EGYPT’S FIRST PARLIAMENTARY election since last winter’s revolution has gotten off to a promising start. Despite 10 days of turmoil in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, long and peaceful lines of voters appeared Monday and Tuesday in the capital and six other provinces — the first places to vote in a complex electoral process that will stretch across two dozen days between now and March. There were few reports of violence, and initial estimates suggested that turnout would far exceed that of the previous, rigged elections during the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak.
The full results of the vote won’t be known for some time, although well-organized Islamic parties, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, are widely expected to finish first. In the short term, the biggest winner will be Egypt’s ruling military council, which by staging an orderly and relatively free election in Cairo may have defused a new popular rebellion. Huge crowds that gathered in Tahrir Square last week and clashed bloodily with police and troops largely disappeared when the polls opened. Facing charges both at home and abroad that it was subverting a promised transition to democracy, the generals can now claim that the process is back on course.
That claim could still prove deceptive. In addition to the more than 20 days of voting still to be managed, a successful election will require the military council to respect its results — which it has not yet committed to doing. The generals last week named a new prime minister — a 78-year-old veteran of the Mubarak regime — and have not yet agreed that the elected parliament will form its own cabinet. They are also attempting to reverse a constitutional amendment, ratified by a popular vote just eight months ago, that gave the new parliament authority to select the members of a constitution-writing committee. Their aim, council chief Gen. Mohammed Hussein Tantawi baldly stated in a news conference Sunday, is to ensure that the military’s power remains unchallenged in the new political order, even after the promised handover of authority to an elected president in June.
A continuation of this week’s large and peaceful turnout in the next rounds of elections could check the military’s ambitions, by providing a popular mandate for the new parliament that is too strong to be ignored. The most likely result would be a coalition government of Islamic and secular forces, as has developed in Tunisia. But Gen. Tantawi and his council should also be getting a clear message from the Obama administration and Congress, which provide the Egyptian army with a large part of its funding. After resisting congressional efforts to condition that aid and responding weakly to the killing of dozens of protesters in Tahrir Square, the White House called last week for “the full transfer of power to a civilian government . . . as soon as possible.” An insistence on that formula will give Egypt its best chance at restoring stability and serve both the strategic interests and the values of the United States.