For the first time in history, Egyptians voted in a fully fair and free referendum on March 19. And while they celebrated this historic achievement, around the world, academics and human rights activists were bleating like stuck pigs.
“There’s just not enough time for parties that haven’t existed before” to organize for upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, lamented Robert Springborg, a Naval Postgraduate School professor, speaking at a World Affairs Council conference. “This is the first time that the Muslim Brotherhood” and former President Hosni Mubarak’s political party “have actually agreed on something” ― fast-paced elections.
On election day, about 18 million ebullient Egyptians voted in a referendum on constitutional changes that are to bring welcome political reforms and rapid elections ― and approved it overwhelmingly. Parliamentary elections are now scheduled for June, just three months from now, and the presidential race is in August.
The root of the complaints, shared by 23 percent of the Egyptians who voted, lies in this speedy schedule. Springborg’s point is that the Muslim Brotherhood was founded 80 years ago and, bureaucratically, is quite well organized ― although the organization is locked in a fundamental debate over what it really stands for now. The same holds true for the few remaining members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, known as the NDP. They know how to manage elections, even though demonstrators burned their headquarters to the ground last month.
So, the argument goes, other possible democratic candidates have spent most of their lives in hiding or in jail. How on earth can they organize an effective political party in just three months? As a Wall Street Journal editorial put it, “the approach benefits the groups best organized today. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood” and “the remnants of the old ruling National Democratic Party.”
I disagree. This argument assumes that Egyptians are uniformly deaf, dumb and blind. Yes, the Muslim Brotherhood has been around since 1928. So don’t you think that by now, every single Egyptian knows exactly who they are and what they stand for? For a very long time, the group has managed to attract support from something less than 20 percent of the population. Why would that suddenly change now?
As for the NDP, the uprising ― the “revolution,” as Egyptians now call it ― was all about throwing Mubarak and his minions out of office. More recently, demonstrators forced the interim military government to kick the remaining NDP officials out the door. Are these very same people going to turn around now and vote to put Mubarak acolytes back into office? No way.
It’s true: The new candidates don’t have much time to organize political parties. But I expect most voters in June will look down the ballot and select anyone who is not NDP or Muslim Brotherhood.
The Egyptian military had its own reasons for rushing the elections, based on their own self-interest, I am sure. But Egyptians should want them out of the presidential suite as soon as possible because they are still acting like the dictator’s enforcers. Earlier this month, the military decided it just didn’t like all of those tents that remained in Tahrir Square, the symbolic home of the uprising. So one evening they stormed into the square, tore down the tents and beat up the demonstrators who were living in them. Almost 200 of them were hauled off to a military prison for interrogation. About what?
Human Rights Watch notes that the military is still torturing prisoners ― Egyptian citizens. “Four people detained by the Army on March 9 told Human Rights Watch that their captors handcuffed them and beat them with electric cables, sticks and metal pipes,” the group said in a recent report. “Two of the four said they had been repeatedly shocked with electric stun devices.”
What on earth for? What possible threat do the Egyptian people pose to their state now, on the way to free elections? Whom does the army think it is protecting now? For the military, most likely, it’s just a bad habit. What else do they have to do?
For me, that’s reason enough to move along quickly and install a government that can write a new constitution and, hopefully, put the army in its proper place. As Daniel Williams, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Egypt, asked me rhetorically: Can the army, “an organization that invented authoritarian Egypt, be trusted to organize a new, non-authoritarian government?”
Of course not ― another reason to move fast and let the Egyptian people decide.
By Joel Brinkley
Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times. ― Ed.
(Tribune Media Services)