Tunisia: how the Egyptian elections look from here

Much of the recent coverage of the Tunisian elections focused on how the Ennahda Islamist party topped the polls. In fact, the real victory went to the election process.
Kacem Jlidi
25 November 2011

I remember the days when the murder of Khaled Saeed and the online campaign that followed overwhelmed me. Only a few months later, the whole world watched the power of the masses in Tahrir Square. The Egyptian people have come a long way towards establishing democracy, showing great courage and enthusiasm when they overthrew Mubarak, great courage which they are showing again.

The way to fulfill the people’s demands is only beginning to reveal itself; it is now up to the Egyptians to ensure a democratic transition through carefully electing a parliament that asserts civilian control, works towards achieving its revolutionary objectives and protecting the rights of all Egyptians, especially women and religious minorities. 

What might our Egyptian friends learn from our election experience here in Tunisia?

Tunisia, like Egypt is a country that has never experienced democracy, or anything akin to fair elections. Under former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, even if a person chose to vote for an opposition party, voting was meaningless. The results were predetermined. As a consequence, many Tunisians, including my parents, never bothered to vote in their lifetime. Much of the recent coverage of the Tunisian elections focused on how the Ennahda Islamist party topped the polls. In fact, the real victory went to the election process.

At the local level, the success of the Tunisian Elections can be traced to the ISIE’s (High Independent Instance for the Elections) advanced media campaign and the effective use of tech-savvy infrastructure investments to improve voter registration and Election Day turnout, especially among women and young people. In Tunisia, they set up a text-messaging system that helped voters to easily verify which polling centres to visit.

Many activists and newly formed NGOs toured the country, setting up briefing sessions with young people and women from less advantaged backgrounds, inspiring them to go and make their voices heard. In addition, they made good use of social media to activate networks of family and friends, getting them to register and then to vote.

The Tunisian corners of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were hyperactive with slogans, caricatures and homemade videos to persuade people to register and vote and to direct them - many for the first time - to their nearest polling location. Tunisians living abroad were also encouraged to practice their right to vote through embassies and consulates. 

Ingy Sedki, a young Egyptian member of the executive committee of ‘El-Kotla El-Masreya’ or ‘the Egyptian Coalition’ told me, “Tunisians have handled in a very smart way their transition, starting with electing their Constitutional Assembly”. By contrast, she said, in Egypt the process is very confusing: “We started with a referendum in March causing a cleavage inside the society that has developed into too many conflicting constituencies.”

Sedki went on to say, “Tunisia chose the best electoral system: proportional representation, in comparison to the mixed system in Egypt.” Egypt’s system is a complicated model, hard to understand even for educated people. The rate of participation in Tunisia’s election was an impressive 90 per cent while in Egypt, only approximately 45 percent turned out during the referendum.

What will ensure successful elections?

Egypt is now getting ready for its first democratic elections on November 28; however, comparing next week’s election in Egypt to last month’s Tunisian election leaves one with a sense of the enormity of the challenge facing our Egyptian neighbours. Based on conversations I have had with fellow Egyptian activists, the Egyptian Army is still running the political scene and seems interested in keeping its power rather than ceding power to the people. This is a major threat to the success of the upcoming elections. 

The Tunisian army played a rather more neutral role in the political transition of the country, compared to that of the Egyptian military which has been largely responsible for generating a state of chaos and widening the gap between different segments within the society, as well as sending civil activists and bloggers to notorious military courts; and finally raising the temperature of discrimination against the Copts while at the same time allowing Islamist and other political criminals like ‘Abboud el Zommor’ to return from exile and form their own political parties.  

In particular, we learn from this that civil society must be able to closely monitor the electoral process to ensure that none of the political forces are using financial or any other means to coerce people into voting in a certain way.

The next steps for Egypt

The next steps in Egypt’s seismic transition remain unclear. We still don’t know whether the coming parliament will continue its mandate of four years or will be dissolved following the approval of the new constitution based on which a new parliament should be elected.

We don’t know when the presidential election will take place. If the presidential elections are postponed until the new constitution is approved, that simply means that we won’t have an Egyptian president in place until 2013. If the Army stays in control until then, the internal situation can only deteriorate, since the Army has so far proved its incapacity to manage the necessary transition to a democratic civilian government.

From my personal point of view, the outcome of the democratic transition will crucially depend on how well the three main powers: the military, the Islamist parties, and the liberal democrats react to each other. But another power is the essential key to the entire puzzle, and that power remains in the hands of the Egyptian people.

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