The Tahrir Square revolution was a largely spontaneous, bottom-up affair. It was not led by any particular party or leader. Parties are just now being formed. If elections for the Parliament are held in September, the only group in Egypt with a real party network ready to roll is the one that has been living underground and is now suddenly legal: the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
What do the liberals want? "They are only now forming parties," Friedman writes, "and trying to build networks that can reach the millions of traditional Egyptians living in the countryside and persuade them to vote for a reform agenda and not just: “Islam is the answer.” Some of these liberals seem afraid that too much party building could be bad. A liberal billionaire is "urging all the liberal groups to run under a single banner and not divide their vote." Before a party system even comes into being, then, there are "lesser-evil" arguments against pluralism on the premise that a Brotherhood triumph is an intolerable worst-case scenario, since it could guarantee an illiberal constitution. Another liberal pleads against an early election, arguing that the Brothers could only win 20% of the vote in a truly free election, but that that outcome depends on people knowing that alternatives exist.
These Egyptian anxieties are rooted in fundamental problems of electoral politics. How are voters to know what their choices are? How do candidates make themselves known to the masses? Political parties have developed throughout the world to facilitate this process, but it rankles for Friedman or his Egyptian interlocutors to suggest that party formation is an essential step in democratization that should take place before elections. We had elections in the U.S. before we had parties, but we also had a preemptive favorite for the presidency, George Washington, who was not suspected of harboring dictatorial ambitions. The issue for many Egyptians is the allegedly illiberal agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood. But there are obviously two sides, at least, to this story. Is it fair to the Brotherhood to delay the elections until liberals feel confident that the Brothers will lose? The desirability of a liberal victory is a separate consideration from the desirability of scheduling elections in a way that gives candidates time to present themselves to the entire electorate. At a certain point you have to decide that all the parties have had their chance and that if one wins and the others lose, they can't make the excuse that they didn't have enough time to overcome the winner's historic organizational advantage. But there should be a period of time during which candidates can be nominated, whether by party primaries or conventions or by mass meetings. If the Egyptians opt for a standardized ballot, candidates should have time to meet whatever criteria the government (in this case, the army) imposes for earning a spot on the ballot. Again, this can't and shouldn't be an indefinite process, and the object of it shouldn't be to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from winning or even to minimize its chances for victory. Electoral politics in a representative democracy requires a degree of good faith in all the participants, and the electoral process shouldn't be skewed against any party or candidate. If the Egyptian liberals can't countenance the Brotherhood winning, they may as well ask the army to ban the Brothers and then pretend to have a democratic election.
One wonders: were there a second powerful faction already in place, liberal or not, would there be such a clamor to delay the Egyptian elections? After all, in the United States it can be observed that many parties lag far behind the Republican and Democratic parties just as the Egyptian starter parties lag behind the Muslim Brotherhood. Given how many opinion polls report dissatisfaction with the two main American parties, don't the several third parties in this country have as much moral right to ask that the 2012 presidential and congressional elections be delayed until they achieve some sort of organizational or public-profile parity with the Democrats and GOP? What American wouldn't scoff at the notion? Wouldn't it only prove that those other parties are just losers? Americans could argue that their own third parties have all already had their chances to prove themselves and failed, while the Egyptian liberals need a chance to prove themselves. But if any sort of existing handicap justifies manipulating election schedules, if not election rules, to maximize opportunities for weaker parties, wouldn't any party anywhere laboring under a handicap based on massive disparities of organization, resources, name recognition, etc., be justified in demanding new rules to give them all the time (if not more of the resources) they need to make elections truly competitive? If you can't justify that, then you have to tell the Egyptian liberals that it'll be just too bad if they can't find a candidate or platform popular enough to beat the Brothers within a definite period of time. If, however, you do think that disparities in size and organization distort the election process anywhere, my advice for Americans is: physician, heal thyself.