5 Reasons the Egypt 2012 Elections Are More Important Than the American 2012 Elections (For the Middle East)

On May 23 and 24, Egyptians will head to the polls for the first time to participate in a presidential election where the outcome hasn’t already been decided. 

If no candidate wins over 50% of the vote, then a run-off will be held between the top two candidates on June 16 and 17. The election has assumed a circus-like atmosphere, with three of the top candidates disqualified, a banned candidate had his qualification reinstated, and the Muslim Brotherhood — after repeated promises not to run a candidate — ran two candidates, after fearing their top candidate would be disqualified, which he was. 

Despite the drama an election is still being held. The Egyptian election is so important for the region, the outcome is more important than the American presidential election. Here are 5 reasons why.

1. The Muslim Brotherhood

One surefire way to get many Americans worried about Egypt’s transition is to repeat the mantra that the Muslim Brotherhood is taking over Egypt. This fear does appear outside the U.S. as well, with fears of their rise in numerous other countries, including SyriaLibyaJordan, and it is impossible to forget that Hamas grew out of the group. The MB already nearly controls parliament and if it won the presidency, then its grip on the state would be nearly complete. An Egypt dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood would almost without question be a huge boon to sister movements outside its borders and especially if it governed successfully, it will make a strong case outside of Egypt’s borders to give the group a chance. However, the group’s ambitions have drawn huge blow-back within Egypt and its current candidate, Mohammed Morsi, is polling badly.

2. The Military

Last Friday, thousands marched to the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense in Cairo. Among their main demands was that the military immediately transfer power over to civilian rule. The result was predictable, with hundreds injured, hundreds referred to military trial, and the military refusing to take any of the blame. Clashes at an earlier sit-in on the site, in which security was slow to intervene, induced the march. The transition from military to civilian rule in Egypt is critical. Many, including presidential candidates, are fearful that the military will not postpone the elections, or worse, cancel them. Additionally, one of the leading candidates, Ahmed Shafiq, is a former general. How the military responds to elections and whom is elected is key. If the military truly does allow the election on schedule and if they give up the presidential powers they now have, then this will have a huge effect upon the region, as this will bolster the argument in favor of those who believe the military is there to protect the nation's borders, not dictate to its citizens.

3. Islamism in the Region

Who exactly is an Islamist? Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh is often referred to as a “moderate Islamist,” yet the second largest party in parliament, the  “hardline Islamist” Salafi Nour Party, endorsed him over Islamist thinker Mohammed Selim al-Awa and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. The future of personal rights in Egypt, whether it is a personal status law that would give women and minorities more, or fewer rights, and the role of Islam within the state are questions that Islamists and non-Islamists of all stripes are fighting over. While Egypt is unlikely to follow Tunisia and become a secular state, the role of religion in politics is potent and the struggle between what it means to be an Islamist and what role Islam will have within a state is something that will be echoed in other countries that are trying to decide on the same thing.

4. Transition to a Civilian State

Can Egypt truly transition to a civilian state? Liberal Egyptian member of parliament Amr Hamzawy, in a talk at the Woodrow Wilson Center last Thursday, noted that one of the biggest challenges Egypt faces is de-militarizing the state and replacing many bureaucrats, who themselves are military or former military, with civilians. Electing a former general such as Shafiq, or Amr Moussa, who has increasingly become pro-military in sentiment, could put de-militarization on the backburner. Abouel Fotouh, however, has said he will put the military’s budget under parliamentary review, something many believe the military will not accept. If Egypt can move towards civilian oversight, this can help show other countries, such as Yemen where the military dominates, that de-militarization is possible.

5. The Camp David Accords

Amr Moussa, formerly Egypt’s foreign minister and Arab League head said that the Camp David Accords are, “dead and buried.” Longshot candidate Hamdeen Sabahi said he is against some elements of the peace treaty with Israel. Aboul Fotouh said that he was for some elements of the treaty that are in Egypt’s interests, but would not recognize Israel, while Shafiq said he would be willing to visit Israel. Bashing the Camp David Accords are popular football in Egypt, but few candidates are willing to go the full mile and say they fully reject them in their entirety, they merely want revisions. Egypt already has a cold peace with Israel, but a candidate such as Shafiq will behave differently on the question of the peace treaty compared to other candidates. How Egypt handles its Camp David commitments after Mubarak is something all other countries in the region will watch.

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Jonathan Bertman

Jonathan Bertman holds a MA in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh. He is interested in politics and economics in the Middle East and North Africa.

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