CAIRO -- Egypt's presidential elections are a watershed moment for the country, an unfinished revolution and political Islam. Some will look at this moment and say it fell short of expectations, others will look at it and say it exceed some expectations. In the final analysis, how Egypt's elections measure up depends on the measuring stick one uses to assess its importance.
If you strip away the politics for a moment and look simply at the mechanics of the electoral process, I think it's safe to say most Egyptians feel the process -- a purely mechanical process -- was free, transparent and had integrity. While citing some irregularities, The Carter Center, a nongovernmental organization, didn't discredit the overall integrity of the process. Compare this to elections in Egypt over the past years and you will see why it was crucially important for the state's institutions to prove it can carry out an election professionally and credibly in the eyes of its own citizens.
People boycotted the elections, and yes, the incoming president does not have a large mandate, but that's politics not process. At the end of the day, 25 million Egyptians voted and they believe their voice mattered and made a difference. That is a historic first in a country where 85 million voices were rarely heard.
On to the other measuring stick: political Islam. Egypt is the birthplace of political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood, which inspired Islamist political movements around the world, was born in Egypt. For the better part of 80 years, the Muslim Brotherhood has been part of the fabric of Egypt, shaping the identity of the country and its citizens. There is only problem: the state refused to acknowledge it. For decades, while the group was banned from participating in political life, it played a role in shaping the social identity of the country instead.
For years, the Brotherhood's leadership was routinely killed, tortured, imprisoned and harassed by secular-authoritarian-military dominated governments. Today, that very same military-led government has conceded the Muslim Brotherhood can no longer be ignored, marginalized or suppressed and in fact they are entitled to run the process -- with some limitations. This is important because Arab countries have rejected political Islam as a system of governance and many are skeptical of it.
That is a valid concern. But if one wants political Islamic movements to falter, they must be tested in the political arena. As targeted organizations by dictatorial regimes, Islamist movements thrived on being the victims and translated that grassroots sympathy into support. They then used that support to derive their legitimacy. Today, they are no longer victims or the underdogs in Egypt. Now they will be tested and judged based on their performance, not their myth. Egyptians will and can hold their officials responsible -- that's a lesson learned from the Jan. 25, 2011 revolution.
Is that a risk worth taking? Will the Muslim Brotherhood ruin Egypt? Will the Muslim Brotherhood impose Islamic law? Will the Muslim Brotherhood go to war and destabilize the region? The answer is no. If there is one thing that has happened in Egypt since Jan. 25, it has been the fragmentation of power across the country. There has been an explosion of vibrant media, a flowering of civil society organizations, a robust and legal activism that was once dormant. Where once a handful of business and political elites ruled the country, the climate in Egypt today is still bringing new forces and people into the power sharing process. The election of Mohammed Morsi is one more indication that traditional power centers in Egypt are shifting and not yet settled. The last state institution that is begrudgingly learning that lesson is the military, which refuses to hand over complete power to a civilian government.
The question that should be asked is whether the Muslim Brotherhood can consolidate as much power as authoritarian regimes have without the use of force. It's unlikely it can in the short to medium term. Can it consolidate power through the ballot box and legislation? Yes, that is possible, and that is where Egyptians should be watching closely and with great skepticism. But that happens over time and with the complicity of society at large. It's also why it's more important that secular liberal forces get their act together and get in the political mix.
If the revolution has taught Egyptians one thing, it has shattered people's fear to take on those in power -- including would-be religious fanatics. If you want to measure the elections by the measuring stick of the revolution, it's safe to say that Egypt today is not what the revolutionaries envisioned. But then again it's naive to think removing Hosni Mubarak was going to remove the regime as well.
Today, the message to Egypt's military and others is simple: you can no longer maintain your exclusive monopoly on power. Morsi is not a product of Egypt's powerful security establishment. He is not a wealthy businessman. The fact that he can now preside over a country that had these two pillars as the cornerstone of the regime is a milestone. Is Morsi a revolutionary candidate? No. But Morsi, the candidate, was borne out of the the revolution and that is not lost on him or the Muslim Brotherhood, whose popularity has waned considerably and whose credibility has been challenged repeatedly by their miscalculations throughout the transitional period.
In the final analysis, the elections in Egypt should not be considered the end of a transitional process, but rather the beginning. In Egypt today, more power, no matter how regulated or muted, is being divided among more players and the result will be a more pluralistic political arena. Will the president challenge the military? Will he represent the people or his political affiliation? Will the military persistently defy the will of its people? Will liberal forces join Islamists against the military? Will the business elite actually start building a genuine economy and create a level playing field? I don't know the answers to any of these questions. But the fact that millions of Egyptians can ask them and begin to answer them for themselves is a good start. These elections were critical and a milestone for Egypt but they will not be as important as the next elections.
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