Over the weekend, AFP reported:
Egypt’s premier has said delaying a September parliamentary election would give parties more time to prepare, as the nation debates its political future with early polls seen likely to benefit Islamists.
“Postponing the election would give the chance for a larger number of new political parties to develop,” said Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, quoted by state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram on Sunday.
However, “whatever the time of the election, we will exert all efforts to make it a success,” Sharaf said, in answer to questions at an event hosted by tycoon and politician Naguib Sawiris.
His comments come at a time of mounting calls by liberal and secular groups to delay the election until a new constitution is drafted.
David Schenker of the Washington Institute explained to me via e-mail today: “It’s politically difficult for a US administration to be out front promoting a delay in what hopefully will be the first free and fair Egyptian elections ever. Still, a delay would be positive, giving the liberal opposition time to organize, and essentially catch up to the Islamists.”
Hosni Mubarak was quite successful in decimating opposition other than the Muslim Brotherhood, thereby giving the West a Hobson’s choice — him or the Muslim Brotherhood. But Schenker contends that the recent referendum on the constitution was a warning sign: “The liberals could use some more time to establish better infrastructure in Egypt’s hinterlands, where they performed poorly during the referendum.”
Khairi Abaza of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies echoes this sentiment. Having recently been in the region, he tells me, “The country is going through a debate that polarized the Egyptian politics. Legislative elections are due in September, then the elected parliament will choose 100 experts to draft the constitution. All political forces, with the exception of religious parties, want to agree on a constitution first, then delay the elections until all political forces have enough time to organize. For the pro-democracy parties and movements, it does not make any sense that the winner of the legislative elections will get a [lion’s] share in drafting the new constitution.”
In all of this, the role of the Egyptian military is critical. In a speech last week, Israeli ambassador Michael Oren emphasized the extent of military-to-military contacts with Egyptian officers and the degree to which Israel relies on Egypt’s military to maintain obligations under the Israel-Egypt treaty. Abaza shares this view, observing, “It is now up to the military to help in leveling the political ground by delaying the elections and supporting the idea of a constitution first.”
There was and remains legitimate concern about the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But the argument that removing Mubarak meant handing the government over to the Muslim Brotherhood has not proved correct. At least not yet. The United States and other Western powers would do well to concentrate on helping Egyptians to foster their civil, secular institutions rather than fanning hysteria that Egypt is on the brink of falling into the Islamist camp. The more time we devote to the latter, the greater chance it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.