Egypt’s Presidential Election: Between Revolution and Counter-Revolution

The results of the Egyptian presidential election, held on Wednesday and Thursday, won’t be announced until Monday, say official sources in the government. In contrast, the High Electoral Commission is indicating that it will announce the results as soon as they are definitively known. Egypt is on a precipice between a relatively smooth transition and a lot of social turmoil, depending on who the front runners are.

But news is coming in as the ballots are being counted, and as I write on Friday, the race is too close to call. For profiles of the candidates, see my report earlier this week

Egyptian Voters at Polling Station (Muqattam), May 24, 2012

Abdel Moneim Abou’l-Futouh, the “Muslim liberal” candidate who had broken with the Muslim Brotherhood, can be counted out. He has conceded, and has thrown his support to the Muslim Brotherhood leader, Muhammad Mursi. He had been favored to win the election only two or three weeks ago, but his attempt to make everyone from liberals to hard line Salafi fundamentalists happy badly damaged him, since it raised the question as to what his real agenda was. I suspect that the support he garnered from some Salafi leaders, who urged their followers to vote for him instead of for Mursi, also scared away a lot of the leftists and liberals who had considered voting for him.

Abou’l-Futouh also had the effect of splitting the Muslim fundamentalist vote, depriving Mursi of a clear victory and damaging the Brotherhood’s image as a party machine juggernaut.

Early returns also suggest that another possible front-runner, Amr Moussa (former foreign minister and former head of the Arab League), has also faded and looks unlikely to be in the run-off. His constituency deserted him in favor of Ahmad Shafiq.

As I write it is mid-afternoon on Friday, and there is a reported surge for the leftist candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi. He is now said to be in second place, ahead of former Aviation Minister and Air Force General Ahmad Shafiq. Sabahi won big in Alexandria, which had been trending fundamentalist, but which is a modern Mediterranean port city with a big, organized working class, who appear to have swung to him (perhaps along with a lot of government workers and the secular middle class, along with committed revolutionaries). Al-Nil television’s correspondent is reporting as I speak that Sabahi also took Port Said, a smaller port city.

If Sabahi can maintain his narrow lead over Ahmad Shafiq, the resulting run-off will give Egyptians a choice between a leftist secularist and a Muslim fundamentalist, both of them from the opposition to Mubarak.

If Shafiq can pull back ahead of Sabahi, the resulting election would be a huge catastrophe for Egypt.

If Egyptians have to decide between Mursi and Shafiq, they’ll have a stark choice. They could give the Muslim Brotherhood two of the major branches of civilian government and risk a swift move to Islamic law and one-party dominance. They could split the ticket and support the secular Shafiq, who is very much a creature of the old regime and of the Egyptian military. In some ways he would resurrect Mubarak’s policies but will face new limitations in presidential rule by fiat. He speaks warmly of Mubarak, and would be a highly polarizing figure who would certainly provoke a whole new round of big demonstrations on the part of the New Left youth and perhaps also Muslim fundamentalists. He has ominously promised to crack down hard on “destructive demonstrations.” Although the Western politicians and business classes might favor Shafiq for surface reasons, in fact they’d be buying a whole lot of trouble if they backed him.

A Mursi-Shafiq contest would certainly result in riots and fistfights all over the country, and if Shafiq won it would likely throw the country into substantial instability (an ironic outcome since the people voting for Shafiq in the big cities and the countryside are looking for a law and order candidate who can fight a slight rise in crime). It seems to me that the resulting demonstrations and unrest would risk further damaging Egypt’s economy.

A Mursi-Sabahi contest, in contrast, will be much smoother, though still contentious. Sabahi is probably acceptable to most of the New Left revolutionaries, though they were ambivalent about him because of his Nasserist commitments (raising questions about his dedication to parliamentary democracy). Still, he was a steadfast foe of Mubarak, and was involved in the key Kifaya! (enough) movement of 2004 and after, which laid the foundations for the revolution. As a critic of imperialism and of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, he might have some support from some of the Muslim fundamentalists who focus on that issue. And his insistence on social justice obviously has wide appeal across ideological groups.

Egyptian voters in a Mursi-Sabahi match-up would have a real choice between a pluralistic system and a return to virtually one-party rule. They’d have a choice between Muslim Brotherhood emphasis on private property/Turkish-style Neoliberalism and a more socialist policy (a la Hollande in France, perhaps). And in any case, both candidates would have a claim on opposition to the old Mubarak regime, and so an extreme polarization and “a further revolution”, as promised by the New Left, could be avoided.

The final results will therefore be highly consequential for Egypt, and for US and Israeli foreign policy. Those rushing to declare the two run-off winners today, though, are probably jumping the gun, given the very small spread among the front-runners after Mursi.

15 Responses

  1. Seems, though, from early reports dribbling out that voters rejected A. Moussa. Where will his supporters turn during the 2nd round?

  2. Great analysis! Looking past the horserace dimension, in its totality this race reflects an highly involved polity that is at least well-informed about what the various candidates stand for and what is now at stake.

    It also reminds me that the drama will not stop once the dust settles, smooth or rocky. Democracy is an ongoing process, the forces of darkness are forever looming and looking for an opportunity, and without full and ongoing participation the world can easily begin spinning in reverse.

  3. I am curious as to the probability of a rigged election. Is there any information about such an event?

    • The election observers I follow say that the vote was largely free and fair. There are about 500 police dossiers on irregularities, mostly campaigning outside voting booths, but that is a small number for a country of some 86 million people.

  4. Seems that the unexpectedly low turnout helped both Mursi and Shafiq a lot. Both of them had support bases that were easily mobilized and bent on voting. Sabahi, Aboul Fotouh, and Moussa also had their own supporters but they all of them would probably have benefited from the other half of the electorate turning out. This section of the population would contain more supporters of those three. Ironically, the aggressive pushing of the Shafiq campaign may have given Mursi his best possible chance of gaining the presidency, even though Shafiqists kept arguing their goal was to stop this scenario. Mursi’s chances against Sabahi and Aboul Fotouh were doubtful but he stands a better chance against Shafiq. If it comes down to Mursi and Shafiq, low turnout and elevated levels of electoral fraud, are quite possible. Such a matchup could see voting restricted mainly to Brotherhood members, those with bureaucratic ties, businessmen with inside connections, Salafists, and those focusing too much on the issue of security. It is quite uncertain whether Shafiq would be able to serve a full term if he does gain the presidency.

  5. Thanks for the insight into the candidates running and the sort of inside scoop on what’s going on politically in Egypt.
    The environment is getting harder to make a living in and things like the delta of the Nile are vulnerable to global warming while the big players like the EU and those meeting in Bonn on the Climate aren’t getting serious about really stopping it;
    Our US here is totally wrapped up in economic matters oil..
    I’m hoping the Arab Spring isn’t undone but rather leads to change which starts and evolves into an environmental unity.
    One that connects the health of Earth to that of all world peoples.
    Otherwise no people will be able to vote and make change too because runaway global warming will become unstoppable.

  6. It is clear that Mursi and Aboul Fotouh are going to hold some rallies together and they are going to win the run-off round easily. From the early projection that i am looking at (reuters news) Mursi has about 25%, Shafiq 23% and Abul Fotouh about 19%. This gives Mursi a very good reservoir of voters for the second round.

    On the other hand, our US foreign policy vis-a-vis the Middle East and the region is totally up in the air. We need a new one because the old one aint’ gonna cut it anymore. Moreover, it looks like a new alliance is being forged between Egypt and Turkey (all the nice speeches of Mursi toward Turkey and Erdogan), which will totally reshape the balance of power in the region.

    • Many secular liberals voted for Aboul Fotouh, and some voted for him simply because he looked likely to win. I think his supporters could go either way

      • Every political or sociological study shows us that political socialization occurs early in life. For this generation of Egyptian voters, their strongest and most lasting political socialization is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood movement of the 1980s, 90s and even before. So, this block ideologically is the strongest and the most dominant one and will be for a while. It is just natural

        Moreover, the notion of secular liberal vs. non-secular conservative in Muslim countries does not mean what we wanted it to mean. What’s secularism in Egypt or Tunisia or Algeria? Completely separating politics and religion? No, they refuse that meaning and in overwhelming number (check the world survey value for hard data on that) (I live in the bible belt and they also hate the concept of secularism). Do they want an Islamic state/republic? Here their answers are all over the place and they pretty much depend on the definition of an Islamic state (again, check the WSV for hard data). Moreover, all these folks tend to equate secularism with the old regime, which means torture and dictatorship.

        In sum, party identification is hard to determine in the early phases of democratization, but not political socialization. That usually happens way early in life and we can see those patterns well represented in the last electoral cycles.

  7. The anticipated Mursi-Fotouh campaign alliance bodes well for the prospect of seeing the Muslim Brotherhood acquire dramatic influence in a projected Egyptian government.

    That scenario could result in a very postive by-product for Hamas in Gaza.

    • I hope sabahi wins. Because Egypt need a counterweight to the MB. Generally speaking. I dare the next president since egypt is in a mess.

  8. Man, if only the u.s. could somehow influence the leadership in Egypt, but that would be out of character wouldn’t it?

  9. Dear Professor Cole

    Most Newspapers seem to say that the run off will be between Morsi and Shafiq and that this is a nightmare scenario.

    link to washingtonpost.com

    A victory for either of them looks like a recipe for civil disturbance on a large scale.

    Are we likely to see a rerun of the Syria and Libya scenario with arms being smuggled to insurgents to fight the Army? 10,000 missing MANPADS is a rather nasty factor in the region. Still, if the Wahabis leave Syria and go to Egypt this may be a benefit.

    Will further disturbances impede the delivery of an IMF loan to bale out the economy if disturbances continue to kill the tourist trade?

    How are food supplies holding up?

    Nasty business this democracy and plebiscite exercise.

    • There are complaints about a shortage of gasoline and kerosene/ paraffin, but there is nothing in the newspapers or in people’s conversation in Cairo about a food shortage.

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