Egypt’s new parliament could enjoy a popular mandate not seen for decades, bringing a new force to bear on the ruling military council and shaking up the balance of power in a country long ruled by autocrats.
With voters queuing to cast their ballots, the strong turnout in parliamentary elections that began on Monday underlined the political revival that has swept Egypt since former president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February.
The election promises to resuscitate a legislature that had acted as no more than a rubber stamp for Mubarak. Like his predecessors, the president who ruled for 30 years throttled political life and entrenched a system of one-man rule.
“Today, the ball goes back into the court of the political forces. Today, we are really starting our new regime,” Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian political analyst told Reuters, reflecting on turnout that exceeded the expectations of election officials.
“Power will be in the hands of the political forces. Real politics will be in the hands of the parliament,” he said.
The new parliament could add pressure on the ruling generals, who are already facing street protests by revolutionaries and a broader section of the public angry at their management of the post-Mubarak era.
Having assumed Mubarak’s sweeping powers, the generals have faced ever tougher public criticism for seeking to preserve military influence and privilege now that he has gone. They say their only concern is to steer Egypt safely towards democracy.
For now, the fact that the first day of voting went off peacefully may deflect some of the criticism. This month was Egypt’s most volatile since Mubarak was ousted: 42 people were killed in violence triggered by protests against the generals.
But suspicions about their transition plans are likely to persist, despite their denials that they want to keep power.
Come January, when the three-phase election for the lower house of parliament is over, any party or coalition with a substantial share of seats will want a say in government.
The man picked by the generals to head a new interim cabinet has himself said a new parliament could seek to replace him.
Prime Minister-designate Kamal Ganzouri, named by the council on Friday, said his term should last until July 1. By then, the generals say they will have handed power to a president expected to be elected in June.
“But some people say: “no if there are elections, it might bring a majority that will form a new government’. This is all possible,” Ganzouri, a 78-year-old who served as a prime minister under Mubarak, said in an interview on Sunday.
The comments appeared at odds with messages from the army council, one of whose members has said the new parliament would not be able to dismiss the government or pick new ministers.
The new parliament’s main task is to select a 100-member constituent assembly to write a constitution that will then be put to a referendum. Whether that can be done before the planned presidential election in June is hard to say. Nor is it clear if a new president will immediately dissolve parliament.
On paper, the generals will have the final say over all matters of state until the new president is installed.
Yet they may discover that the popular legitimacy enjoyed by the next assembly proves irresistible. Were they to ignore parliament the way Mubarak did, they might face a new wave of unrest from Egyptians who now know the power of the street.
The balance of power in Egypt will have to be renegotiated once the election is complete, even though some Egyptians believe the rules set for the vote were flawed and a limited timeframe gave an unfair advantage to established groups.
But if the elections continue to go smoothly, parliament may enjoy more legitimacy and credibility than revolutionaries camped out in Tahrir Square, though their protest movement is unlikely to disappear soon.
Nabil Abdul Fattah, a political analyst, said it was doubtful the new parliament would be able to remove the government, though it might have a say over certain ministries.
He foresaw even more complex political tussles, saying: “There is a chance of tension between parliament and Ganzouri, and the military council, and between all three of these and the revolutionary factions in the Egyptian squares.”