties received 3 percent and the Muslim Brothers got a lone seat to be occupied by a member who would not abide by the Brothers’ boycott of the runoff. While these results are identical to the outcome of the 1995 elections, the reaction this time has been much more severe.
No one thinks parliamentary elections in Egypt are democratic or even semi-democratic. The elections do not determine who governs. They are not free and fair. They install a parliament with no power to check the president. The government National Democratic Party (NDP) always manufactures a whopping majority, never getting less than 70 percent of the seats. The opposition is kept on a tight leash, restrained by police intimidation, rampant fraud and severe limits on outreach to voters. And citizens know that elections are rigged, with polling places often blocked off by baton-wielding police, so few of them vote.
Political reformers in Jordan are struck by a sense of déjà vu. Jordan has been parliament-free since November 2009, when King ‘Abdallah II dissolved the legislature for not moving fast enough on his program of economic reform. The deputies had yet served even half of their four-year terms. Since then, a hastily assembled rump cabinet has been publishing its own laws, largely the very measures championed by the king but rejected or stalled by the last legislature. The king has done this before; for two years between 2001-2003, Jordan was without an elected assembly, during which time the cabinet introduced more than 200 “temporary laws.”
Yemen's parliamentary elections, held on April 27, 2003, might have set a higher standard for contested elections in the Arab world. Instead, post-election shenanigans and gunfire that disrupted ballot counting in key districts cast doubt on the voting process and the ruling General People's Congress' landslide victory.
Iyad Allawi, the not terribly popular interim premier of post-Saddam Iraq, is in a position to form a government again because he won over the Sunni Arabs residing north and west of Baghdad in the March 7 elections. The vote, while it did not “shove political sectarianism in Iraq toward the grave,” as Allawi would have it, rekindled the hopes of many that “nationalist” sentiment has asserted itself over communal loyalty.
Just as reports from Lebanon were indicating that a cabinet would be finalized within days, the notoriously fickle Druze leader Walid Jumblatt announced, on August 2, that his Progressive Socialist Party would withdraw from the governing coalition. Jumblatt criticized his coalition partners in the March 14 alliance, which had claimed victory in the June 7 parliamentary elections, for a campaign “driven by the rejection of the opposition on sectarian, tribal and political levels rather than being based on a political platform.” This view could apply to the campaigns of both major alliances that ran in the elections.
The May 2009 parliamentary election in Kuwait produced a number of surprising results. Occurring on the fourth anniversary of the achievement of full political rights for Kuwaiti women, the outcome attracting the most commentary was the victory of four female candidates. But there were other happenings of note. Doctrinaire religious candidates ran behind women in several districts. In fact, all of the “political groups” that function as Kuwait’s substitute for political parties did poorly on May 16, whether their orientation is center-left or religious. Even more telling is the fact that so many candidates, including several who had run as group representatives in previous elections, chose to run as independents.
The morning after Iran’s June 12 presidential election, Iranians booted up their computers to find Fars News, the online mouthpiece of the Islamic Republic’s security apparatus, heralding the dawn of a “third revolution.” Many an ordinary Iranian, and many a Western pundit, had already adopted such dramatic language to describe the burgeoning street demonstrations against the declaration by the Ministry of Interior that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the sitting president, had received 64 percent of the vote to 34 percent for his main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi.
Something’s happening here. In one of the largest street demonstrations in Tehran since the 1979 revolution, thousands filled Vali Asr Street (formerly known as Pahlavi Street) on Monday, forming a human chain nearly 12 miles long and stopping traffic for nearly five hours. They wore strips of green cloth around their wrists and heads in support of presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. They sang “Ey Iran,” the unofficial national anthem composed in the Pahlavi era by one of the leading figures of classical Persian music, the late Ruhollah Khaleghi. Banned for a time by the Islamic Republic, the song’s lyrical melody touches a deeply patriotic vein.
On June 8, when all votes are cast and counted between the glitzy urban quarters of Beirut and the dusty hamlets of the Bekaa valley, the Lebanese elections will have produced one certain winner: the local advertising industry. Despite a newly imposed cap on campaign spending, candidates have been falling over each other to plaster the billboards along the roads and highways of this miniscule country with their oversized likenesses and airy slogans.
Shoes and pants soaked with rain, I tagged along with a journalist from the popular Arabic daily Echorouk—his paper my umbrella—while he visited polling stations in the Belcourt neighborhood of Algiers on the day of local elections in November 2007. At the first site, disgruntled party officials quickly ejected us. We did not have the right papers, they said, and the police who looked on bored were inclined to agree. At the second station, we kept our distance. Watching for half an hour, we could count the voters who entered on two hands. Next to us stood four youths, escaping the rain under a shop awning. They laughed at us when we asked if they were going to vote. Down the road we saw an older gentleman on his way back from voting.
Across nearly the breadth of North Africa, the head of state enjoys a lifetime appointment. Morocco has a king. In Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, president since 1987, pushed for a constitutional amendment removing term limits and has now announced a bid for a fifth term in office. President Husni Mubarak of Egypt, who assumed office in 1981, is already serving his fifth term. Libyan strongman Mu‘ammar Qaddafi, in power since September 1969, has never permitted a meaningful election.
Speaking to his people on January 18, hours after Hamas responded to Israel’s unilateral suspension of hostilities with a conditional ceasefire of its own, the deposed Palestinian Authority prime minister Ismail Haniyeh devoted several passages of his prepared text to the subject of Palestinian national reconciliation. For perhaps the first time since Hamas’s June 2007 seizure of power in the Gaza Strip, an Islamist leader broached the topic of healing the Palestinian divide without mentioning Mahmoud Abbas by name.
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, the sitting Israeli prime minister spoke more plainly than ever before in public about what will be required of Israel in a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians and Syria. In a September 29 interview with the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, Ehud Olmert said that, to achieve peace, “we will withdraw from almost all the territories, if not all the territories” that have been under Israeli occupation since the 1967 war, including most of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Particularly coming from Olmert, who long opposed the notion of swapping land for peace, these words might have inspired hope that deals on the Palestinian or Syrian fronts were at hand.
After 18 months of political paralysis punctuated by episodes of civil strife, Lebanon finally has a “national unity” cabinet—but the achievement has come at a steep price. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and new President Michel Suleiman announced the slate for the 30-member cabinet on July 11, six weeks, and much agonizing and public criticism, after Lebanon’s major political factions agreed on Suleiman’s presidential candidacy and principles of power sharing at a summit in the Qatari capital of Doha. As with much else in Lebanon, however, the words “national unity” are sorely at odds with reality. If anything, the politicking behind the composition of this cabinet has deepened the polarization of the country.
Less than three months after being formed, Pakistan’s coalition government is in trouble. The leader of one of its constituent parties, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), is awaiting a decision from the country’s Supreme Court about whether he can run in parliamentary by-elections that began on June 26. The court is packed with judges appointed by President Pervez Musharraf, the ex-general who overthrew Sharif, a two-time prime minister, in a 1999 coup.