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A tale of three elections

Feb 06,2018 - Last updated at Feb 06,2018

In a rare phenomenon, this year will see a number of legislative and presidential elections take place across the Arab world. Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and even Libya and Tunisia are all lining up to hold what can only be described as crucial elections. Interestingly, all of these countries are going through sensitive transitional phases and the outcome will determine future course, political survival and stability for each. 

It is worthwhile looking at three of these cases and attempt to make some predictions. One thing that Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt have in common is that they all are affected by regional events and cross-border developments. In addition, these elections will be taking place amid domestic uncertainties and, assuming that all goes well and the voting process is peaceful and uneventful, the outcome may result in more, rather than less, political disarray.

Lebanon: Overdue legislative elections will be held in May under a new and largely cumbersome and untested election law that is hybrid of proportional and closed lists, depending on the district. So much has been written about the law as a possible game changer for the traditional players and its effect on their actual share of deputies in the legislature. But the law does little to alter the sectarian balance of power that has emerged following the Lebanese Civil War and the Taif agreement that determined power sharing between Muslims and Christians. An attempt to widen the voter base by inviting Lebanese emigrants in Africa, South America, Europe and Australia to register has had modest results; about 90,000 actually registered out of an estimated 10 million Lebanese living abroad.

The reality today is that Lebanese politics remains deeply rooted in sectarianism. The figureheads who represent each sect remain unchanged. But one thing is evidently clear: No matter what happens at the polls come May, Hizbollah will continue to be the main deal maker and power broker. And with the current US campaign to weaken and discredit the Shiite party, Hizbollah and its armed wing — with its Iranian backer — will hold all of Lebanon hostage.

And as long as Hizbollah's agenda transcends Lebanese borders, Syria and Israel as distinct examples, the factors that could trigger political strife and violence, sectarian polarisation being chief among them, will remain active.

Egypt: The outcome of Egypt's presidential election next March is already known: Abdel Fattah Al Sisi will secure a second, four-year term, as president. But the real story is not about the definite winner, but about the chasing out of potential contenders in the most brazen manner making Sisi the sole candidate. It is difficult to accept the reasoning behind this strategy that has made the elections a one-man race.

Sisi's military background has shaped his style of leadership as president. Egypt has become a political wasteland; a monochrome reflection of a post-revolution, post-counter revolution, business-as-usual reality. While economic indicators have improved, Egyptians are not better off today than they were on the eve of the January 25, 2011 uprising. Even worse, the human rights and civil liberties records today are dismal to say the least.

Even those supporting Sisi believe the orchestration of the upcoming elections is embarrassing and difficult to defend. How far will the call by major parties, civil society organisations and political figures to boycott the elections affect voter turnout remains to be seen. But one thing is true: There was no need to discredit the electoral process in that manner. Sisi may have inadvertently reset the country's priorities and deflected attention from his own economic agenda — controversial as it is. His second term will be dominated by calls for serious political reforms and questions about his authoritarian leadership.

Iraq: Also in May Iraq will hold legislative elections that come in the wake of the country's costly victory over Daesh. Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi has promised a new beginning and an all-inclusive political process. But there are fears that not much will change and that the Sunni minority will repeat the 2005 elections' script by boycotting the polls. Again sectarian politics dominates the country with the Popular Mobilisation Units, predominantly Shiite, casting a large shadow over the political landscape. Abadi's own list is not as inclusive as he claimed and his row with former Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, who is the head of the Iran backed Al Dawa Party, will add further cracks to the Shiite voter block.

The timing for the elections is not ideal. Million of Iraqis, mostly Sunnis, remain displaced and plans to repatriate them to their provinces, which are in desperate need of reconstruction, have stalled. The rift with the Kurds and disputes over oil-rich territory has complicated matters. In addition, most Iraqis now believe that the system itself is failing and has contributed to a corrupt political environment. Meanwhile, there is a growing feeling among Iraqis that elections only make things worse and bring the country closer to the brink.



Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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