Egypt between the Left, Muslim Fundamentalism, and the Old Regime

The campaigns of the candidates for president of Egypt drew to a close at midnight on Sunday, in preparation for voting on Wednesday and Thursday.

On Sunday, al-Shuruq published an opinion poll on the election. In the poll, a third of Egyptians said their number one concern was security (i.e. law and order). 14.3 percent said their biggest concern was the economic crisis. 8.3 percent said it was education. Given that the economy contracted in 2011 and is only expected to grow 1.4% in 2012, it is quite remarkable that it ranks low as a concern. People are much more worried about an uptick in crime since the revolution.

This is the ranking of the major candidates. (MB means “Muslim Brotherhood”)

1. Undecided: 29.8% (down from 33.6%) in their last poll
2. Ahmad Shafiq 15.8% (slightly up from 15.2%) – Mubarak’s last PM, Air Force Gen.
3. Amr Moussa 15.1% (Slightly down from 16%) – Mubarak FM, Sec. Gen Arab League
4. Abdul Moneim Abou’l-Futouh 13.2% (way down from 20.8%) Liberal Muslim former MB
5. Hamdeen Sabahi 12.3% (way up from 5.7%) Nasserist leftist pan-Arabist
6. Muhammad Mursi 9.5% (up from 5.2%) Muslim Brotherhood

Unfortunately al-Shuruq did not seem to say anything about their methodology, but their last poll, published Thursday, was of 1,000 Egyptians and was scientifically weighted, with men, women, urban, rural, rich and poor in their proportion to the population. If this sample is the same size, then these numbers could be plus or minus 2 points or so.

The presidential election is very important because Egypt, even more than France, has a presidential system that subordinates parliament to the chief executive. The president can dismiss parliament, for instance. The military council will issue a constitutional amendment by fiat on Monday attempting to whittle down those powers, but likely the president will remain very strong.

The big news out of the poll is that the presidential debate between the two then front runners, Amr Moussa (secularist, former foreign minister) and Abdul Moneim Abou’l-Futuh (former Muslim Brother turned Muslim liberal) hurt both candidates, but especially Abou’l-Futuh.

Abou’l-Futuh is accused of trying to be all things to all people, speaking like a fundamentalist to the Salafis and like a liberal to the Coptic Christians and secularists. One Egyptian called him a “cocktail.” This apparent indecisiveness and chameleon-like behavior seemed to help him early on, as he gathered one constituency after another to become the front-runner, but the debate showed him in a poor light as a flip-flopper.

Moussa, in contrast, was only hurt slightly by the debate, but he wasn’t helped by it. As long-serving secretary-general of the Arab League, he has favored foreign policy initiatives that most Egyptians approve of. He did break with Mubarak [over a] decade ago, but not everyone forgives him for having been in the cabinet in the 1980s [and 1990s]. His rival Abou’l-Futouh says Moussa’s victory would be the victory of counter-revolution.

The fall of the front-runners created a new front-runner, former Air Force general and aeronautical engineer, Ahmad Shafiq, who wrote a dissertation on the military uses of Outer Space (someone should introduce him to Newt Gingrich). He is former minister of aviation and boasts of the good job he did with Cairo’s international airport. Shafiq is considered by many Egyptians, especially in the countryside, as the law and order candidate. Many voters dislike him because of his close association with the overthrown Mubarak regime. But those who feel that security has suffered since the revolution hope his would be a firm hand at the till. In Daqahliyyah a couple of days ago there was a village clash between his supporters and the Muslim Brotherhood, in which several people were wounded and a Muslim Brother was said to have been killed.

On Sunday it was reported that at a couple of news conferences in Cairo critical of Shafiq, his supporters came and broke them up, beating up critics. One event showcased charges that there was corruption at the Aviation Ministry while he headed it.

Also benefiting from Abou’l-Futouh’s plummet and Amr Moussa’s failure to get traction is leftist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi. Younger than several of the other candidates, Sabahi is typically described as a follower of the ideas of Gamal Abdel Nasser. He supports workers and the poor and promotes Arab socialism. He is highly critical of Israel of of what he calls US imperialism. He was one of the founders of the Kifaya! (Enough!) movement against Hosni Mubarak, which began with protests in solidarity with the second Intifada of the Palestinians in 2001 and continued with a huge protest against the Iraq War in 2003, then against the corrupt Egyptian elections of 2005. His numbers have doubled, putting him in the category of a plausible candidate if he continues to surge. He could not impossibly end up in the run-off election between the two front runners, which is envisioned if no one gets a clear majority in the first round.

And, improving somewhat but still not out of single digits is Muhammad Mursi, an unreconstructed Muslim Brother who says he wants to implement Islamic law in Egypt. Mursi did a Ph.D. in engineering at the University of Southern California and claims to have been an assistant professor there briefly. Although the Muslim Brotherhood has a strong party machine and can’t be counted out, Mursi labors under real disadvantages. Many Egyptians fear giving the Brotherhood the presidency, given their control of parliament. Many are angry at the Brotherhood for reneging on its pledge not to run a presidential candidate. Many feel that the Brotherhood has proved bad managers, bollixing up the process of appointing a committee to draft a new constitution and trying to stack it with their members of parliament (a move that the courts have struck down).

In al-Shuruq’s last poll, the Brotherhood suffered a ten point gender gap, with women disproportionately declining to support it, and many youth were not enthusiastic for it either.

That three of the four frontrunners in this poll are secularists, and that two have associations with the overthrown former regime, is quite remarkable, and suggests something of a backlash against the Muslim fundamentalist tide in the parliamentary elections of last fall. Some Egyptians tell me that they are fairly secular-minded and like having a good time, and they didn’t vote for puritanism when they voted for the Brotherhood. They just wanted to make sure the Mubarak regime couldn’t come back. Now they are worried about the tourist industry being scared away by the Brotherhood, and they are worried that their own beer parties are in danger, and they are worried about the rash of burglaries and increase in firearms. So these people want a secularist with political experience instead of more fundamentalism.

Polls are snapshots, and even if this one is accurate, it may not predict the results of the presidential election very well because of the small sample and the very large number of undecided voters. And, my conversations with Egyptians have hardly been scientific. But both the polling and the conversations suggest some real concerns of the public on the fronts of religion-state relations and concerns about security.

8 Responses

  1. “Abou’l-Futuh is accused of trying to be all things to all people, speaking like a fundamentalist to the Salafis and like a liberal to the Coptic Christians and secularists.”

    Sounds like he’s acclimated rather well to democratic politics.

    As for security over economy, this really is not surprising. The Egyptian people witnessed the near collapse of the state (and witnessed, from afar, what state collapse looked like in Iraq just a few years ago), thus have an intimate understanding of the importance of security. I think we in the West, comfortable in our powerful states, take this for granted, often assuming all people (like us) put a premium on the economy or on issues of identity and religion. But, in order for those things to matter, people must believe that they won’t get killed in the immediate future.

    Related to this, I find the relatively poor performance of the (unreconstructed) Muslim Brotherhood to be interesting. After all, haven’t the neocons warned us and many liberal academics assured us that Egyptians (like all Muslims!) are deeply, if not fanatically, religious and that “fundamentalist” parties would be the inevitable winners in the era of Arab democracy? Again, we westerners tend to impose our own obsessive identity politics on others, neglecting the possibility that our identities only matter when stability is a fait accompli.

  2. This is the best and clearest summary of various Egyptian presidential candidates that I have read. In view of the candidates trying to be all things to all people, there is a joke in Egyptian media referring to them as Ra’is al-Tawafuqi, or bipartisan presidents. There was a lovely cartoon in an Egyptian newspaper, with a woman having a scan to learn about the sex of her child. When both parents excitedly asked the doctor if it was a boy or a girl, the doctor replied: “It is bisexual.”
    There is another joke going round that as there are so many candidates will similar views the best option would be for Sabahi to be president on Saturdays, Musri on Sundays, Abou’l-Futouh on Mondays, Shafiq on Tuesdays, Moussa on Wednesdays, al-Shater on Thursdays, and then people could assemble in Tahrir Square every Friday to chant: “Down with all of them!”

  3. I thought it was a postive sign when the corrupt gas deal, brokered with Israel by the previous Egyptian band of criminals, was canceled. Maybe the Palestinians will get a better shake if Egyptian leaders are not receiving kickbacks from Israel.

  4. I am disappointed that they use the imported flawed method of “winner takes all”. A candidate who doesn’t win should be able to give his votes to whatever candidate he chooses to. The winner is the one who ends up with most votes.

    The current system makes all votes to non-winning candidates get wasted and in particular the system is apparently flawed where two MB candidates are splitting the MB votes. It’s a very bad system that guarantees that the elected candidate does not necessarily reflects the people’s wishes.

  5. The polls are contradicting each other quite a bit and are of questionable accuracy. I suspect that they are over reflecting the opinions of the upper class and thus making Ahmed Shafiq seem more popular than he actually is. This is not to say that he will not garner a decent share of the vote and hasn’t gained some traction but he is one of the most likely candidates to be having his likely percent overestimated.

    A few other speculations: the debate probably had little effect on opinions. It drew attention to the two supposed front runners however there is a tendency for people to hastily look for explanations as to why polls are fluctuating. One possibility is that the polls are flawed and unreliabe, another is that Sabahi’s rise has chipped away some of Amr Moussa and Aboul Fotouh’s supporters.

    One of the earlier indicators that Sabahi may have been being underestimated was the expatriate vote. Subtract the Saudi expatriates and the result was remarkably positive for Sabahi.

    There was an interesting poll from Brookings that contradicted an earlier one on the issue of whether Egyptians prefer the Turkish model or the Saudi one. The Brookings poll showed a greater level of support for the Turkish mode of relation between religion and state. Oddly, however, the media sources seemed mainly aware of the existence of the latter poll.

    It still seems that Moussa has the highest chances of winning but it is by no means assured that he is as invincible as originally thought. Sabahi has been gaining some endorsements and traction and thus has a chance, not necessarily that high but a chance nonethless, of reaching the run-off. The more vote splitting among his rivals the greater the chance of that happening. I think Aboul Fotouh will gain a lot more votes than Mursi despite Mursi’s seeming gains recently. Probably Mursi has pulled away some of the more conversative voters while Sabahi has attracted some of Aboul Fotouh’s revolutionary supporters. Still, it is very much in the realm of possibility that Aboul Fotouh will reach the run-off and win. Possibly has the second best chance after Moussa.

    For whatever reason Western polls seem to show higher results for Islamist candidates than Egyptian ones do.

    One topic that fails to receive enough attention is how the Muslim Brotherhood’s attraction to free market and neoliberal economic ideas affects their popularity compared to the more “leftist” views held by Sabahi, Khaled Ali, and some of the other candidates. This undoubtedly is major matter of debate in Egypt.

  6. Given the information that exists, it seems that there are a few things that have been helping Sabahi rise recently:

    1. Some rural areas turning in favor of his candidacy as a result of becoming aware of his platform and viewpoints; areas with desperate levels of poverty and land tenure problems especially.

    2. The increased prominence of his campaign, participation in interviews/events, and endorsements. He recently was endorsed by a Coptic organization, artists, youth movements, and some other groups.

    3. The changing of the tribal vote in areas like Upper Egypt. Seems that some of the tribes have switched their support from other candidates to Sabahi. Since they apparently often vote as a bloc this has a significant effect.

    Exactly how much this will affect his vote total remains to be seen, though.

  7. The only poll I’ve seen that puts Shafiq in the lead is one from the government’s Information and Decision Support Centre on May 19. It showed Shafiq leading with 12 percent, with Mussa in second place with 11 percent.

    These polls are easy to rig because the pollsters can concentrate on certain areas of Cairo like Heliopolis or Zamalek – that is if they even bothered to take a poll.

    Any poll that places Shafiq at the head of the pack is worthless. That would be the equivalent of voting for Mubarak. Even Egyptians who place the security situation as their prime concern will opt for Mussa as an establishment icon who won’t ruffle the feathers of army or the security forces.

    If the vote counting isn’t rigged, Shafiq will come in fifth trailing Amr Mousa who will place fourth. I’m hoping Hamdeen Sabahi manages to squeak in ahead of Mursi, the brotherhood candidate. Abou El Fotouh is most probably going to win the first round.

    You mention in your article that Mursi claims to have been an assistant professor in his campaign. The man exaggerated his resume – he was an assistant lecturer at California State University North Ridge. The brotherhood campaign has attempte to paint him as some kind of rocket scientist. I think if he makes it to the second round – this will definitely become an issue that sheds doubt on his credibility.

    I guarantee you one thing – if Shafiq wins – there will be massive discontent and everybody will assume that the vote was rigged by the Army and security forces – an Egyptian tradition that dates back to the 1920’s and was perfected by the military junta that has ruled Egypt since 1952. If the SCAF rigged the polls why not rig the vote?

    By the way, Hamdeen Sabahi and his followers have already threatened to take to the streets if Shafiq wins.

    Just take these polls for what they are – Statistics, Damned Egyptian Statistics and SCAF lies.

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