Egypt elections: a test of hard-won civic values

The final round of Egypt's presidential elections has two candidates who must appeal more broadly to Egyptian demands for equality and freedom. Both candidates need to compromise with pro-democracy groups.

Khalil Hamra/Nasser Nasser/AP Photo
The two frontrunners in the first-round presidential elections were, left, Ahmed Shafiq, Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister, and, right, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi.

As elections go, Egypt’s matters more than most. The Middle East giant was the centerpiece of the Arab Spring last year, ousting a longtime dictator in a popular uprising. Now Egyptians go to the polls June 16-17 to choose a new leader. It will be the final vote in the country’s first open and competitive election of a president.

The vote could give a boost to the Arab Spring, which is in a winter of discontent. Many people in the region are still living under authoritarian rule and see the outcome of Egypt’s election as almost secondary to the fact that it is taking place at all.

Arabs will watch the size of voter turnout among Egypt’s 50 million voters and the fairness of the electoral process. These are the vital signs of how much Egyptians have fully embraced the civic values of democracy, such as respect for equality and the opinions of others.

Absorbing such ideals has not been easy since Egypt’s 18-day uprising that ended the three-decade reign of Hosni Mubarak. The ruling military has preferred a speedy transition, forcing Egyptians to learn democracy on the run.

A key mistake was that the youthful leaders of the revolution failed to unite behind one pro-democracy candidate before the first round of voting May 23-24.

The result was that voters had a wide choice of 13 candidates, many of whom represent old models of governance in the Middle East: socialist nationalism, Muslim clerical rule, and a civilian-backed government by a military and wealthy elite. (A monarchy, thankfully, was not offered among the candidates.)

And guess what?

Fewer than half of Egyptians bothered to vote. And the two candidates who won the most votes hardly reflect the idea that a president rules by the consent of the governed.

The largest vote getter, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi, offers an Islamist approach – that clerics know best. The second front-runner, Ahmed Shafiq, a former prime minister under Mr. Mubarak, would likely side with the military in suppressing dissent and controlling future elections.

The good news is that the two of them won less than half the vote.

The Muslim Brotherhood had expected to win outright with more than 50 percent of the vote. It ended up with 24.8 percent. Voters were upset at its arrogance in trying to control the new parliament and in breaking a promise not to make a bid for the presidency.

Their ire is a sign that Egyptians may ultimately reject the kind of rule by Islamists who rely on an interpretation of the Quran that preaches intolerance and the superiority of clerics in secular rule.

Mr. Shafiq, while promising to crack down on crime, is seen as a remnant of the Mubarak regime. His 24.7 percent showing hints that few Egyptians long for the false security of semi-dictatorship.

What can be done now?

Both candidates need to broaden their appeal by accepting the ideas of pro-democracy groups on how to build up Egypt’s civil institutions. Much work – including continuing public pressure – is needed to create a foundation for democracy. Egypt can’t afford a return to Mubarak’s ways or an Iranian-style clerical rule. Turkey, with an elected Islamic party in charge, may seem like a model. But even there many elements of freedom are still under threat.

Civic virtues are a hard-won blessing. Egypt is showing the rest of the Arab world just how hard-won.

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