By pushing ahead with parliamentary elections despite a boycott from the opposition and a toxic political environment, Egypt’s President Mohammed Mursi continues on a path of confrontation that will undoubtedly bring Egypt more instability and economic decline.
Parliamentary elections should naturally be welcomed in the Arab world, but there is little reason to be inspired by the upcoming rounds of vote in Egypt starting on April 22nd. It comes at the heels of violent street clashes that left more than 70 people dead three weeks ago, and in the midst of growing divide around the new constitution. The document passed last December with a low turnout of 33%. It grants more power to the parliament but it falls short according to human rights organizations in protecting civil rights and individual freedoms.
Mursi’s decision to rush a date for holding the elections, undercuts efforts to pursue national dialogue and calm Egypt’s streets. Part of such dialogue was to discuss key constitutional amendments, forming a unity government as well as making changes to the elections law. Instead, and by shifting focus to elections, Mursi is seeking more power and legitimacy for his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, who are favored to take majority in the vote.
Egypt’s main opposition coalition, the Salvation Front, is boycotting the elections, as well as the country’s Christian minority who did not welcome Mursi’s early announcement, timing the vote during the Coptic Easter (27th). The boycott, and the growing rift between the president and his opponents, promise Egypt a period of instability in the months to come. Some provinces have threatened civil disobedience in response to the government policies.
Mursi’s bet on holding elections with or without the opposition, is driven by his willingness to accept some turmoil in the short term as long as the process gives him the legitimacy he needs to carry out his agenda later. This strategy is shortsighted and costly for the Egypt and its economy, and threatens more downturn in the long run.
In the seven months that Mursi has been president, Egypt’s economy has been stuck in a dark tunnel. The budget deficit spiked by 38% (13.1 billion), and the Egyptian pound saw its biggest fall of 6% against dollar. The foreign currency reserves fell from 36 billion at the start of the revolution to 13.6 billion today and unemployment reached 12.4 % (an increase of 3%) while the GDP growth fell from 5.0 to 0.5%. Foreign investments and tourism are fleeing the country, and holding elections in the height of the tourism season means longer and slower summer days in Giza.
Mursi’s government has been trying to get approved for a $4.8 billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund. An IMF delegation visited Egypt earlier this year and encouraged “programs with broad support” to address the country’s economic problems. According to Bloomberg news, Mursi is also “wooing the cash” of former Mubarak tycoons who left the country after the revolution in 2011. Those names include auto and banking investor Yassin Mansour and Hamed El Chiaty.
Some in the Egyptian leadership have been trying to attract Gulf donors or organize a donor conference hosted by the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) to pour money into Egypt’s struggling economy. Qatar is Mursi’s closest ally in the Gulf, and has provided $5 billion to Egypt’s Central bank. According to Reuters, other Gulf countries might be more reluctant to come to Egypt’s aid without an IMF loan approval.
The emphasis of the IMF on “broad support” programs, indicate a need for an all inclusive political process and efforts towards consensus building in Egypt. Mursi’s government and the majority of the opposition share the goal of taking serious economic reforms, and meeting the terms for the $4.8 billion loan. That includes cutting subsidies, and increasing taxes to target a deficit of almost 10% of the GDP.
Those measures, however, will be harder to take during an election period, making Mursi’s announcement all the more discouraging for getting an IMF approval or tackling Egypt’s economic challenges. Unless Egypt’s leadership abandons its partisan, power-driven politics, the most populated nation in Africa and the Middle East should brace for further turmoil and a more chaotic and murky transition to democracy.
(Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam)