Explainer: Why Egypt matters

Panel of experts, activists and two former ambassadors weigh in on why the country has a significant role to play.

Egypt in Transition

For much of its modern history, strategically located Egypt has been a pivotal force in the Middle East.

Since winning independence from the British in 1922, the country once known as “The Mother of the World” has been governed by kings and dictators. Many Egyptians grew to distrust politics and steered clear of elections. 

Such apathy ended in January, when Egyptians rose up in mass protest and toppled Hosni Mubarak, a president who held power since 1981. Now, ten months after the uprising, Egyptians will go the polls on November 28 to select a new parliament.

Al Jazeera spoke to a range of influential experts about why the world should be watching as Egypt votes.

Derek Plumbly

Plumbly is a British diplomat who has served as ambassador to Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Egypt is uniquely significant in the Arab world by weight of its population, its history, the role it played in modernising the Arab world, and the influence it had in the second half of the 20th century in furthering Arab nationalism. It made itself then very much the epicenter of the Arab world.


However, in the last couple of decades, the cautious policies adopted by the Mubarak regime reduced that influence significantly. But I think all the underlying factors are there, and the revolution has brought them back into play in a new way. Although the original inspiration came from Tunisians, it was really the shock of the January events in Egypt which sent vibrations throughout the rest of the Arab world. How the Egyptian revolution plays out is crucial for governance across the Arab world.

Elections are central to this. They will be conducted on the basis of a very convoluted electoral system, which I think anybody would find very difficult to understand. With only two weeks to go to the first round, decisions are still being taken with regard to important issues like the eligibility of candidates and overseas voting. The powers of the new assembly, once elected, are not yet clearly defined. And with all the discussion of process, one feels that political parties must have had difficulty helping voters to understand where they stand on key issues, including economic ones and issues of social justice.

Nonetheless, people I know are excited to have the opportunity to vote for the first time in genuine elections. Since the revolution, the message sent by events in Egypt has been confusing. The clarity of January’s focus on freedom hasn’t been there. The electoral process will be long and drawn-out, but hopefully it will be free and fair and thus bring new clarity, and a new legitimacy. Tunisia’s elections went well. If those in Egypt, with its regional weight, also go well, it will give enormous encouragement to democrats across the region.

Khaled Fahmy

Fahmy is an associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies and history at the American University of Cairo. He is the author most recently of Mehmed Ali: From Ottoman Governor to Ruler of Egypt.

[These] elections are important for a number of reasons: It is the first free elections in modern memory since 1952. For the overwhelming majority of Egyptians, this is the first time they will go and vote in a free election. This is the election for a parliament that will form a constitutional assembly that will then write the constitution.


I don’t think that the election will be a clear reflection of the different political factions on the ground, because the political landscape is still in the process of formation and is being reformed and reshaped from day to day. No election will be able to capture that rapidly changing system. In that sense, it is not the upcoming election that will give us an indication of who is where and the relative strength of the different forces in Egypt, but rather the following election. That doesn’t belittle in any form or shape the significance of the election itself.

The biggest obstacle is the army, and the conflicting and confusing electoral laws that have been sent out by the army. It is effectively the army that is ruling the county. The military is trying to find a formula whereby it can guarantee its position in the post-election Egypt, so it has been trying different tactics. Earlier in the summer, it tried to have some type of an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, and that failed. Then it tried the liberal parties and again that failed.

In terms of actual concrete programmes of different candidates and parties, we haven’t seen any real debate about the questions that led to the uprising in January. We don’t have clear alternatives, except for the ideological ones – most seriously between secularists and Islamists. I think this is what the election will end up being about. This was not a revolution about or by Islamists, but the elections effectively ended up being an election about the role of Islam in post-revolutionary Egypt.

Historically, Islamists are the largest force whether we like it or not. Islamists have been hounded, oppressed, imprisoned, and have not been represented for the past 60 years. Even though it was not the Islamists that started [the uprising in] January, they stood to benefit most from it. It was the genie in the bottle and it is out now.

If you are asking me in a general sense I am very critical of Islamists, but I think this can only be a healthy thing for the region and for the world. September 11, 2001, was a very direct result of the lack of democracy in a place like Egypt and like Saudi Arabia, where very serious grievances have not been given the chance to be aired domestically. Allowing Islamists a role in the official political plane can only be a healthy thing, and we will see how they will perform in parliament.

Carrie Wickham

Wickham is an associate professor of political science at Emory University in the US state of Georgia. Her research focuses on the rise of Islamic activism in Egypt and other Arab states. Her latest book, Islamist Movement Change in the Arab World, will soon be published.

There are several aspects of the upcoming phase that will be crucial in determining whether or not a true and genuine transition to democracy is achieved.


The elections themselves will serve as a barometer of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF) commitment to a truly transparent and fair electoral process. Among the things we need to be looking at are: Is the process fully supervised by judges? Is the process free of security intervention? Are independent election monitors going to be given the opportunity to observe the voting process?

There is also the issue of voter turnout, because the size of the turnout will indicate Egyptian citizens’ faith in the democratic process. I would expect turnout to be very high.

I think that there are tradeoffs involved in holding elections sooner rather than later. Holding elections later would give newer parties more time to build an organisational presence at the grassroots level and reach out to voters. At the same time, though, it would also perpetuate the military’s control over the political system and delay the transfer of power to elected civilian representatives of the people. I favour holding elections now, with the understanding that newer parties are going to be at a significant institutional disadvantage.

We have to remember the Muslim Brotherhood has itself committed to run for not more than 50 per cent of the seats. They have made a very explicit commitment from the outset to “participate, not dominate”. I expect them to follow through with that for a wide range of reasons, including their own self-interest: They’re fully aware that a Brotherhood-dominated parliament would create anxiety and apprehension among powerful actors, including the military and western governments.

I see even before the election there are signs of an embryonic national consensus. The Islamist and secular parties have made ideological concessions to each other. For example, secular parties, including the Wafd, have agreed to retain Article 2 of the constitution, which states that the principles of Sharia are the primary source of legislation, a point very important to the Brotherhood.

For their part, the Brotherhood has committed itself to the principles of party pluralism, peaceful alternation of power, participation not domination.  I think those concerned that the Brotherhood is going to use the electoral process to “seize power and impose its agenda on a reluctant citizenry” is truly overblown. Yet it remains to be seen to what extent the Brotherhood will exercise pragmatic self-restraint in the future.

For the aspirations of the revolutionaries to truly be fulfilled, it’s not just a matter of holding elections. It’s also a question of moving toward a deeper structural transformation of the authoritarian state system. I see the parliamentary elections as very important, but only a first step in a broader transition process that will need to incorporate other elements to fulfill all the potential of the Arab Spring.

Nabil Fahmy

Fahmy was the Egyptian ambassador to the United States from 1999 to 2008. He is now Dean of the School of Public Affairs at the American University in Cairo.

I think the parliamentary election matters even more than the presidential election. And the reason is the parliamentary elections are occurring first. Based on that election, the parliament will have an important role in defining the composition of the constitutional assembly, which will then write up the new Egypt constitution. [The elections’ significance is] twofold: It’s the first parliament after the revolution, and secondly, this will have a very important role in writing up the constitution.


I personally would have preferred to have the constitution written up first, and then held the elections for president and parliament in that sequence. That would have been the better approach to doing it, and there would have been therefore less political and more nation-building.

If we hold the elections peacefully, and the results come out representative of the public, this should be a very strong indication to the Arab world and everybody else as well that Egyptians again are pioneering the thought process, the nation-building process in our region.

I think you have to look at the Mubarak era carefully. I don’t characterise it as being subservient to the US or Israel, I just see it as losing its energy, its initiative towards that last decade. When you lose your initiative regionally, somebody in the region will fill that void – a role which we normally played. I think they [the US] should continue to try to play a complementing role. The regions should be led by regional players with the global players supporting, but not necessarily defining the role.

Egypt’s leadership role has traditionally been in its intellectual value added, not in its material support for one project or the other. This will bring us back to where we were in years past, leading the region intellectually.

I think the mere fact of holding the elections with all these competing parties responds to one of the issues [raised in the January uprising], which is people wanting to be stakeholders and participants in defining the politics of the region. [The election] doesn’t respond to the larger questions: what is the role of religion in society, how do we balance the powers of the executive with the other organs of the state, the role of the military, the economic system.

Islam Lotfy

Lotfy is a lawyer and activist who was expelled from the Muslim Brotherhood when he founded the Egyptian Current Party. He writes the blog “al-Kawakby“.

I think [the election] is very important, because it will show us if there is a real willingness to finish this transition period, or a willingness [to] vote for a new dictatorship in Egypt.


[An election] is the best choice at this moment because the alternative is nil. We know well it will contain a lot problems and fights and blood. Maybe we will have a lot of bloodshed. But I think we have no choice.

This is a time when all people [should] lift up their narrow affiliations, their ideologies, and target some national goals and cooperate together to do it. I believe that Egypt needs something like this during the next five years.

Religion plays a great and huge role in the life of the Egyptian person. The statistics show that 98 per cent of Egyptians believe that religion has an effective role in their life. The state is not allowed to use the religion to control the people, but if the people agree to self-monitor their conscience on their deeds and behaviors, [and] the agent of this is religion – this is the ideal case.

SCAF doesn’t have the experience [on] how to be a dictatorship. So they are controlling the freedom of speech more than what Mubarak was doing. Once we switch the power to civilians, the freedom of speech will be better again.

They [the people] should have the chance to choose, and if we build a strong country and a good country which has a rule of law and is based on institutions, not persons, I will not care if the president is a Muslim, or Coptic, or a monkey. I don’t care.

Source: Al Jazeera