One of the biggest international news stories of May, which will continue into June, directly concerns democracy. Last week the Egyptian people voted to elect a president for the first time. This landmark event has been anticipated since last year’s Arab Spring, when hundreds of thousands demanded change in leadership and how the government operated. Yet when the results were counted, many wondered how different things would really be.
The two frontrunners are Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik, Prime Minister of the government overthrown last January.
Morsi: American-educated, promising to pursue democracy, women’s rights, and continued peace with Israel. Still, he represents a party that supports a government which closely adheres to Islamic law. And in the past Morsi has floated the idea of excluding women from running for president (none were on last week’s ballot), and labeled Israeli leaders “vampires” and “killers.”
Shafik: formerly staunch supporter of the deposed Hosni Mubarak. He could go from being part of the ousted government to leading the new one.
This cannot be what Egyptians who cast off their oppressors last year had in mind. In January 2011 protestors filled Tahrir Square to demand a new government. Now that it’s becoming clearer what that regime will look like (and that it might not be so new after all), Tahrir Square has again been filled with protestors in the last few days. The crowd chanted, “where is the revolution?” CNN questioned if, in the June runoff election, Egyptians will have a “choice between two tyrants?”
The election and reaction to it raise some difficult questions. For one, should members of the prior ruling group–which, again, was considered so loathsome it was removed by a popular uprising–be allowed to be part of the new one? As Brookings fellow Shadi Hamid points out, in Tunisia the transitional government outlawed former elites from running for office in the new government. This decision may have helped subdue hostilities. But is an election really democratic if certain people aren’t allowed to run, regardless of their previous associations?
Also, is it good or bad to have the president and the majority of the legislature from the same party (an issue of constant debate in the U.S.)? Some believe it is extremely dangerous to give one party power over both the executive and legislative branches; Muslim Brotherhood has 47% of seats in the lower house of parliament and a majority in the upper house. But others counter that a new (and weak) democracy benefits from having solidarity throughout the government, which makes it easier to enact meaningful change. Hamid notes that for Turkey, many feel the ruling Justice and Development Party (also aligned with Islam) has been able to develop and stabilize the country because it controlled both the presidency and parliament.
Democracy is supposed to reflect will the of the people. But did this happen in Egypt? You would think the people would want nothing to do with Shafik/the old regime, but there he is in the top 2. From what I’ve read, it seems those wanting change could not unify under a single candidate (or even two), fragmenting the popular vote and giving the candidates with the most clearly defined platforms–despite their potentially less desirable attributes–the advantage. This all assumes, of course, that the election was fair and accurate, which is unconfirmed (major restrictions imposed on international observers).
That’s the thing with democracy, you never quite know how it will turn out. It’s too early to say whether this election will solidify democracy or signal a reversion to something else. The election in Egypt is yet another example of the promise, and struggle, that comes with an open society.
For further reflection on Egypt’s fledgling democracy and where it might be headed, click here to read FPA Middle East senior writer Reka Akhlaghi‘s interview with Michele Dunne, Director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.