* Updated Below
The completion of Egypt’s first ever truly democratic elections yesterday, far from being the culminating end of the process begun when Egyptians first took to the street on January 25, 2011, should be seen only as the end of the beginning. The results of the elections are still far from certain, with political soothsayers confounded by the lack of reliable polling data. And while official results are expected to be released this upcoming Tuesday, May 29, that hasn’t stopped ample speculation by candidates, electoral authorities, and citizens alike. This uncertainty has been compounded by the fact that, on the eve of the elections, a full third of eligible Egyptian voters remained undecided on a candidate among the 13 standing for president. Accustomed to single-candidate referenda where the result was always a foregone conclusion, Egyptians have seemingly been bewildered by choice. Regardless of who wins, however, the road before achieving a fully-fledged participatory democracy is long, the climb steep.
In many ways, the elections will result in some inevitable disappointments, as do all elections in the imperfect world of electoral democratic politics. Not least of these potential disappointments is the fact that two of the favourites to win – Amr Moussa and Ahmad Shafik – are Mubarak regime cronies, felool as they’re known in Egypt. Should either of these candidates succeed in their presidential race, many will be left wondering what all the bloodshed over the last fifteen months was for. But more deeply entrenched obstacles to fulfilling the revolution’s aspirations exist, the most intransigent of which is the economic and political stranglehold that no one expects the military to relinquish following the transition to civilian rule. Indeed, so long as the military’s budget is not subject to civilian oversight and military-owned corporations control up to 40% of the Egyptian economy, how meaningful will that transition be?
Still, among all the reasons for pessimism, silver linings are plentiful. That 13 candidates had to vie for the Egyptian public’s vote in what has, for the most part, been a free and fair election should not be dismissed. Notable, too, was the unprecedented televised debate between Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, where the two candidates squared off, challenging one another and attempting to speak to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.
Those who view these elections as the beginning of the end will inevitably be disappointed. The problems facing Egypt are at present too intractable, and those controlling the levers of power remain too out of touch and too invested in the current system to be able or willing to affect real change. One has to take a more long-term view. The first elections since the overthrow of Mubarak are, for all their shortcomings, an important step in Egypt’s on-going transition to a society of the people by the people, and for the people. But only cumulative steps, one after the next, can get Egypt to its destination, which remains distant. Egyptians may very well once again take to the streets should the newly-elected government fail to heed their demands. But that such demonstrations would be unsurprising to anyone signals just how far Egypt has come from the days of a population too terrified to raise its voice in defiance of its so-called leaders.
*UPDATE: Although official results are not expected until Tuesday, already the New York Times is calling a second round of run-off elections between the two predicted leading candidates, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi and former Mubarak Prime Minister, Ahmad Shafiq. This prediction may be somewhat premature, however, as secular-leftist candidate, Hamdeen Sabahy has defied all expectations and polled incredibly strongly, even beating Islamist candidates in usually conservative/Islamist strongholds like Alexandria and Imbaba. He now appears to be neck-and-neck with Ahmad Shafiq for second place. Counting is still incomplete, however, with Shafiq and Sabahy trading the second and third place positions hour by hour. Overall, the race for the top three spots is incredibly close, but only the top two candidates will go through to the second round of voting. Live updates can be found here although heavy traffic has slowed the site to a crawl. Slightly less timely results can also be found here.