The spring of 2014 will be yet another in a restive line of transformative periods in the broader Middle East, for better or worse, as the region’s people continue their political overhaul by electing new presidents, parliaments, and constitution-drafting bodies. Eight Middle Eastern countries have elections scheduled in 2014, and most will proceed without external assistance from pro-democracy groups of any kind. Three U.S. allies in the broader Middle East are holding elections of particular and immediate importance: Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The American legacy in each of the latter two, for example, will be at stake when Afghans and Iraqis go to the polls in April 2014, but for now it appears that the American vision for pluralism and inclusiveness will not be defining features of this year’s elections. Below is a brief review of front-running candidates and what their election might mean for the region.
Following the July 2013 removal of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s military-led government rolled out a road map for elections by which Egyptians would elect a new parliament before electing a new president. In December 2013, however, interim President Adly Mansour yielded to lobbyists who wanted to have a strong leader in place before conducting parliamentary elections. As a result, Egyptians will likely vote for their president as early as April 2014, and the name on every Egyptian’s mind is Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. For his part, Sisi has remained aloof to the prospect of running for president, for now.
A referendum election on Egypt’s draft constitution took place on January 14 and 15, and that draft – which passed without challenge– stipulates that “[the] first of the elections should be begin no later than 90 days from the ratification of the constitution.” This means that within three months, Egyptians will likely be going to the polls to elect a president who will quickly forge alliances and consolidate power before (and if) deciding to open polls once again for parliamentary elections. Reuters quoted a professor of political science at Cairo University as saying that this sequence “would accelerate the process of bringing Sisi as head of state.” And considering Sisi’s crackdown on Islamist dissidents so far, it would not be surprising if President Sisi decides to delay or indefinitely suspend parliamentary elections amid security concerns.
Afghans will elect their next president on April 5, 2014, choosing from 11 candidates. Initially, 27 candidates submitted their names for the ballot, but the country’s Independent Election Committee (IEC) disqualified 16 of them almost immediately due to documentation requirements. Now greatly disenchanted with the U.S., Hamid Karzai is ineligible to run due to term limits. However, his older brother, Qayum Karzai, is in the running for the office, though an outlying candidate at best. According to a Tolo News Poll conducted in December 2013, the front running candidate with 27 percent is Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, head of the National Coalition of Afghanistan, trailed by Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former finance minister, who recorded 19 percent of voter support according to Tolo News.
Dr. Abdullah, who was defeated by Hamid Karzai in 2009 amidst a controversial runoff election, has come to represent the most viable democratic opposition to Karzai’s crony politics. With Karzai out of the picture this time around, Abdullah’s chances for winning a free and fair election are much improved. But Abdullah’s campaign promises to engage the Taliban, to revive the economy, and to tackle rampant corruption may prove unattainable, and he will eventually realize that his biggest challenge lay not in taking Karzai’s job but in dismantling the corrupt bureaucracy that Karzai allowed to flourish.
Amid increased sectarian tensions and a near-mobilization of government troops in Anbar Province, Iraq’s parliamentary elections are likely to be yet another major catalyst for violence in the country. The elections are scheduled for April 30, and they will determine the 328 members of Iraq’s Council of Representatives who will in turn elect the president and prime minister. Owing to a dubious Supreme Court decision made in August 2013, the incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will be eligible to seek a third term this year.
Despite Maliki’s control over Iraq’s Supreme Court and resulting advantage in a situation of controversy, Iraq’s first post-occupation elections are no foregone conclusion in Maliki’s favor. The BBC proposed one scenario for Maliki’s replacement is “a ‘Shia palace coup,’ where poor electoral results create an opening for the other Shia parties to replace him.” Maliki’s State of Law bloc suffered a terrible result in the April 2013 provincial elections, and other Shi’a parties have stepped up in opposition to Maliki, namely the Sadrist Movement and the Supreme Islamic Council led by Ammar al-Hakim. With Sunni political blocs hopelessly fragmented, it is likely that the country’s parliamentary elections on April 30 will pave the way for another Shi’i prime minister to take the reigns in Iraq. Whether or not the new prime minister is Maliki himself, the election of any Shi’i politician to the post will likely result in an even more violent spring in the land of the two rivers.
General Sisi made a name for himself in 2013 as a violent opponent of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and of political Islam in general. Dr. Abdullah is known for a hard anti-Taliban position, having been a close confidant of the Northern Alliance Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud. In Iraq, the re-election of Prime Minister Maliki, or the election of any Shi’i challenger to Maliki for that matter, will be symbolic affirmation of Sunni discontent, and it will further radicalize the militant Sunni population in Anbar Province and elsewhere.
In all three scenarios, albeit for different specific reasons, Sunni Islamists will not welcome these elections, much less the people they bring to power. However, in all three cases it will be an imperative of the new governments to somehow reconcile with said Islamists for the sake of their respective countries.
The same can be said for Bashar al-Asad, who recently signaled that he will likely “run” for re-election in 2014 as well.