The New York Times Talks to IRI’s Scott Mastic About Egypt’s Elections

After Second Day of Voting in Egypt, Islamists Offer Challenge to Generals
The New York Times
By David D. Kirkpatrick

CAIRO — Poised to dominate Egypt’s first parliamentary elections since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party laid down a new challenge to the authority of Egypt’s interim military rulers on Tuesday, even before polls had closed on the second day of voting.

In an interview, Essam el-Erian, a leader of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, argued that the unexpectedly high turnout for the parliamentary elections indicated a popular demand for more civilian control.

Although a top general on the ruling military council said as recently as last weekend that the council would continue to choose the prime minister even after Parliament was formed, Mr. Erian argued that the turnout showed that voters wanted the new Parliament’s majority, and not the generals, to have that power, just as in other parliamentary systems.

“Millions of Egyptians voted because they wanted a strong, democratic Parliament,” Mr. Erian said.

“Any government has to have a vote of confidence from the Parliament,” he added. “That is a basic principle, even if it is not written into the law.”

His assertion is an early signal that the Brotherhood intends to use the seats it may gain in Parliament to push to limit military rule, even though it declined to join its liberal rivals in several days of street protests last week aimed at the same goal.

The Brotherhood’s position is the latest twist in a battle between the military council that took over after Mr. Mubarak’s ouster and those demanding the handover of power to civilians. The prime minister has served at the pleasure of the military council since Mr. Mubarak’s exit, and the military’s latest appointment, Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri, has made it clear that he, too, reports to the generals.

Also at stake in the tug of war between the generals and their critics over choosing the prime minister is influence over the drafting of a new constitution.

The generals have already attempted to put their own stamp on the document, moving to provide themselves with permanent political powers and protection from civilian scrutiny. But the Brotherhood, the Islamist group that is Egypt’s strongest political force, also wants to exert its influence through Parliament.

With its party positioned to dominate the elections, the Brotherhood stayed on the sidelines of a wave of protests against military rule last week, in part for fear the tumult could upset the vote.

Mr. Erian made his comments in an interview in the Freedom and Justice Party’s dingy headquarters in Cairo, where he had gathered with other party leaders to await news from the polls and an atmosphere of barely checked celebration prevailed.

Voting continued to go smoothly Tuesday, defying predictions of chaos and violence. Though ballot boxes were left overnight in the polling places, there were no reports of sabotage Tuesday. State-run news organizations reported estimates that turnout was above 70 percent.

The chance to cast a free vote appeared to drain some of the energy and crowds from a protest in Tahrir Square, where clashes between protesters and street vendors broke out Tuesday night. Witnesses reported gunshots and a few gasoline bombs, though it was unclear if anyone was hurt.

Election observers marveled that in the middle of what had seemed last week to be a second revolution, the country had suddenly quieted down enough to open the polls.

“There is a distinct possibility that you will have a representative Parliament, and I would have said something different a few days ago,” said Les Campbell, regional director for the National Democratic Institute, one of a half-dozen international groups allowed for the first time to monitor Egyptian voting.

The voting on Monday and Tuesday took place in nine of Egypt’s 27 governorates and included the major cities of Cairo and Alexandria. The results of a few races between individual candidates could be released by Wednesday. Others will go to runoff votes next week.

Full results for the lower house will not be announced until January, after two more rounds of voting in different regions of the country. Voting for the upper house will take place between January and March.

Scott Mastic of the International Republican Institute, another election observer, said much remained uncertain, including how the transportation and counting of the first ballots will be handled.

Election monitors have also raised questions about how the disclosure of a few results might influence later voting, or even create false expectations that could cast doubts about the final results.

Still, Mr. Mastic said, given Egypt’s history of fraudulent polls and dismal expectations for these elections, the vote so far has been “historic.”

Mayy el Sheikh contributed reporting from Cairo, and Liam Stack from Alexandria, Egypt.

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