Thursday, 10 May 2012

Egyptian courts suspend elections, controls election timing

A low-level administrative court in provincial Benha, Egypt, ruled May 9 to suspend Egypt's May 23 presidential elections, saying the Supreme Elections Commission overstepped its mandate and that only the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is authorized to call elections, AP reported. The ruling will be appealed in Cairo on May 10, AFP reported, and a lawyer and judicial official said the decision likely will be overturned since it was based on a technicality.

The suspension of the Egyptian elections does not cancel the planned elections outright. The ruling came from a provincial court, and because of that the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) has some options ahead.

The SCAF promised to hold presidential elections this year but it has become clear they will be at a time and place of their choosing. The SCAF will take advantage of the evolving Egyptian political climate and call elections when the feel they will gain the most from them, even if it means they must manipulate the climate in some way.

But right now, the SCAF controls Egypt. There was some reshuffling of the parliament following the protests of 2011 in which Islamist parties won seats, but the Egyptian parliament has no real power. The military regime Hosni Mubarak led, before his forced resignation, is still firmly in place. Although a strategic retreat of SCAF leaders convinced many Egyptians the ruling regime had changed, the SCAF remain firmly in control.

Earlier this month, the SCAF announced plans for a move towards governmental change. Egypt's ruling military council planned to hand over power before June 30 and elections in Egypt were to continue as scheduled despite clashes, Gen. Mahmoud el-Assar said May 3, Reuters reported.

Other Egyptian political parties considered this an important date. Not because the Egyptian public might finally get a semblance of democratic values, but because it was presumed that a fresh president would take over the powers currently held by the SCAF.

However, given the politics and reputations of the SCAF leaders, they are unlikely to surrender total authority after decades of power in the important Middle East country. It may be the case that if they feel sufficiently threatened, an election might not be held at all.

During the Egyptian protests of early 2011, it was assumed by many in the West that the demands of the demonstrators were for democracy to replace an authoritarian regime. The media narrative of the ‘Arab Spring’ described hordes of discontented, bitter Egyptians rising up demanding a change.

The truth is more complex. Many Egyptians yearn for Western-style democracy, especially the educated, English-speaking youth, but the majority of the demonstrations were driven by Islamist political parties such as offshoots of the popular Muslim Brotherhood (MB). They have very different dreams for Egypt than the pro-democracy demonstrators and the SCAF are doing everything in their power to subvert the potential for an Islamist-led government in Cairo.  

Holding elections in Egypt is not as important to the SCAF as limiting that Islamist influence. Throughout the Arab world, in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria, the transitional or incumbent governments are deeply concerned about domestic Islamist movements.

Libya's ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) amended a law May 2 banning political parties organised by religion, tribe or ethnicity, AFP reported. Members of the NTC judicial committee read the amended version of the law governing party formation without mentioning the ban. The ban was announced to test the public's reaction, an NTC member said. The Libyan transitional government is still highly fractured but collectively concerned over the potential for an Islamist-led ruling council in a future government.
Syria faces not only civil unrest from anti-government forces. Unverified reports from inside Syria suggest that Islamist groups are perpetrating attacks to further their own agenda in the Levant. An explosion occurred May 9 that hit cars accompanying UN monitors in the Deraa Province and injured eight Syrian guards, Reuters reported, citing a pro-government news channel.

None of the monitors, including the head of the UN observer mission to Syria, Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, were harmed in the incident, AFP reported. While two explosions May 10 hit the Qazaz neighbourhood of Damascus, where a Syrian intelligence agency has its headquarters, AP reported. The blasts happened at about 7:50am. Syrian President Bashar al Assad has in the past blamed what he terms "jihadist insurgents" for a number of assaults on government buildings, including suicide attacks.

This is why the SCAF are keen to hold onto control of Egypt. There are multiple parties ready to submit candidates for whatever election is planned. Some of them are more desirable for the SCAF than others, but it is uncertain if the military would retain enough power if any were elected.

The SCAF want to ensure that Islamist parties do not gain control of Egypt through the election process. Islamists dominated the protests in early 2011 and the MB has displayed reasonable amounts of popular support for its agenda, so this once-banished group could achieve success in an election if it were to be held soon.

Therefore, even though the recent court ruling may be appealed and overturned in the coming days, the SCAF will only continue to support elections if it suits them. A provincial court, like the one issuing the suspension, surely was not acting without the permission of the ruling military elites in Cairo.

This actually points to a potential manipulation of the Egyptian judicial system if the SCAF feels such an action will help facilitate a legitimate cancellation. The ease with which the elections could be wiped away if there are sufficient worries about the outcome doesn't elicit much optimism for the rival political parties success.  

The voting Egyptian public may not be happy with the decision to suspend the May 23 elections, but the SCAF will gauge their reaction and move accordingly. Increasing civil unrest would prompt them to punish the provincial judge in question and announce a new process for elections.

But the lack of any heated public response would only encourage the SCAF to maintain the suspension. Right now the SCAF can cancel or continue any election plans as they see fit, they just have to make sure their public relations plans are calibrated correctly to deal with any response.

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