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Will Egypt’s Elections Be Free and Fair?

After the July 2013 uprising, coup, or correction in Egypt—the debate over the terminology, while relevant to U.S. law regarding foreign assistance, can nonetheless be distracting to the broader conversation—the Egyptian military promised a quick transition back to civilian rule, a new constitutional order, and elections.

The Egyptian military has been true to its word in reality, even if Western policymakers debate the spirit of its moves. After the Egyptian military arrested former President Mohamed Morsi and ousted his government, it did appoint civilian place-keepers—Adly Mansour as president, for example, and Hazem al-Beblawi as prime minister (Beblawi resigned in February). Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi might be the paramount power and he could very well be the next president, but he did not assume all power. That said, there is plenty of evidence upon which those who see Sisi’s ambitions more cynically can grasp.

Sisi did, however, keep his word and return Egypt to a constitutional order, scrapping the constitution that Morsi pushed through that would have taken women back decades and entrenched Islamism beyond its electoral mandate. Critics, however, argued that the drafting of the new constitution was not inclusive enough. That was not entirely the interim government’s fault: With the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to reject the post-Morsi order rather than participate in it, there was little choice the new government had to move forward other than scrap the drafting of a new constitution; fortunately, they chose to push forward despite the Brotherhood’s attempts to delegitimize the new constitution.

The next step is elections. U.S. policymakers should certainly recognize by now after its democracy promotion experience of the Bush and Obama years that elections do not make a democracy. Nor are all elections free and fair. While many critics of the Egyptian government effectively want to move back to the pre-July order and allow the Muslim Brotherhood to hang itself with a rope of its owning making, that sentiment discounts the fact that Morsi and the Brotherhood did not seem to be as committed to democratic checks and balances once they entered office and consolidated control, and so may never have allowed the public to try them at the ballot box. Regardless, it is simply impossible to go back to the past. The question then becomes how to push ahead into the future. It would be self-defeating to call for democratization but denounce any attempt at a new election. At the same time, there is no reason to take the Egyptian government at its word when it says that it wants free and fair elections.

That is why last week’s announcement by the Egyptian government that they will allow not only outside observation of the May 26-27 elections, but credible outside observation, is good sign. Allowing the European Union to send observers is probably the best possible choice. Neither the National Democratic Institute nor the International Republican Institute would be keen let alone welcome to send observers after the Egyptian military had scapegoated them against the backdrop of the initial Arab Spring protests. Nor is the Carter Center credible, given President Jimmy Carter’s outspoken and seemingly unbalanced support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is a lot of anger on all sides relating to the situation in Egypt. No one is satisfied. Rather than nihilistically condemn Egypt to limbo because of anger over the events of last July, however, it is important to make the most of the current situation, and push Egypt to the reforms it so desperately needs to make so that the next president doesn’t simply engage in the same corruption and crony capitalism that led to anger boiling over in 2011. Let us hope that the European Union monitors will observe Egypt’s elections both in the long and short term, and that the Egyptian government will continue to have the self-confidence to embrace transparency as it moves forward. If the authorities in Cairo are showing good faith, that should be reciprocated.


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