Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Time is of the essence... or is it?

The Tunisian prime minister today announced that the country will postpone elections, which were slated to take place in July, until October.  This is the big news within the stability vs. political development debate that is taking place both in Tunisia and Egypt.

For an explanation of the elections timetable issue, read this article that I wrote around the time of Egypt's constitutional referendum.  New political forces including liberals and leftists were lobbying hard for the postponement of fall elections- no doubt, in order for new political forces to have time to establish parties and build constituencies.  Established political forces, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, was pushing quick elections as planned- likely in order to consolidate and institutionalize their current power advantage within Egyptian politics.  The second camp's official line is that power must be transfered asap from the military council to a civilian authority.

I tend to agree that logistically, holding free and fair elections in just a few months in Egypt is unrealistic.  After decades of opaque election processes and vote rigging, and the absence of an independent election commission for oversight purposes, Egypt has a lot of institutional groundwork to lay before September.  This is a really important point.... if individual and collective political rights are not constitutionalized before Egypt's first election, incumbents (or, in this case those powers allied with the SCAF) can manipulate elections to win and use the legitimate power of the post-election period to set the "rules of the political game," so to speak.  (This was a point highlighed by experts on democratic transition in last week's AUC conference.)  This can lead to a new (or old) type of authoritarianism.

Alternatively, if Egypt can manage to undertake political reform ahead of elections, the revolution will be protected from the notorious "hijacking" that everyone loves to talk about.  With democratic safeguards in Egypt, whichever political group comes to power can be voted out in the event of power abuse.

Anyway, enough about Egypt.  Tunisia has been in a similar deadlock.  It seems as though yesterday's decision did hinge upon logistical issues (although postponing elections "because conditions aren't right to hold a vote" is too ambiguous for my liking, if the PM did say it verbatim).  Will be reading more about the implications of this in the coming days....

And for a better explanation of these issues, read this post from The Arabist.  

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