3 Lessons from Egypt's First Day of Voting

If Washington is going to be good to its word in supporting change in Egypt, policymakers are going to have to live with an influential Muslim Brotherhood

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A man shows his ink stained finger after casting his vote at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Cairo / Reuters

After a week of demonstrations, violence, and counterdemonstrations, Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections are underway. So far so good. There are sporadic reports of tension at polling places outside the big cities, but there hasn't been any violence. As the day has gone on the Egyptian people's enthusiasm for the election seems to have grown. My friends on the ground say that lines at polling stations are long and voting has been extended to 9:00pm (2:00pm EST). Like the national party that unfolded in Tahrir Square on February 11th and 12th, what we are observing today is the very best of Egypt.

Even at this early stage, it is possible to draw a few important conclusions:

  • The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is correct. Tahrir Square is not Egypt. There is a silent majority that supports the military's approach to Egypt's transition. That said, the people who turned out in Tahrir Square last week to demand change and make their voices heard should not be subject to the repression of the Egyptian state just because they happen to disagree with its current leadership. This is a hallmark of democratic politics.

  • Today's elections are a strong riposte to those in Washington and elsewhere who have begun to bemoan the downfall of President Mubarak. I've heard the argument that "Egyptians want stability and the army should give them what they want" a few too many times. Clearly, large numbers of Egyptians have put their trust in the military to oversee a transition, but by their large turnout today, these same Egyptians clearly want a new kind of politics and political system.

  • The Muslim Brotherhood is, indeed, the most well-organized, resourced, and politically savvy political movement in Egypt. The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party is going to reap the rewards of these factors.

Of course, all the good news has to do with process. After last week -- which for a time put the polling in doubt -- it is hard not to be inspired by the determination of Egyptians to vote.

From an American policy perspective, the outcome may not be as inspiring as the process. Word on the street is that the Muslim Brotherhood, which until last week had vowed that it would only seek 30 to 35 percent of the seats in the People's Assembly, may be going for broke and seeking to accumulate as many seats in the parliament as possible.

Needless to say, a bigger than expected return for the Muslim Brotherhood in a parliament that has the legitimacy of being popularly elected is going to put pressure on the U.S.-Egypt relationship because the Brothers simply do not share Washington's view of the region and least of all its interests. Indeed, there is likely to be a fair amount of hand-wringing around the Beltway should the Brothers do well. This is not surprising given the tenor of the commentary regarding the Brotherhood in Washington over the last nine months, but the fact remains that nothing the United States can do about it. If Washington is going to be good to its word in supporting change in Egypt, policymakers are going to have to live with an influential Muslim Brotherhood.

The Democracy Report Regardless of what the outcome may be, the U.S.-Egypt relationship is going to change. The strategic relationship of the Mubarak era was based in large part on the Egyptian president's willingness to define Egypt's national interests in defiance of overwhelming public sentiment. Not only are today's polls the first phase in what will be historic changes in Egypt's domestic politics, but also its foreign policy.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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