Egypt’s political groups deserve a level playing field

When Egyptian protesters ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February, they did so in the hope that their country would undergo a transition to democracy. Yet Egypt’s ruling military council lately has taken a leaf out of Mubarak’s book, bypassing major political groups other than the Muslim Brotherhood and raising concerns that it will maintain an undemocratic regime.

The Egyptian people fear that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood are using each other in the expectation that one of the two will ultimately prevail. That was the outcome after the coup that overthrew the constitutional monarchy in 1952, when the Brotherhood supported the military, which turned on the group when it consolidated power two years later.

Earlier this month, the Egyptian military launched a dialogue with the youth reformers of the revolution after massive nationwide protests demanding that the military ratify a constitution before holding parliamentary and presidential elections. The military invited more than 100 youth organizations and political coalitions to meet with it, even as it and the Brotherhood insist on holding legislative elections in September and allowing the winners to draft the constitution.

How can Egyptians run for parliament or president before these positions even have job descriptions? Who could stop the winner of the September elections from tailoring the constitution to its ideological beliefs, ignoring the demands of those with different visions?

Last weekend, to address mounting pressure from the modernists, the Brotherhood and the military proposed a compromise. The Brotherhood invited all political parties to form a grand coalition before the elections, and last week the secular liberal Wafd party joined. To be part of the coalition, parties must agree beforehand on the number of parliamentary seats they will run for, which enables Wafd and other major parties to negotiate a larger share than they might otherwise win. If the deal succeeds, it will remove the fear of single-party domination — by the Muslim Brotherhood, for example — in the next parliament. If it fails and elections take place before there is agreement on a new constitution, little will change.

With such a head start and an early election, the Muslim Brotherhood would have extraordinary influence over the new constitution. If this is how things play out, the military will have denied Egypt’s democratic reformers a fair chance to shape the new regime’s founding document.

When the modernists of Egypt’s secular opposition launched their demonstrations in late May, they called on the military to build a genuine national consensus in favor of a constitution that establishes a modern, democratic Egypt. They seek to enshrine the principles of equality for all citizens, without discrimination based on gender, religion or race, and guarantee an independent judiciary and a less powerful presidency.

The modernists maintain that all political forces should agree on constitutional principles first, then allow for more time before holding legislative and presidential elections, so that other groups can raise money, craft platforms and field candidates for office.

The military promises to ensure that the new constitution is democratic. Yet only a few days after Mubarak’s departure in February, the army relied largely on Islamist legal experts, such as the prominent Brotherhood figure Sobhi Saleh and religious-leaning Judge Tareq Bishri, when it amended the constitution. The army has also given the Brotherhood and other Islamists disproportionate access to state-owned media. Egypt’s largest daily newspaper, the government-owned Al Ahram, provides considerable coverage of the Brotherhood leaders.

The Brotherhood intends to field parliamentary candidates in only 50% of the districts, so as not to appear to be overwhelming the nascent electoral system. Yet its reputation as the best-organized opposition to the Mubarak regime, with an estimated 20% to 25% public support, will make smaller parties and independent candidates seek its endorsement in districts in which no Brotherhood candidates run. Hence, when a new parliament takes office, the Brotherhood would enjoy more power than its numbers alone suggest.

Time is critical. The Brotherhood suffers from a divide between its older, more conservative leadership and its more liberal youth. The latter, who are close to the modernist youth revolutionaries and share their democratic demands, have decided to join the modernists in their calls for a constitution first. Senior Brotherhood leaders, though, don’t want to delay elections because they risk losing public support by the time they are held.

The military’s success in presiding over this post-Mubarak transition will depend on its ability to address the demands of all political groups. To hold truly free and fair elections, the army must first level the playing field and allow all political forces an opportunity to organize and compete. This would also make the army more popular among the people.

If Egypt’s military leaders opt instead to favor one political group over another, they will only sow disunity and a troubling civil-military dynamic that looks like Pakistan.

Khairi Abaza, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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