Robert M. Danin

Middle East Matters

Danin analyzes critical developments and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

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Why Are Egypt’s Presidential Elections Significant?

by Robert M. Danin
May 22, 2012

An Egyptian expatriate living in Lebanon casts his ballot at a polling station at the Egyptian embassy in Beirut on May 11, 2012, during an early voting ahead of Egypt's presidential election (Sharif Karim/Courtesy Reuters). An Egyptian expatriate living in Lebanon casts his ballot at a polling station at the Egyptian embassy in Beirut on May 11, 2012, during an early voting ahead of Egypt's presidential election (Sharif Karim/Courtesy Reuters).

In an historic development, Egyptians head to the polls on Wednesday and Thursday to vote for a new president. To better understand the importance of this week’s elections, I asked a number of Egyptian and U.S. experts a single question: “Why are Egypt’s May 23 presidential elections significant?” Below, I post their responses:

Abdel Monem Said Aly, columnist, Al Ahram newspaper, Cairo

The Egyptian presidential election is important for three reasons: 1. It will define the “democratic path” of the Egyptian revolution. After fair and free legislative elections, having another one for the president makes democratic practice a tradition. 2. It will configure the political balance in Egypt between democratic and Islamic rule. 3. It will do what Egypt always does: spread the word of democracy, rule of law, influence of the media, etc. for the rest of the region.

Bassem Sabry, Egyptian writer and blogger

The short and straightforward answer is because it is revolutionary, groundbreaking. For the first time in the Arab world’s history, setting Lebanon’s democratic complexities aside, there are real presidential elections in which the soon-to-be-elected leader had not actually been long predetermined, and candidates are fighting with all their being for the votes of their fellow countrymen, empowering the citizen more than ever before. And this future leader, together with a similarly freely and fairly elected parliament, will vehemently influence and impact not only the future of Egypt, but also the ideological and national spirits of much of the Arab world for years to come. If what Egypt ends up becoming is a beacon of inspiration, the rest of the Arab world won’t be long to follow. If Egypt fails, a new reactionary phase might just take hold.

Dalia Ezzat, Egyptian commentator on Middle East affairs

Two years ago we were psychologically preparing ourselves for Gamal Mubarak to become our next president. The upcoming elections which came as a direct result of the revolution have introduced a concept that has been foreign to the Egyptian political scene over the last thirty years: choice. For the first time, and despite the disappointment of many who feel that they have to select the least worst option since none of the current candidates properly address Egypt’s needs through a solid program and vision, Egyptians feel empowered to make a choice that will not only determine Egypt’s future over the next four years but will also influence the trajectory of politics and ideology in the region. And this is why regardless of the outcome, it will be historic.

Daphne McCurdy, senior research associate at the Project on Middle East Democracy

With the constitution still unwritten and the future role of the military left unaddressed, it is unclear how much power the new president of Egypt will wield. Yet for the first time in Egypt’s history, the outcome of a political contest will be decided not by a powerful leader or institution, but by the Egyptian people. And with a number of vastly different presidential candidates to choose from, Egyptians are taking this opportunity to have a fundamental debate about the identity of their country. While it will be years before Egypt becomes a stable democracy, it is these ongoing debates that will help empower citizens and create a more pluralistic society.

Ehab Elzelaky, managing editor, Al Masry Al Youm newspaper

This election marks a crucial moment in Egyptian history. First of all, it will decided on ground whether the revolution succeeded or lost, as most of the Egyptian people (especially the youth) see that we did not make any real progress after Feb. 11, 2011. If the election came by a pro-revolution president then we will move forward in building our new country based on freedom, justice, and social improvement. If nothing else, most of us think that this will start another round of revolt. Second, this is the first time in history that marks a real election between candidates we can choose from  by free will (most probably) our president. Third, we will have for the first time a president we can remove after only four years if he fails to give people what he promised, and that way this is a mark of pharaoh death in Egyptian culture after seven thousand years.  Finally, this is the first election which results we do not know in advance.

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies, Council on Foreign Relations

These elections will demonstrate the relative strength of the more secular elements of Egyptian society versus the Islamists, and of the Brotherhood within the Islamist sector. Though they take only one snapshot in time, the elections will give a good sense of Egypt’s political trajectory.

Dr. Hazem Malky, editor of Ikhwanweb, the Muslim Brotherhood’s official English website

Elections will measure the success of the Egyptian revolution in creating genuine democracy and freedom. It will determine the direction and fate of Egypt for decades, which can influence the political atmosphere across the Arab and Muslim world. The new president will decide on a host of critical political and economic issues that can change the world order, and affect the balance of power in the Middle East. Moreover, it’s the first election in history where the Muslim Brotherhood is competing openly for the presidency. Therefore, these elections will be a testimony to the popularity and strength of political Islam, and a measurement of the level of public confidence in its rhetoric. If it succeeds, the Muslim Brotherhood will represent a unique model of democratic Islamists, where they can reconcile the responsibilities of democratic governing with Islamist ideology.

Islam I. Hussein, senior faculty fellow, National Research Council

Although many Egyptian liberals, myself included, are disappointed by the current set of presidential candidates, the election’s greatest significance lies not in the candidates themselves, but rather in society’s newly-discovered mode of democratic participation. For the first time in the history of our republic, citizens may not only freely discuss, debate, and criticize policy positions of candidates, and observe the candidates debating each other, but they will also witness the candidates working hard to attract citizens’ votes. For once, it feels like the voter is the master whose approval is sought by candidates, of all stripes, for government office. The election’s impact will truly be profound if the spirit of rejecting presidential and, more broadly, state paternalism lives on and becomes an integral part of Egyptian culture. Only then would this coming election, together with Egypt’s 2011 uprising, embody true meaning when taught in the history books of the future.

Michele Dunne, director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council

I have been in Cairo speaking with people over the past week, and many Egyptians see the presidential election (perhaps unrealistically) as effectively ending the transitional process and allowing the country to get back to business. Most expect a high voter turnout and a cleanly run process, and feel there are real and important differences among the various candidates. For many, the central question is whether the next president will increase or decrease the Islamist color of the post-revolutionary order. For more cynical observers, however, the election matters little because the Mubarak-era deep state dominated by military and intelligence remains intact and will continue to rule no matter who is elected.

Nervana Mahmoud, British-Egyptian blogger and Middle East observer 

For centuries, Egyptians never had the opportunity to choose their leader or their identity, a complex multilayered identity that was–in a way–imposed on them. Arabs spread Islam and changed pharaonic traditions, Saladin revived Sunni Islam ending Shiite rule, and later Nasser brought nationalism under military rule. Now, and for the first time, Egyptians have a chance to get rid of authoritarianism and articulate their own identity. Standing at a crossroads, with the shadow of the past, and the fear of the unknown daunting them, Egyptians have to answers two main questions: What type of leader does Egypt want? And how far can religion rule Egyptians’ lives? The May 23 election will test their character and offer them a unique opportunity to take ownership of their future. For once, it is their choice; they will call the shots and will have to take responsibility for their decision.

Robert Satloff, executive director, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Egypt’s presidential vote matters because it provides an important signal as to whether there is hope that post-revolutionary Egypt can become a competitive democracy, in which alternative visions of the country’s future jostle for power, or whether it will only be a competitive theocracy, with different streams of Islamists fighting to control the state. To be sure, one has to sigh at the standard-bearers of the non-Islamist alternative, Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq, neither of whom embodies the lofty ideals that President Obama praised at the height of the Tahrir Square moment in February 2011, but, as Rumsfeld might have said, Egyptians will choose from the candidates they have, not the ones we would want. Arabs, Israelis, Turks, Europeans, and Americans–to name a few-are all watching.

Dr. Tamer Fouad, Egyptian physician and blogger commenting on political and current affairs in Egypt on his blog democrati.net

It’s a historical moment that comes at the heart of a complex power struggle. At the center of power is the ruling junta which has pledged to step down by July 1. Nevertheless, since taking control, the military has been reluctant to cede any power. What role the army will play after the transition is one of the biggest issues facing Egypt. On the other hand, the Islamists who have a comfortable majority in parliament have found themselves with very little political clout. As a result, they’ve been anxiously waiting for the military to retreat. Whether the elections play out in their favor could determine the role of religion in the country’s new constitution. Meanwhile, the youth who brought about the revolution have found themselves politically alienated. Yet, they regard the upcoming elections as a significant step on the long road toward civilian rule.

Tarek Amr, Egyptian blogger and volunteer writer at Global Voices Online

For me, the presidential elections’ significance, more than choosing a president–whose job description remains unclear since the constitution is yet to be written, add to that that I am not really excited about any of the candidates–is that they will set a milestone for the country to move forward and hopefully decrease the military junta’s excuses to stay in power by one.

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