US to Egypt: Stick to election plan, even if it favors Islamist parties

The Obama administration is caught between two unpalatable options: backing elections that the Islamists are likely to win, or recommending a postponement and risk sounding anti-democratic.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/REUTERS
Protesters pray front of the Egyptian military after negotiating a truce between them and riot police, after clashing along a road leading to the Interior Ministry, near Tahrir Square in Cairo Wednesday. Protesters have derided an agreement forged by Egypt's ruling generals and mostly Islamist parties for a swifter transfer to civilian rule.

The United States is encouraging Egypt’s military rulers to stick to a schedule of elections set to kick off next week, despite continuing violence – and despite the likelihood that the electoral timetable favors the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements.

The Obama administration is in essence caught between two unpalatable options: pressing ahead for elections that the Islamists are likely to win, and thereby sounding like a force for Egypt’s democratic transition; or recommending a postponement that a growing number of liberal Egyptians prefer, but which risks coming across as anti-democratic.

Egypt’s transitional military rulers announced Wednesday that parliamentary elections set to begin Monday will go ahead, despite five days of violence that has left more than 35 Egyptians dead and scores wounded.

The plan to proceed with voting was worked out at a meeting Tuesday between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, the two most powerful institutions in post-Hosni-Mubarak Egypt. The new plan also calls for presidential elections to be held before July, an apparent acceleration of a previously announced transition plan.

Other political parties were invited to Tuesday’s meeting, but most liberal secular movements boycotted it.    

Still, many Egyptians – in particular those who spearheaded the February movement that toppled a regime – fear that the military, composed in large part of recruits from the country’s more conservative rural areas, favors a Brotherhood electoral triumph. They worry that a parliamentary triumph for the Brotherhood, combined with the military staying in power at least until mid-summer, would allow the two to write a constitution – and to delineate civil and political rights to their liking.

Despite those concerns, the US is sticking to its support for the established electoral calendar.

“The best hope for democracy in Egypt is for these elections to go forward, for the people to express themselves through the ballot box, and then for the process of democratization to move forward in Egypt,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters Monday. “We’ve been very clear with the SCAF [the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt’s ruling body] that that’s what we want to see.”

But in a statement issued Monday, the State Department also cautioned that it expects the political powers that emerge from the elections – and have a hand in writing Egypt’s new constitution – to protect all Egyptians’ civil and human rights.  

“The United States supports the Egyptian people and their goal of having a democratically elected civilian government that respects universal human rights, including the protection of women, minorities, and the press, and that will help Egypt to address its economic challenges,” the statement said.

Yet the US is not alone in facing a dilemma when it comes to Egypt. Egyptians themselves are worried that the country’s powerbrokers are slowing and reversing the gains achieved in this year’s revolution, according to a new poll. But at the same time a large minority of Egyptians also plans to vote for an Islamic party in parliamentary elections.

The 2011 Annual Arab Public Opinion Poll, released this week by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, finds that a plurality of Egyptians – 43 percent – consider the military rulers to be working to slow or reverse the gains of the revolution. Another 21 percent say they are working to advance these gains.

At the same time, about one-third of Egyptians expect to vote for an Islamic party in the parliamentary elections, according to the poll. That level of support is expected to make the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, Egypt’s single-largest political force.

The poll also has some data worth contemplation by the US and Israel, both of which have expressed concern over the impact that Egypt’s likely shift in the post-Mubarak era to a more populist government could have on Egyptian-Israeli relations.

The poll finds an Egypt that is split over the country’s peace treaty with Israel: 37 percent support maintaining it, while 35 say they would scuttle it.

But support for peaceful relations with Israel rises – if slightly, to 41 percent – if Israel agrees to a two-state solution to its conflict with Palestinians.

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