Election Day in Egypt: Celebrations and Concerns

November 28, 2011

Egyptian protestors wave national flags
© STR/AFP/Getty Images

After decades of authoritarian rule, any opportunity for a popular election in Egypt should be a moment to celebrate.  But today’s national parliamentary election, while representing another step toward democracy, is also one that comes with significant concerns.

The underlying news today is that the strong turnouts, marred by four-hour delays at some sites, is a sign of the deep and passionate need of Egyptians to have a full stake in their political future. There are thousands of examples, but one that touched me was hearing from Radio Masr of an 82-year-old woman who was so happy that she was voting for the first time.

But several thousand protesters remain in Tahrir Square, still smarting from the nationally televised speech Wednesday by Field Marshal Tantawi, the head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which offered protesters half-concessions that are months too late. At the heart of the resurgent protests across Egypt is concern that in the nine months of SCAF rule, Egypt has made little progress in building a new political and human rights culture that is necessary to make today’s elections mean something.

Many Americans may wonder why Egypt seems to be back to Square One.  The title of Amnesty International’s new report “Promises Broken,” explains.  The military rulers came in promising to act on the spirit of the Jan. 25 uprising, most importantly ending the three-decade old state of emergency, military trials of civilians and the muzzling of civil society.

On all accounts, those promises have gone unmet.  In fact, with regard to trials of civilians before military courts, the numbers have become worse.  Bloggers, journalists, scholars and ordinary citizens have been silenced and charged with crimes such as “criticizing the military.” When pressed to end the state of emergency, the military rulers repeatedly use security issues as an excuse to maintain the status quo.

Furthermore, the SCAF failed to heed the call of Amnesty International and Egyptian activists to demand accountability for the security abuses of the past Mubarak regime.  Certainly key members of the previous government have gone on trial, including Mubarak himself.  But the SCAF never took steps to investigate past abuses. Without accountability, the police and security officials of the past regime simply returned to their old jobs; it should be no surprise that the old regime’s violence toward protesters is now getting repeated.

But the SCAF is not alone in failure.  The political parties themselves have not pledged to take steps that would rebuild a strong and dynamic political culture that included full political participation of women and minorities.  A political agreement announced yesterday between the military council and the Muslim Brothers raised concerns about an alliance between the two and provoked wide criticism from other parties, including former members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

This is why the people are back in the streets. For American human rights activists, the first step is to show solidarity and to demand that the SCAF end its violence toward the protests.  (Take action: Egypt’s Military Rulers Must End Human Rights Abuses)

The second step is to demand that American officials be certain that no US weapons are being used against peaceful protesters.  In January, tear gas canisters used against protesters were found to have been made in the United States by American companies.  Last week, a US Government Accountability Office report indicated that the US government was unable to track whether arms being sold to Bahrain and other Gulf States were being used in human rights violations.  There is great concern that the same could be true regarding arms sales to Egypt.

In the spring, when it became clear that the people were staying in the streets, it was fairly clear how it would play out, with the military forcing Mubarak out to keep national stability.  This time around, even with today’s elections, the prognosis is more murky. The SCAF says they are looking to step out of of power and let the new civilian government take the reins in six months, but they still show no inclination to take any action that would truly build an independent civil society and a culture of human rights in Egypt.  The protesters in Tahrir Square will accept nothing less.