One Less Danger but No New Hope as Lebanon Finally Elects a President

Posted November 1st, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


Aoun sits at Baabda on election day. Source: OTV screen grab

[Commentary for The Century Foundation.]

Michel Aoun’s ascendance to the presidency of Lebanon on Monday three decades after he first sought the office represents not a sea-change in regional power dynamics but an incremental step in the hard slog of making politics. Nearly two and a half years after the previous president left Baabda Palace and after forty-five failed parliamentary sessions to select a new leader, a thorny dispute with many players was peacefully negotiated. Remarkably, the maneuvers unfolded peacefully despite the pressure caused by a state collapse next door in Syria and with considerable threat of violence hanging over Lebanon itself.

The outcome of the Lebanese presidential selection has been oversold in some quarters as a big victory for Iran in its regional struggle against Saudi Arabia. The truth is more prosaic, complicated, and local.

None of the major political factions can justly be considered to have won outright, and the mind-numbing turns of the deal make clear that there aren’t any simplistic sides in Lebanon (or for that matter, in political life throughout the Arab region).

Political alliances in Lebanon—like in the rest of the region and the world—are in fact fluid and partial, by turn ideological and transactional.The anticlimactic election and the ongoing limping politics that are sure to follow make clear that no simple equation can reduce Arab politics to glib but ultimately misleading formulations, like those who lump together Shia, the Iraqi government, Hezbollah, Iran, and one Lebanese Christian faction into a single monolithic construct. Nor were Aoun’s opponents a unified bloc connecting Sunnis, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Syria’s opposition.

In short, the messy deal for Lebanon’s presidency, while hardly a triumph for any single idea or movement, provides a sharp reminder that politics and negotiation continue to play a key role in forging paths forward in a region where violent contestation of power usually grabs most of the attention.

All Politics Is Local—and International

The decision of Lebanon’s parliament to bless the Aoun deal says as much about the evolution of Lebanon’s model of power-sharing-cum-paralysis as it does about the region’s increasingly interwoven struggle for influence. On Monday, the Lebanese parliament—itself an arguably illegal body because it extended its own mandate—ratified a backroom deal to make Aoun president and down the road, to give the prime minister’s job to his rival, Saad Hariri.

This same deal was floated in 2014 after the previous president’s term expired. Back then, supporters of Hariri believed that Sunni rebels might win the Syrian civil war and that political tide in the region would shift, empowering them to sweep to power rather than accept the middling share of it they already possessed. Hezbollah and its allies, meanwhile, were content to muddle forward without a president at all, since they held the position of primus inter pares among Lebanon’s factions and stood to gain nothing important from a functioning executive branch.

After twenty-five months, only the expectations of the major players have changed. Hezbollah is willing to accept a president who, after all, was its candidate, if only to escape domestic blame for leaving the state in limbo. And the weakened party of Saad Hariri, facing fragmentation among its Sunni base and fading confidence from its Saudi sponsors and financial backers, has grown desperate. Hence it was willing to accept any terms to put its man back in the premiership, without any accompanying concessions that would boost its electoral chances later on or award it a bigger share of public sector spoils to loot.

Much went into the Aoun deal, most of it concerning Lebanese internal dynamics. Longtime rival Christian warlords Aoun and Samir Geagea made peace with each other earlier this year, realizing that the country’s Christian minority was losing even more relevance if it remained split between pro-Sunni and pro-Shia factions. Hariri struggled to maintain his position as his family company went bankrupt and Saudi Arabia, briefly but flamboyantly, hung him out to dry—canceling a grant to Lebanon’s military and standing by as its man in Lebanon, Hariri, was humiliated in municipal elections this spring.

In the view of his Saudi sponsors, Hariri had not done enough to stop Hezbollah and Iran from dominating Lebanon, so he deserved a comeuppance; that, according to Saudi watchers in Lebanon, was the message the Saudi royal family wanted to send this past year. But they realized that theatrical shows of pique do not wise policy make, and that by cutting off Hariri they made it easier for Hezbollah and Iran to conduct their political business in Lebanon. In the end, Lebanon mattered to the Saudis more than they initially thought.

It also ultimately turned out that Lebanon had some say over its own choice of leader. Aoun is not a president built and chosen by foreign powers, or at least not 100 percent so (his followers like to say that “the General” is 100 percent “made in Lebanon,” which exaggerates the point in the other direction).

Aoun formed a tight political partnership with Hezbollah in 2006, a surprising move at the time for a leading Christian warlord who had made his reputation by going to war against Hezbollah’s patron Syria in 1989.

But Aoun is not purely Hezbollah’s man, which is one reason why Hezbollah was willing to wait so long to help him get elected by parliament.

The General is considered unpredictable, headstrong, vain, ambitious, and a bit mad. Those are the characteristics which lead his most ardent admirers to see him as a charismatic leader and his enemies to fear him as unpredictable and prone to authoritarianism.In office, he will polarize and hector. Already in his inaugural speech on Monday he made chauvinistic, unfulfillable promises to try to send some of the 1.5 million-plus Syrian refugees in the country back home. He vowed to defend his nation against terrorists and Israel, to strengthen the military, and a cleaner government. But he will be hemmed in by Lebanon’s dysfunctional political power-sharing system, which his election does nothing to change.

Low Expectations

Given the tradition of painstaking and painful political negotiation in Lebanon, it might take a year, even two, for Saad Hariri to form a government and take office as prime minister. By then, new parliamentary elections will be underway. No one in Lebanon expects the state to function like a state any more than it has during the last five years of permanent crisis during which electricity, education, and health care have been in scarce supply, but graft and uncollected garbage have risen to historically high levels.

Events in Lebanon are not solely a byproduct of regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Nor can they be read simply as a fight between Shia Hezbollah and the Sunni Future Movement.

It is instructive to remember that initially, two sectarian Muslim factions, the Sunni Future Movement and Shia Hezbollah, were negotiating over the outcome of the most senior post in Lebanon still reserved for Christians; in Lebanon’s sectarian political game, the Christians had largely sidelined themselves from their own remaining political fiefs. Eventually, intra-Christian competition made a greater number of Lebanese warlords relevant: not exactly a step toward democracy, but new alliances between Christians kept an oligarchy from sliding into a duopoly. Those who describe Aoun’s victory as a win for Iran should reckon honestly with the fact that the alternative candidate backed by Saudi Arabia was Suleiman Frangieh, a Christian warlord whose fealty to Damascus, Hezbollah and Iran is far more ironclad than Aoun’s.

In a region where the local, regional, and international all interact, Lebanon’s presidential crisis embodied all three levels, and its resolution offers one image of how plodding, incremental, and frustrating it is to seek progress on any level at all.

On Monday, Lebanon moved one step away from the abyss of total paralysis. It is, however, hardly any closer to restoring a state that can manage anything remotely resembling governance.

It might not seem like much, but the Lebanese system has managed one feat that can allow its citizens, however modestly, to maintain their claim to provide a model for regional politics: against considerable odds and obstacles, many of their own making, Lebanon’s politicians have pursued political compromise by nonviolent means. That’s no small feat.

Here & Now Egypt Elections Preview

Posted May 22nd, 2012 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Robin Young at WBUR’s Here & Now talked with me today about the possible outcomes in Egypt and their implications. All predictions are useless at this point; looking forward to seeing the voting tomorrow, and the results next week. Listen here.


Some additional radio appearances about the voting in Egypt. KCRW’s To the Point had Jehan Reda, David Kirkpatrick, Shadi Hamid, Dan Kurtzer and me on yesterday. Listen here. And KUOW talked to Borzou Daragahi and me earlier; listen here.

A Primer on the Arab World’s First Free Presidential Election

Posted May 22nd, 2012 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

A volunteer for Egyptian presidential candidate Amr Moussa folds t-shirts. (Reuters)

[Originally published in The Atlantic.]

CAIRO, Egypt — What should we look for after the votes are counted in Egypt this week — or rather, if the ballot box contents are counted, rather than trashed or illicitly augmented?

Once Egyptians go to the polls on Wednesday to choose a president, no matter what happens next, the transition from impermeable autocracy to something hopefully more accountable will move to another, more clarifying, stage.

The integrity of the process will be the first hurdle. And if Egyptian monitors and political parties endorse the count and the turnout is significant, as expected, the results will be the second.

Because opinion polling in Egypt has not yet had a semblance of accuracy and since there is no precedent for a contested presidential election in Egypt, there are simply no meaningful metrics to handicap the race. Many Egypt watchers have picked likely front-runners, but this is nothing more than educated guesswork. My own prediction is that the top three finishers are likely to be Amr Mousa, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Mohamed Morsy, and that whichever of the two Islamists makes it to the runoff will win.

But this is little more than high-level gut-work, based on a reading of the parliamentary election results earlier this year, Egypt’s only real election since 1952; an assessment of public opinion and emerging political thought; haphazard street interviews; and the size and quality of crowds at electoral rallies.

The electorate is fragmented, with at least five candidates have attracted significant followings. As a result, that many or more could poll in the double digits. The field is wide open, especially because of the fluid nature of political allegiances in this period of transition. The major constituencies will be split among rival candidates from the same camp: Islamists, revolutionaries, law-and-order nationalists, liberals.

Men sitting at a café during the four-and-half-hour presidential debate a week ago told me they supported both the Muslim Brotherhood and leading secular candidate, Amr Moussa, who is presenting himself as a sort of elder statesman. Some told me they were attracted simultaneously to Hamdeen Sabahi, the secular Nasserist revolutionary favorite, as well as Ahmed Shafiq, the revanchist retired general and Mubarak’s last prime minister. That’s a sign of emerging politics, as voters begin the complex process of ranking their own preferences. How important is a candidate’s connection to the old regime? Position on law-and-order versus reform? Stringency on clerical regulation of civil law? Strategy on reviving Egypt’s moribund economy?

None of the choices are clear-cut, and none of the popular candidates has an uncomplicated constellation of views. For instance, the most Islamist candidate, the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, is more rigid in his religious views and less sophisticated in his economic ideas than other senior Brotherhood leaders. And the only secular candidate who supported the Tahrir Revolution from the beginning, Hamdeen Sabahi, is also an unreconstructed Nasserist, which is a bit like campaigning in America today as a third-party reformer who wants to bring back Communism.

The top two finishers will go to runoff, to be held on June 16 and 17, which will determine Egypt’s president. Here are a few of the possible outcomes and their likely implications.

Felool runoff: Moussa vs Shafiq. This is the worst of the plausible scenarios, but it’s possible. Thefelool, or “remnants” (meaning leftovers from the old, Hosni Mubarak regime), could prevail. Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister, could finish atop the polls with Ahmed Shafiq, the ex-general who, during his campaign, promised that he would never let a minority group of protesters overthrow a president backed by millions. Never mind that Mubarak said the same thing in his final weeks in power. In this case, Islamist voters and secular revolutionaries would both be likely to take to the streets, convinced that all the political achievements of the Tahrir uprising were under threat. We could expect a tense power struggle with lots of public uproar, and potentially even more uncertainty and violence than we’ve seen over the last year.

Islamist runoff: Morsi vs Aboul Fotouh. The Brotherhood’s Morsi could finish at the top along with the former Brother, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. In this case, we could expect a surge of conditional popular support for Aboul Fotouh, the more conciliatory and moderate of the two — but we should also expect the military, some of the wealthy magnates, and the anti-Islamist secular constituency to bristle and polarize. The non-Islamist politicians might pursue obstructionist tactics, in the belief that their secular principles are under attack.

Glass half full. In this scenario, the runoff features what I call “consensus” candidates, liked by some and acceptable to many, even with reservations. These candidates elicit intense dislike from a minority of Egyptians, but a majority would be willing to live with them. On this list, I’d include Aboul Fotouh, Moussa, and Sabahi. Of the likely outcomes, this is the best; it means that the new president would be unlikely to face a public insurrection, and that he would be able to govern with at least the grudging consent of the majority during the next phase of Egypt’s transition.

Wild card. Given the unpredictability of the process and the split vote, the finalists could include one or two unexpected faces. The revolutionary Sabahi could face Amr Moussa, disenchanting those revolutionaries with an Islamist hue. The reactionary ex-regime Shafiq could face the reactionary Islamist Morsi, leaving a huge swathe of the electorate without a simpatico candidate. The ruling generals could mistrust both finalists and organize a more concerted power grab.

Whichever two candidates make it to the run-off, the very fact that a genuine presidential contest is taking place has irreversible historic implications. Egypt is writing a new political history for itself, an inevitably messy process. Any outcome (short of a Shafiq victory) will likely represent a marked improvement from political life under Mubarak. And whatever the results, the politicization of the electorate will continue, and the public is unlikely to forfeit its newfound sense of ownership over the government.

Inside the Three-Way Race for Egypt’s Presidency

Posted May 11th, 2012 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Leading Egyptian presidential candidates Amr Moussa, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, and Mohamed Morsi. / Reuters, AP

[Originally published in The Atlantic.]

CAIRO — Egypt’s first real presidential contest ever, for which the candidates met last night for the Arab world’s first-ever real presidential debate, has all the makings of a genuinely interesting fight. The front-runners nicely capture a wide stretch of the spectrum, while leaving out the extremes. Voter interest appears high, and the military rulers seem unlikely to allow major fraud based on their record with parliamentary elections.

But enthusiasm about the debate should not obscure the unsatisfying circumstances of the presidential election, which itself does not guarantee a full transition to civilian rule or democracy.

The president’s powers still have not been delineated, and the significance of the race and its victor could be heavily tarnished by future decisions about the assembly that will write the next constitution, among other unresolved questions about whether Egypt will have a presidential, parliamentary, or hybrid system.

Islamists have proven themselves to be the dominant political bloc, garnering more than two-thirds of the vote in parliamentary elections earlier this year. The winner of the presidential race, even if he is secular, will owe his victory to Islamist voters, and will have to govern in tandem with a parliament that has a veto-proof Islamist majority. Islamist politics are malleable and by no means monolithic, but they will drive the political agenda after decades of total exclusion.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, has heavily manipulated the process, deepening its unaccountable and authoritarian mechanisms of control. Crony-packed courts and the presidential election commission have made a series of arbitrary decisions. Egypt’s next government will have to negotiate artfully to wrest the most important powers out of the hands of generals.

The campaign has galvanized Egyptians. This week, the candidates crisscrossed the countryside in bus caravans, and thousands turned out in even the minutest villages.

“He has a special charisma,” gushed an English teacher named Ahmed Abdel Lahib, during a pit stop by the Amr Moussa campaign in a Nile Delta hamlet called Mit Fares. “Egypt needs a man like him,” he said of the former Arab League secretary-general.

Hundreds of men thronged the candidate, shouting, “Purify the country!” and “We want to kiss you!” In his tailored suit, and carrying the patrician demeanor he honed over decades as Egypt’s foreign minister and then Arab League chief, Musa clambered onto a makeshift stage for his short stump speech (fix agriculture, the economy, and health care, long live Egypt!). Men pushed over chairs and slammed one another into the walls of the narrow alley to get closer to Moussa and touch his sleeve.

The oaths of loyalty felt a tad staged and excessive, but similar displays characterized all the major candidate rallies, and could reflect the old authoritarian rallies, or a desire for a galvanizing leader like Gamal Abdel Nasser, the nationalist colonel who took power in a 1952 coup, or simply the enthusiasm of voters who for the first time in their lives will likely get to choose their president.

Moussa has presented himself as a secular elder statesman who can stand against what he portrays as a power-hungry Islamist tide, personified by the other two front-runners: the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and the ex-Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. It is Aboul Fotouh who most worries Moussa’s strategists: he is giving the former minister a run for first place, marketing himself as potential bridge candidate, a “liberal Islamist” who can appeal to Islamists as well as the secular nationalists and revolutionaries who are wary of Moussa’s connections to the old regime.

Thousands of fans in the market town of Senbelawain waited hours on a recent night for Aboul Fotouh, who seems perpetually delayed by traffic (he was late for the historic presidential debate for the same reason). When he arrived, the retired doctor was greeted like a rock star with swoons and chants. Bearded Salafis and women in full-face-covering niqabs jostled with clean-shaven students.

Aboul Fotouh is a more gripping orator than Moussa, with a gruff, gravelly voice that he controls well, shifting cadence to maintain his audience’s attention. “If this country succeeds, the whole Islamic world succeeds,” Aboul Fotouh shouted, provoking cries of exultation. He talked extensively about sharia, in a way apparently calculated to burnish his Islamist credentials while reassuring his left flank that he opposes such literal interpretations as severing the hands of thieves. Aboul Fotouh’s stump speech played to his Islamist base rather than to his revolutionary and secular sympathizers.

A Muslim Brotherhood member in the audience named Yousef Eid Hamid, 38, said he was campaigning for Aboul Fotouh in defiance of his organization’s strict orders to vote for Morsi. “We are not machines,” he said. “You cannot love a candidate, and then just change.”

Backroom deals with the military will likely be decisive in determining how the winner can govern, but retail politics seem to be taking root for now. During Thursday night’s debate, the two front-runners, Moussa and Aboul Fotouh, dug at each other’s records. Aboul Fotouh portrayed Moussa as a corrupt, weak stooge for Mubarak who will continue the old regime’s authoritarian ways. Moussa attacked Aboul Fotouh as a fire-and-brimstone Islamist who founded a radical group in the 1970s and now disingenuously presents himself as a moderate.

Egyptians crammed cafes to watch. During a half-time walkthrough (the debate lasted more than four hours, from 9:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.) at the Boursa pedestrian arcade behind the Cairo stock exchange, I met several people who had voted for the Muslim Brotherhood for parliament but were leaning toward the anti-Islamist Moussa for president.

“I will give the Muslim Brotherhood domestic policy, but I want to keep them far away from security and foreign policy,” said Abdelrahim Abdullah Abdelrahim, 44, an import-export businessman built like a bouncer. “These Islamists want to march on Al Quds” — Jerusalem — “and wage war. It’s not the time for this.”

He went on to mock the Salafi legislator who tried to sound the call to prayer in parliament, and his Noor Party colleague who tried to claim his nose job bandage was really the scar from a politically motivated assault. “People are more tired than before,” Abdelrahim said as he lost another round of dominoes to a friend.

At the presidential rallies in the Delta, I met numerous voters who were shopping or just checking out the opposition. Leftist revolutionaries, committed to minor candidates guaranteed not to reach the second round, listened to stump speeches to consider whom they’d be willing to hold their noses and vote for in a runoff. Confirmed skeptics came, in case they might change their minds.

Arguments broke out. At the end of one Moussa pit stop in Dikirnis, an older man dismissed the candidate as a “felool,” or remnant of the old regime. Another man pushed him hard in the abdomen: “He is not a felool! Amr Moussa is a great man!” The critic scuttled off to his nephew’s pastry shop, where he continued his invective against Moussa. The nephew, 37-year-old Ahmed Burma, smiled benevolently. “My uncle jumped on the revolutionary bandwagon,” he said. “But I’m supporting Amr Moussa. I run a business with 90 employees. Let’s give this guy a chance to work.”

Still, the polls and predictions are little more than guesswork. Most of the voters live without internet or phones and are beyond the reach of the campaigns’ opinion researchers. Egypt has had only one real election in its modern history: the parliamentary ballot that concluded this January. Twenty-seven million people voted, more than two-thirds of them for Islamist parties.

Even with the Islamist vote split between Aboul Fotouh and the Brotherhood’s Morsi, it’s all but assured that one of them will face Moussa in the runoff June 16 and 17. Morsi might fare better than many analysts seem to think, as the Brotherhood deploys its formidable get-out-the-vote operation, which no other campaign can currently match.

The Islamists in parliament haven’t acquitted themselves well, wasting time on fringe religious debates while the economy sinks, deferring to the army on crucial issues such as military trials for civilians, and alienating almost every major constituency in the country other than their own by trying to impose a constitutional convention packed with Salafist and Brotherhood members.

If turnout is as high as it was for parliament (and it might be higher, since the president has always been the commanding figure in Egypt’s modern political system), Moussa would need to convince more than 6 million people, a full third of those who voted Islamist for parliament, to switch allegiance and vote for him. His advisers believe that’s possible.

They also seem to think that Moussa’s year-long bus tour of rural areas will pay dividends, and that their basic selling point resonates with common voters: a pair of safe, experienced hands for a transition.

Nonetheless, Moussa’s strategy smacks of secular liberal wishful thinking, a common affliction among Egypt’s veteran political class in a year and a half of dynamic change. It might just work out for him, but an equally likely scenario would have the voters that propelled Islamists to parliament eager to give someone with their values more of a chance for success than has been allowed by three months of parliamentary machinations under the shadow of the military.

The Inevitable Rise of Egypt’s Islamists

Posted December 8th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

A veiled woman casts her vote during the second day of the parliamentary run-off elections at a polling station in Cairo. Photo: Reuters

CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt’s liberals have been apoplectic over the early results from the recent elections here. Everybody expected the Islamists to do well and for the liberals to be at a disadvantage. But nobody — perhaps with the exception of the Salafis — expected the outcome to be as lopsided as it has been so far. Exceeding all predictions, Islamists seem to be winning about two-thirds of the vote. Even more surprising, the radical and inexperienced Salafists are winning about a quarter of all votes, while the more staid and conservative Muslim Brotherhood is polling at about 40 percent.

The saga is unfolding against a political backdrop of alarmism. One can almost hear the shrill cries echoing in unison from Cairo bar-hoppers and Washington analysts: “The Islamists are coming!” In short order, they fear, the Islamists will ban alcohol, blow up the sphinx, force burqas on women, and declare war on Israel.

Before we all worry too much, however, and before fundamentalists in Egypt start to crack the champagne (in their case perhaps literally, with crowbars), it’s worth taking a look at what’s really happening with Egypt’s Islamists.

Egypt is still not a democracy, so election results mean only a little; the key players in shaping the country remain the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the plutocrats. To a lesser degree, revolutionary youth, liberals, and former ruling party stakeholders will have some input. The new powers-that-be in Egypt and other Arab states who are trying to break the shackles of autocracy are likely to be more religious, socially conservative, and unfriendly to the rhetoric of the United States and Israel. That doesn’t mean they’ll be warmongers, or that they’ll refuse to work with Washington, or even Jerusalem, on areas of common interest.

Islamism has been on the rise throughout the Arab and Islamic world for nearly a century and will probably set the political tone going forward. The immediate future will feature a debate among competing interpretations of Islamic politics, rather than a struggle between religious and secular parties.

Read the rest at The Atlantic.

Brian Lehrer Show

Posted December 7th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

I’ve been traveling, and behind on posting. Here’s the link to last wee”s Brian Lehrer show on WNYC, with filmmaker Jehane Noujaim and me discussing the voting in Egypt.

Egypt Votes, Wary and Hopeful

Posted November 29th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Liberal candidate Basem Kamel inspects a polling station for fraud on Monday. Photo: Rolla Scolari.

(Read the original posting in The Atlantic.)

CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt took another step, albeit a conflicted one, along the trajectory it began in Tahrir Square almost ten months ago. Millions voted Monday in a parliamentary election marred by the ham-handed meddling of the ruling military junta, but with almost none of the widespread violence and fraud that many had feared.

“I’m suspicious, but I have to do something,” said Manar Ahmed, a 27-year-old trying to make a career transition from call center work to tourism. On Monday, she heeded the call of Egypt’s revolutionary youth parties, which urged people to vote and then join the anti-government sit-in at Tahrir now in its tenth day. She wore a colorful orange floral print headscarf and listened patiently as two of her friends explained why they were boycotting the election. Once they finished, she calmly but firmly disagreed.

“We’re going to make many mistakes along the way, but we have to learn from our mistakes,” Ahmed said. “We have to work, and see what happens. We still have to learn how to think.”

Revolutionary parties, consumed for the last ten days in a wave of murderous police violence and the protests it spurred in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities, faced a quandary. Many of their supporters urged a full boycott. “If we vote, we give legitimacy to the military, which is illegally ruling our country,” said Albert Saber, 26, who refused to cast a ballot even though he had already chosen a line-up of independent pro-revolution candidates in his east Cairo district.

At the same time, the activist party leaders realize that the next parliament will play a key role in a transition to civilian rule, if one occurs, and they understand they might have more influence if they have a voice inside the chamber of deputies as well as on the streets outside.

“The next parliament will have no authority, same as the last one,” said Moaz Abdel Kareem, a youth leader and founder of the Egyptian Current Party, founded by liberal breakaway members of the Muslim Brotherhood youth wing. “This election is fake, a special effect to make it look like the military is working for the people.”

His party suspended its campaign, but its candidates still stumped in polling stations on Monday as part of their unified list, which they named “The Revolution Continues.”

There was a tangible sense in Cairo that street protest was being left behind, dwarfed by voter turnout and the cautious embrace of electoral politics that it heralded. With notably less enthusiasm than they showed during a national referendum in March — the first poll after the Tahrir Square uprising — Egyptians queued for hours, with a mix of muted excitement and markedly modest expectations.

“Change won’t come immediately. It will come step by step,” said Taghreed Ibrahim Hassan, 46. She had come to vote in Shoubra, Cairo’s most densely populated area, with female relatives spanning three generations; she stood out in the voting line for her loud laugh and booming exclamations of enthusiasm.

“This time our voices will count,” she said. “This parliament won’t represent us perfectly, but we won’t be stuck with it forever.”

Up until the day before voting began, there was uncertainty whether it would be postponed or even cancelled. The election process has been remarkably confusing and opaque. Even some sophisticated, internet-equipped citizens have been unable to figure out when and where they’re supposed to vote. The country has been divided up into three regions, which vote at different times. Each region has a two-day vote, and a runoff the following week; furthermore, voters have to cast two ballots, one for individual candidates and one for parties. Even professional elections experts have described the setup as bewildering.

The final votes for parliament will be cast in mid-January, and the body won’t convene until March. So far, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which retains full dictatorial powers in Egypt, has suggested it will not relinquish any control of the government to the next parliament — a position that has infuriated many Egyptian political activists.

Monday’s mostly peaceful voting provided a welcome respite after a decameron during which 42 demonstrators were killed and more than 3,200 injured in clashes with the police and military. Some local clashes closed polling stations in Upper Egypt, but by nightfall there still were no reports of bloodshed.

Still, this election is but a step in the still heavily uncertain struggle to end military rule in Egypt. The generals in control only agreed last week to hold presidential elections by the middle of next year, under pressure from the unyielding stand of Tahrir protesters against the belligerent and widely detested police. So far, the military has treated the civilian cabinet as an afterthought. It still insists that no elected official could ever be allowed to have any authority whatsoever over the armed forces. That debate has only begun this month, at least in public; its resolution is far from certain.

For the Egyptians that patiently lined up before dawn on Monday, the vote is still of paramount importance: for the first time, a parliamentary election will be a realistic poll, if a rough one, of the actual preferences of the Egyptian people. It won’t be a festival of ballot-box stuffing, thuggery, and vote-buying like the country’s previous elections.

“The old service that Mubarak used to offer, where he would cast a vote on your behalf while you sat at home, has been cancelled,” liberal candidate Basem Kamel told a rally a week before the vote. “If you don’t like the next parliament, you’ll have only yourself to blame.”

On Monday, Kamel dodged traffic on foot while visiting the polling stations in Shoubra. When he received a report that someone was collecting identity cards to vote on behalf of a group of woman, he burst out the door of his headquarters.

“Move, move, move,” he grunted, as he rushed to the polling site at the Faculty of Engineering on Shoubra Street. He pushed past the military policeman at the door and checked in each of the six classrooms where women were voting.

The judge supervising in one of the rooms smiled at Kamel. “Pray for us,” he said.

He didn’t spot any overt wrongdoing, although he did see volunteers from some political parties in the voting rooms, steering people to choose their party when asked for help reading the ballot.

“I didn’t find anything,” Kamel said.

His coalition stands to do best among the liberals, but the Muslim Brotherhood is expected to be the top finisher. It benefits from nearly 80 years of grassroots organizing and considerable funds.

The Brotherhood’s might was on display outside of polling stations, where it had set up information tents where volunteers on laptops could look up a confused voter’s correct polling place, and helpfully mark it down for him or her — on a card emblazoned with Islamist party’s logo.

Sherif Mostafa, a civil engineer who waited hours to vote on the desert plateau of Moqattam, said he was sure the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party would succeed in parliament, despite the military council’s desire to neuter it.

“I hope the whole system changes,” he said. “These are very decisive elections, which are going to decide the future of Egypt.”

As the front-runner, the Muslim Brotherhood attracted the most complaints for campaigning on election day, especially from Kamel’s liberal Egyptian Bloc.

Already, tensions have flared between the Islamist and secular parties competing for seats; between the liberals standing for election and the revolutionaries who would boycott; the military dictatorship and the panoply of political forces agitating for genuine civilian rule; the realists who want to absorb old regime stalwarts into a new government and the purists who want to banish them.

This week’s voting is just one gyration in a long orbit. There’s still plenty of room for missteps and mayhem in the parliamentary polling alone. Then comes higher hurdles: writing a constitution, electing a president, negotiating a modus vivendi with the military, and learning to wage politics in state that for 60 years has allowed none. Indeed there are, as Manar Ahmed sagely observed, lots of mistakes still to be made and lots of new skills to be learned.

Brotherhood boycott?

Posted September 6th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Parliamentary elections are coming up this fall in Egypt, probably in October or November. But the opposition and ruling National Democratic Party alike have their eyes on presidential succession, assuming that President Hosni Mubarak, who is ill and has ruled for 29 years, probably won’t run again in 2011. In that light, the parliamentary elections have become part of the broader political jockeying.

The Muslim Brotherhood commands by far and away the strongest street support among the opposition factions, but it’s a banned society whose parliamentary representatives are technically independents. Meanwhile, the secular opposition parties want to boycott the parliamentary elections to protest the ruling party’s heavy-handed manipulation of the voting process (since the last election, for instance, the government has cancelled the judiciary’s right to oversee polling stations). That’s the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie in the picture, getting yelled at by secular opposition leaders during an iftar.

The Brotherhood and the secular National Association for Change are circulating a petition calling on the government to amend the constitution and reform the voting process to allow free and fair elections. It’s a rare instance of the Islamist and secular opposition working together, but even in this arena they’re competing to show who’s stronger. The Brotherhood has collected nearly 700,000 signatures; the National Association for Change only 100,000. You can follow the dueling signature drives on the Brotherhood petition page and the NAC petition page.

You can also read more about the Brotherhood’s internal debate between seeking power and challenging it in my story today in The New York Times.

CAIRO — One by one, the guests at the Muslim Brotherhood’s annual Ramadan iftar banquet strode to the rostrum. A who’s who ofEgypt’s opposition began hectoring the Islamist group. The Brotherhood, they said, by far the most muscular and influential of Egypt’s dissident organizations, should withdraw from the coming parliamentary election that would most certainly be rigged by the authoritarian government.

“Why won’t you take the initiative?” shouted Karima El-Hefnawi, a secular activist and leader of the popular Kifaya protest movement. “Why won’t the Muslim Brotherhood boycott this farce?” The supreme guide of the Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, sat uncomfortably a few feet to her right.

At the close of the evening, Mr. Badie was noncommittal. The Brotherhood, he said, in time would make up its mind: “Haste makes waste.”

The Muslim Brotherhood is engaged in a delicate dance. Despite all efforts to marginalize the Islamist organization by the United States and its close ally, the Egyptian government, it remains the most credible opposition group. Some of its members want the Brotherhood to fight the government head on, but the Islamist leadership has other goals: freedom to proselytize and organize in neighborhoods, and in the long term, a lifting of the official government ban on its activities.

With an end in sight to President Hosni Mubarak’s 29-year reign, the Brotherhood appears to be signaling its willingness to cut a deal with Mr. Mubarak’s potential successors by not overtly challenging the ruling party’s monopoly on power.

Read the rest.