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Egypt Is Holding Elections: Will They Matter?

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Tomorrow Egypt will hold hotly contested (but blatantly unfree) parliamentary elections. Policymakers and think tank analysts in Washington are paying close attention. Egypt, long the world's second largest recipient of U.S. aid, is the most populous Arab country and, unlike most its neighbors, has a peace treaty with Israel. The interest in the polls -- and growing concern over Egypt's stability -- is understandable.

But will what transpires on election day actually matter much? We can probably predict the results. The ruling National Democratic Party, of course, will win enough seats to have a veto-proof two-thirds majority. But the real story will be the Muslim Brotherhood's neutralization. With an unprecedented 88 seats in the outgoing parliament, the country's largest opposition group has been a major irritant for the regime. On Sunday, the group's numbers are expected to fall to a more manageable 20 to 30 seats. The liberal Wafd party, seen by much of the opposition as suspiciously close to the regime, will significantly increase its seat total and probably become the leader of the parliamentary opposition.

As unexciting as the results are likely to be, the elections are important for other reasons, particularly for what they tell us about the critical players in Egypt's uncertain future.

National Democratic Party. For the first time in recent memory, there are significant internal splits within the ruling coalition. As Islamist writer Ibrahim al-Houdaiby puts it, "there is no such thing as 'the regime' [anymore]." The disagreements revolve around presidential succession, with some party leaders favoring Gamal Mubarak to replace his ailing father, while others are searching for alternatives. These tensions have led to an unusually acrimonious candidate selection process within the NDP, with more than 3000 party members vying for 444 spots. To minimize internal squabbles, the NDP is running more than one candidate in more than 60 percent of districts. The contest, then, is between regime and opposition but also between the ruling party and itself.

Muslim Brotherhood. Over the past month, there have been increasing calls from within the Brotherhood to withdraw from the elections. A pro-boycott faction released a public statement disagreeing with the organization's decision to contest the polls. As I recently wrote here, mainstream Islamist groups are seriously questioning whether elections are the best mechanism for democratic change. In the 2007 Jordanian elections, the opposition Islamic Action Front (IAF) decided to participate against the wishes of many of its members. The result was the IAF's worst result ever, winning only 6 of 110 seats, due in part to unprecedented fraud. This strengthened pro-boycott voices, leading to the IAF's decision to boycott last month's parliamentary elections. Something similar may happen in Egypt, forcing Brotherhood supporters to consider alternative methods of contestation, including mass protest and civil disobedience.

Mohamed ElBaradei and the National Association for Change. The Muslim Brotherhood's ally, Nobel Prize winner and secularist politician, Mohamed El Baradei has been Egypt's most vocal supporter of a united opposition boycott. His call failed to persuade either the Brotherhood or the Wafd party. The Baradei campaign, despite gaining nearly 1 million signatures supporting its demands, appears increasingly aimless, again due partly to internal disagreements over strategy. Particularly dismal results on Sunday, or violence in the streets, may impress upon Baradei and his National Association for Change the need to re-assess and renew their efforts to translate support of a million Egyptians into sustained action on the ground. As we have seen in numerous cases, popular anger over election fraud can be a catalyst for a more confrontational opposition.

United States. On November 2nd, top National Security Council officials, including Dan Shapiro and Dennis Ross, met with the "Egypt working group," a bipartisan grouping of analysts and former officials who support increased U.S. pressure on Egypt. The Obama administration is reportedly reviewing its policy toward Egypt and seems to be putting greater emphasis on democracy. Rhetoric, as we learned during the Bush administration, can be helpful but becomes counterproductive absent the political will to change policy. Earlier this month, the State Department released a statement reiterated its "[support of] free and impartial elections in Egypt," while the U.S. ambassador to Egypt stated that "the United States remains committed to supporting free and fair elections in Egypt." Of course, the elections will be not be free, but they may prove even less free -- and perhaps more violent -- than observers expect. How, then, will the U.S. publicly, and privately, respond to Egypt's continued unwillingness to listen to or respect American admonitions?

A more aggressive U.S. response will not, by itself, be enough. But it will be critical. According to a 2008 study by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, international condemnation of regime repression is positively correlated with the success of nonviolent opposition activity. Opposition success, however, requires an opposition that is both unified and mobilized. On both counts, the Egyptian opposition has some ways to go.

Meanwhile, Guillermo O'Donnell and Philippe Schmitter, in their book Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, conclude that "there is no transition whose beginning is not the consequences -- direct or indirect -- of important divisions within the authoritarian regime itself." For this reason, the emerging divisions in the ruling NDP are worth watching closely. The elections (and post-election recriminations) are likely to exacerbate tensions between pro- and anti- Gamal camps.

In short, there are three moving parts in Egypt -- opposition, regime, and the United States -- and all of them are in flux. And what happens to each, in relation to the other, will determine the course Egypt takes in the troubled months and years ahead.