Is the Egyptian 2010s a Replay of the American 1960s?

It now seems clear that the run-off in the Egyptian presidential election will be between Muhammad Mursi of the Freedom and Justice Party (Muslim Brotherhood) and Gen. Ahmad Shafiq, former Aviation Minister in the Mubarak government and the deposed dictator’s last prime minister. This outcome is a polarizing one and promises a rocky road ahead for Egypt’s attempt to transition to democracy. Shafiq was at some points on Friday in the third place, but he pulled ahead later in the day as Cairo and some rural votes came in.

Although the official results won’t be announced until Monday, the results from the local polling stations are unlikely to change the outcome, since all the ballots by now have been counted and reported out.

The outcome shows a strong “law and order” desire on the part of the Egyptian electorate. In a poll that I discussed last Monday, respondents put security issues way ahead of economic ones. Shafiq is such a law and order candidate, and the Brotherhood’s Muhammad Mursi is promising more Islamic law, which Egyptians tend to interpret as a way to reign in hooliganism. The disruptions of the 2011 revolution, the subsequent poor morale among the police, the increase in firearms availability, and the release by the Mubarak government in its last days of thousands of criminals from prison, have all contributed to a mild uptick in crime. Egypt is still safer than most Western capitals, but people here had been living under a police state where there was very little crime and few public disturbances, and so it seems to them as though there is a crime wave. I live in the Detroit area, so I laugh at their supposed ‘crime wave,’ but to them it is a problem.

Ironically, the preference for a law and order candidate after a period of social upheaval in Egypt mirrors what happened in the United States in the 1960s and after. The anti-war protests of the counter-culture and the damage done Southern Democrats by the Civil Rights movement contributed to President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to step down (a la Mubarak). But this mainly youthful upheaval was followed by the victories of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and the rise of the Religious Right thereafter in national politics. Just as American leftist radicals like David Horowitz gradually allied with the right wing of the Republican Party and with the Evangelicals, so novelist Alaa al-Aswany, a supporter of the 2011 revolution, has just come out for the Muslim Brotherhood in the runoff elections. Many on the revolutionary left will just be alienated, but some will decide that anything is better than a Mubarak clone.

Over a fifth of the votes went to a pro-labor, leftist candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi. Some of his constituency probably also voted for liberal Muslim candidate Abdel Moneim Abou’l-Futouh, and it is not impossible that in an American-style two-party primary contest, Sabahi would have been one of the two front-runners. But the Egyptian system is more like the French, with multiple candidates who span the political spectrum. In Egypt we have the opposite of what just happened in France, where the extreme right first stole votes away from the right wing Nicolas Sarkozy, and then largely declined to rally around him in the run-offs. In Egypt, the centrist Abou’l-Futouh probably stole votes from leftist Sabahi, allowing a secular right wing candidate and a religious right wing candidate into the run-offs.

Egyptians I’ve talked to are mostly philosophical about this outcome, which is probably the worst possible one for the stability of the country. They point out that the election appears to have been fair and transparent, and that the ballot box will give legitimacy to whoever wins. They also say that after all there will be another election in four years, and if whoever wins has done a poor job, the electorate will throw the rascals out. The hold of fear and dictatorship, they say, has been permanently broken. And if the government starts putting on airs and veering toward authoritarianism before the four years is up, they say, the people will just go en masse to Tahrir Square and cause another government to fall. I am struck by the self-confidence of the Egyptians and their general lack of fear of the future, their conviction that they can handle whatever situation arises.

The American political elite, very attentive to big money in politics and to the Israel lobbies, almost certainly is pulling for Shafiq to win. Mursi and the Brotherhood have a long history of hostility to Israel, and talk about revising the Camp David Peace Accord of 1979. (Camp David was supposed to lead to a resolution of the Palestinians’ problems but instead became a separate peace for Egypt and a means whereby the Israelis could further displace and expropriate the Palestinians, denying them any citizenship in a state and keeping them as riffraff who can be victimized at will. In this respect, a Brotherhood government in Egypt that stood up for the Palestinians would be a positive step).

The Americans will also be concerned about Iran and oil. As for oil, ten percent of the world supply goes through Egypt’s Suez Canal. Neither a Mursi nor a Shafiq government will likely affect the functioning of the Suez.

Egypt under either is likely to be less hawkish against Iran, but the way the Bahrain and Syria crises have unfolded makes it unlikely that the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood will want to get too cozy with the Shiite ayatollahs. (The Brotherhood supports the Syrian uprising, which Iran opposes. The Brotherhood is close to the Gulf oil monarchies that are helping crush the Shiite protesters in Bahrain, whom Iran favors). In fact, Sunni authorities have been cracking down on the handful of Egyptian Shiites who have recently dared try to open places of worship. Shafiq will presumably be on much the same page with the Pentagon on security issues.

The outcome of the election will mainly affect Egypt’s domestic situation. But it could work in unexpected ways. If the Brotherhood wins, they will become the Establishment, and the Egyptian youth may swing further to the secular left in reaction. (Some young women are already abandoning their headscarves to protest Brotherhood dominance of parliament).

The important questions for Egypt are probably not the ones the outside world is thinking about. Someone at the top needs to root out the culture of corruption in the government and business here, if they are ever to get any substantial foreign investment. The Muslim fundamentalists are known for being against corruption, but it isn’t clear that they can or will deliver on a national scale, as happened in Turkey.

And the Egyptians need to rework their industrial system so as to make things like light textiles at a quality and price that will allow them to increase sales. Heavier industry must also be further developed.

The Egyptian state needs to invest in infrastructure and education. You can’t have a prosperous modern country if your sidewalks are all broken and used mainly as parking lots or bathrooms, if you have few traffic signals or pedestrian crosswalks, and if you have 2000 students in a lecture course and the professor is paid $60 a month.

To that end, the state needs to tax the Egyptian wealthy and begin having money in its budget other than foreign aid or rents like the Suez Canal tolls and the gas and oil money (which isn’t that much).

Frankly, neither Mursi nor Shafiq strikes me as a Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey’s fabulously successful prime minister who has helped bring that country into the G-20). But someone should tell them that Egypt has a choice between becoming Bangladesh or becoming Turkey — and corruption, foreign investment, reformed industry and education have to be addressed if it wants to achieve its potential.
Also, pay attention to the sidewalks and traffic crosswalks. People shouldn’t have to risk their lives to get to the other side of the road, and preventing foot traffic down town didn’t work to save the state anyway.

Posted in Egypt | 11 Responses | Print |

11 Responses

  1. “But someone should tell them that Egypt has a choice between becoming Bangladesh or becoming Turkey”

    Actually Bangladesh is doing quite well these days. Its politics is still unstable and often violent but its economy is doing quite well these day. Instead of Bangladesh, I’d choose Pakistan as the exemplar of a failing Muslim state.

  2. Partly this result is due to an inappropriate election system. Probably many (most?) of the people who voted for Sabahi and for the liberal Muslim candidate would have preferred either of these to the two who came out on top. Some form of preference voting, in which the voters rank the candidates in order of preference, or just vote “yes” for those candidates they approve of and “no” for those they don’t would have given more satisfactory results.

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    The second of these is probably the simplest to implement and from a voting theory point of view (Arrow’s theorem) probably the one least likely to produce problematic results. All of these systems have the advantage that a runoff would almost certainly not be required. In approval voting, for example, the candidate who got the most “yes” votes would win…an exact tie is very improbable.

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  3. Dear Professor Cole

    A conversation with some Egyptian Christians at a trade fair in Germany last year revealed their degree of concern at events in Egypt.

    Given that thye are said to have voted largely for the fulul Shafiq is there a danger of an outbreak of religous strife between the Xtians and the Muslims if Shafiq wins.

    This seems to a regular occurrence in Cairo and Alexandria.

    If the Xtians are seen to have handed the baton to the blowback Shafiq will the Left and the MB gang up on them?

    What might the effect of this dislocation be on the Egyptian economy?

    A high point of my first visit to Cairo was to be led through the police lines between the Copts and the Muslims to go and see the Coptic Churches and the Synagogue in southern Cairo.

  4. Good luck to the electorate and even if it’s a messy outcome, it will be all to the good as far as starting to build something resembling a civil society.

    Regarding Camp David: It was supposed to extend to a resolution of the Israel-Palestine question and it failed on that count. But that was a secondary concern for Sadat, who did not pursue his peace with Israel on behalf of the Palestinians; his primary interest was in regaining the Sinai. And the price he paid was a peace treaty.

    I suppose Mursi will have to act like a grown-up if elected – or so one can hope. Some of his statements – he describes Israelis themselves as “vampires and draculas,”
    according to the NYTimes (link to That’s not an assessment based upon a state-based analysis of Egyptian interests; it’s a statement dripping with medieval ignorance and prejudice. One must hope it’s only a phase. Still, there is reason for concern. We shall see..

    • Oh, and what a price Sadat paid…

      I think it was our our SOS George Ball who described CD as a huge real estate transaction, where the US paid the Israelis billions of dollars (in terms of immediate money, credits and ongoing aid), for a huge amount of desert, and then turned around and paid the Egyptians billions more to accept it. Money the US has paid due to CD has continued, and over the years has become truly breathtaking: hundreds of billions.

      Peace by checkbook, according to a tradition that has *somehow* established itself as the US contribution to middle eastern peace. Could also be seen as a shrewd example of a world class shake-down.

      • No Travis, I think you’re wrong. Whatever imperfections you say exist in the Camp David treaty, Egypt & Israel have not since returned to shooting wars. Forget the screeching of the lunatics. Even a cold peace is preferable to a hot war.

        Any day of the week and 2x on Sunday.

  5. Dear Professor Cole

    Al Jazeera reports the start of the shenannigans.

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    “We will present an appeal on behalf of candidate Hamdeen Sabahi … to the presidential electoral committee, citing a series of irregularities … that have affected the outcome of the first round,” lawyer Essam El-Islamboly told the Reuters news agency.

    Islamboly said the appeal, to be lodged on Sunday or Monday at the latest, would ask the electoral committee to suspend the election until the prosecutor-general checks a claim by a police officer that the Interior Ministry had illegally assigned 900,000 votes to Shafiq.

    He said Sabahi also wanted the election halted until the constitutional court rules on the validity of an April decision
    by the electoral committee to disqualify Shafiq.

    The committee swiftly lifted its ban on Shafiq, but referred a new law barring top Mubarak-era officials from the race to the constitutional court.”

    The fat would seem to be in the fire, and the credibility of the elections to be in doubt. Are we surprised??

  6. “…..a Brotherhood government in Egypt that stood up for the Palestinians would be a positive step.”

    Agreed. Anwar Sadat was never a hero in mainstream Palestinian society; in fact, he was much more respected by the Israeli public. The Camp David Accords did little or nothing to improve the welfare of Palestinians.

    Additionally, part of the quid pro quo for the Arab states diplomatic support of the U.N. coalition against Saddam Hussein in 2003 was the promise of U.S. assistance in the establishment of a Palestinian state – this never materialized.

    The U.S. and Egyptian governments’ failure to apply pressure on Israel to enforce human rights and grant autonomy to Palestinians has led to a political stalemate in which Palestinian citizens of Israel and West Bank Arabs are deprived of any significant degree of basic civil rights. Further, as confirmed in Wikileaks-released leaked diplomatic cables between Israel and the United States, the Israeli government has admittedly attempted to economically strangle Gaza to a point of the brink of a humanitarian crisis. The Gazan fishing industry is near a point of collapse due to intentional Israeli meddling. Gazans have claimed that the greenhouses of Gush Katif that were abandoned by settlers and maintained due the efforts of the William Gates foundation have generated significant vegetable production – but that the Isareli government thwarted these efforts by refusing entry of such Gazan produce.

    Egypt’s silence on the suffering of Palestinians would likely end if a Muslim Brotherhood-controlled government came to power in that nation. The Muslim Brotherhood – parent organization to Hamas – would likely be a significant and positive influence to all Palestinians living under Israeli occupation or Hamas rule.

  7. If conservative American Christianity was not apocalyptic
    Christian (sic) Zionism, you can bet David Horowitz would not have alinged with it, so the comparison is very awkward.

  8. The challenge for The People is going to be getting the Military to reconcile their role to being defenders of The People, and otherwise to serving them, and not to just use the job to line their own pockets. By nature of the money and power involved this is a dicey proposition and prone to get ugly. It will simply be tough in the best case, given the traditions that have grown up over the years. It all gets back to intent: it the intent of the Military leadership really is to empower the people it’ll meaning letting go of their own power, and such a scenario would necessarily need to unfold over the course of years.

    I’ve seen estimates of anywhere from 33-50+% of Egyptian GNP directly accounted for by military-run industries, meaning all those manufacturing jobs where any amount of value might be added (and add to this the indirect component of retired military folks working off their military relationships!). Value-added production is the great key to developing the export component of their economy, getting out of the clutches of the IMF and their bloodsucking minions, and becoming a viable, self-sustaining economy. Many of those in the military will be loathe to divest themselves of these interests, since that is the deal on which they have worked to become officers, develop career and relationships, and retire to harvest the same…

  9. It looks to me like the Western analysts have been, since the revolution, been downplaying the attraction of the Egyptian masses to Muslim fanaticism. Why?

    This is going to end with Egypt being crushed after attacking Israel. Meanwhile, starvation is coming as the foreign reserves run out. If Shafiq wins there will be an Algerian-style bloodletting; if Mursi wins the war with Israel will come sooner rather than later. Why will no mainstream Western commentators face this reality?

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