Can you have elections in a country where people are dying in the streets, almost all parties have suspended their electoral activities, the prime minister has announced that he and his cabinet are willing to step down and the generals who are actually running the country seem to be completely out of touch with the desires and demands of large parts of the population? This is the question that has to be answered in the next couple of days in Egypt because the several stages of the parliamentary elections are scheduled to begin next weekend. And there are no easy answers.
For months frustration has been building up among the people, who managed to kick out former president Hosni Mubarak in February. Since then, Egypt has been ruled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). For months, there were high expectations that, albeit slowly, Egypt was heading towards democratic elections, a new constitution and a civilian government. Unfortunately, the military council met few of its commitments and tightened its grip on freedom of expression, association and assembly. Now, the hope that things would move forward under military guidance has completely evaporated.
In a report published this week, Amnesty International accused the SCAF of brutalities sometimes exceeding those of the Mubarak era. Last weekend at least 35 people were killed after security forces fired live ammunition at demonstrators during the course of several days of clashes. In the last six months, about 12,000 civilians have been tried by military courts and at least 13 of them have been sentenced to death.
The immediate reason for the violent clashes we are witnessing now is a recent attempt by the military to impose itself on Egypt's future constitution. In what was seen by many as a dictatorial act by the generals, the army tried to ensure that the military budget would be above parliamentary scrutiny and that the armed forces would be considered the guardians of constitutional legitimacy. It confirmed the suspicion of many Egyptians across the board that the SCAF plans to remain in power even after parliamentary and presidential elections and the adoption of a new constitution.
On Friday, tens of thousands of Islamists, in a show of strength, marched peacefully to protest the dominant role of the army. On Saturday, the police tried to remove some of the remaining demonstrators, but their excessive use of violence only triggered new demonstrations, this time by the same groups that made Tahrir such an iconic square in February. These demonstrations quickly turned into full-scale battles.
There is a lot of speculation that the riots are part of a plot to postpone elections because the army is afraid that a likely victory by Islamist parties at the ballot box will soon terminate their grip on power. One of the most informed observers, Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center, warns that if the elections are delayed, Islamists will perceive it as a soft coup directed against them. Muslim Brotherhood (MB) officials told him they believe the army may have deliberately provoked protestors to create a pretext for postponing elections in which they would undoubtedly do well. Hamid agrees that there are ample reasons to worry about an Islamist electoral victory but that this fear should never be used to subvert a democratic process that is already underway.
What do other political forces want? A leading figure in the Youth Coalition of the Revolution, one of the main players at Tahrir, called for a national salvation government and the departure of the SCAF, but did not mention the upcoming elections. Mohamed ElBaradei, presidential hopeful and head of the National Association for Change, has condemned the violence and called for the formation of a National Salvation Council that could take over the country from the military. Unclear are the timing and the impact of a new government on the scheduled start of the elections.
The latest news is that the SCAF is talking to ElBaradei and other political leaders to find a way out of the present chaos. The question remains whether it is realistic to expect citizens to go out and vote in such a complex situation. My opinion is that what Egypt needs first is a new, respected civilian leadership, a clear timetable for the army's exit from politics and a societal climate conducive to honest and transparent elections. These conditions simply cannot be met in a few days.