Egypt: An Election within a Coup within a Coup

Arab satellite television is showing lines of Egyptian voters at polling stations on Saturday, as some proportion of the 50 million eligible voters makes a decision between a former air force general and a leader of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. The military has spread 150,000 troops through the country to safeguard some 13,000 polling stations.

It will matter who wins, but it may not be pivotal. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has made a coup within their earlier coup, and holds ultimate power in its hands. From playing president in the past year and a half, it appears now to intend to shift and play the role of the legislature until a new one is elected. It likely will take a big role in drafting the new constitution, and so can greatly constrain the power of the presidency if it likes. Moreover, the president will likely appoint a prime minister and a cabinet, and so will not rule alone even on the civilian side. Shafiq has spoken of appointing a Muslim Brotherhood prime minister, and if Mursi has any sense he would appoint a secular one.

It is impossible to predict an outcome, and polling before the first round of presidential elections was notoriously inaccurate. But there are some indicators we could look at. In the first round, the three major secular candidates together got nearly 12 million votes, while the two major Muslim candidates got a little over 9 million votes. But there were 13 candidates, many of them secular, and the Muslim religious candidates got less than 40% of the whole. If the same pattern held true in this weekend’s election, then Ahmad Shafiq, the secular candidate, will win. He got about 5 million votes, and will likely pick up the 2.5 million votes that went to Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister, also a secularist. Supporters of some of the minor secular candidates may also come out for him. It is not clear, however, if he can pick up the 4.5 million votes that went to the leftist Nasserist, Hamdeen Sabahi, who was supported by the labor movement and by many leftist youth.

Likewise, Mursi got about 5.5 million votes, and his Muslim rival Abdul Moneim Abou’l-Futouh got a little over 4 million. But it isn’t clear that Mursi can pick up Abou’l-Futouh’s constituency. He had broken with the Muslim Brotherhood and declared himself a ‘liberal’ Muslim. He attracted some of the leftist, youth and liberal vote because of these stances. Many of those who voted for him might not be willing to support a hardline fundamentalist like Mursi.

The other wild card is turnout. Only 50% of eligible voters went to the polls in the May 23-24 elections (I was in Egypt then and went around to polling stations; some had lines, but many did not). The dismissal of parliament and the dismal choice between a former regime figure and a hard line fundamentalist could well discourage Egyptians from bothering to vote. I can’t figure out whether a low turnout would give an advantage to either candidate. Both have powerful party machines behind them.

The choice is stark, at every level of policy. (Quotes from the two candidates are here.

Ahmad Shafiq is a man of the Hosni Mubarak regime. He is pro-American, committed to good relations with Israel, and warns that the Muslim fundamentalists want to drag Egypt back into the Middle Ages. Although he promises ‘freedom of expression and of the internet’ if elected, he also pledges to curb public protests and to impose law and order. He is close to the real power behind the throne, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. He is, in short, a ‘Mubarak lite.’

In contrast, Muhammad Mursi, 60, an engineering Ph.D. trained at the University of Southern California who claims to have worked on a NASA project as an assistant professor, is committed to the imposition of a literalist interpretation of Islamic canon law on Egypt. He was a member of parliament 2000-2005, and was spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood bloc. His supporters say his loss of the seat in a run-off in 2005 was engineered by the Mubarak government. He was jailed more than once under Mubarak, and one of his sons was arrested last February and badly beaten by the military, leaving him with broken bones. His supporters maintain that he would therefore never arbitrarily jail anyone else. While he says he respects popular sovereignty and admits that there is no such thing as ‘Islamic democracy,’ only ‘democracy’– his vision of making a rigid interpretation of medieval Islamic law the law of the land in Egypt disturbs liberals and leftists. He says he is committed to the peace treaty with Israel, as long as the Israelis observe it. But he was a member in Sharqiya Province of the ‘Committee for Resistance to Zionism,’ has called the Israeli leadership ‘vampires,’ and his party supports the fundamentalist Hamas party that rules the Gaza Strip. Mursi would likely have cool relations with the US and Israel.

Either way, the winner will be forced into a ‘cohabitation’ with SCAF, rather as Turkish governments of the 1990s had to share power with the Kemalist officer corps. The president’s hands will be tied in many areas.

Those who question whether Egypt even had a revolution should stop and ask themselves if Shafiq really could jail 30,000 dissidents, as Mubarak did in the 1990s? Or could arrange for his son to succeed him? Or could subject all media to strict censorship and make it illegal to speculate about his health? Shafiq may hope to be Mubarak lite, but the ‘lite’ qualifier is not meaningless.

My sense from talking to a wide range of Egyptians in May is that they feel they can endure almost any outcome for 4 years, that is, until the next election. If the incumbents don’t do a good job, they are confident they can throw them out. I think Egyptians have taken the dissolution of parliament relatively well precisely because all it really means is that they get an early chance to correct any mistakes they made last fall.

On the other hand, if regular elections are not held, or if people widely feel they are fraudulent, then I think there would be a big political explosion.

Posted in Egypt | 12 Responses | Print |

12 Responses

  1. one cannot really understand politics and political leadership without understanding collective consciousness …

    there is no transformation of a culture from simply changing who sits in the seat … the collective consciousness of the culture has to evolve … country after country, all systems, shows this …

    analysis of the skin of the orange tells nothing about the nature of the fruti

  2. Many Egyptians went to invalidate their vote MB and mursi failed big time to get people’s votes … They are selfish
    And scaf made shafik to final and will make him the president.
    It’s not important now the president …. We have no constitution
    Shafik = Mubarak
    I say revolution is not yet over
    it’s becoming a political game
    I’m happy that MB won’t dare to celebrate again on jan25
    And shafik say the revolution is over
    The question is will Egyptian revolt again ?

  3. I find your analysis naive. What’s happening is nothing less than a nullification of the “revolution.” The people were hoodwinked by the military. Egyptians were incredibly naive to think they and the military were one. Mubarak Lite will quickly morph into Mubarak redux. The generals will ensure Mursi doesn’t win. This is pretty much a foregone conclusion and the “election” will be a sham. The people need to stage a real revolution and overthrow the generals.

    • What precisely has the military taken away from the revolution?
      The opportunity to live under a president from the conservative wing of Muslim Brotherhood, a parliament dominated by Islamicists, and a constitution written by the Muslim Bortherhood.

      Democracy is more than elections. When a plurality of the electorate does not have a candidate they can abide in a presidential runoff, there is no democratic infrastructure. The liberals did not have time to form a strong and unified party. They are lucky that they get a do-over.

      I wouldn’t mind an Islamist government in context of a functional democracy. The MB isn’t going anywhere, they remain a force. I think we all want to see Egypt have a government that respects minority rights, and where all segments have some voice. That will take some time.

    • I find your analysis naive. How do you expect the ‘people’ to stage a real revolution and overthrow the generals? Are they strong enough to split the military’s allegiance? Or to stage an armed insurrection? Obviously, the Egyptian opposition rejected that path. You nullify history. The Egyptian military was a force for national independence against colonial powers. But all the Arab national struggles were compromised by the autocrats who took over. The “arab spring’ seeks to complete the post WW2 struggles for independence by codifying popular participation in the political life and future of the country.

      Therefore, the Egyptian movement is fundamentally a reformist movement that is still playing out. It remains to be seen if the Egyptian organizers are right in renouncing violence or if power will flow more easily to the Libyan opposition, which called in international military support, or the Syrian opposition, which continues to be hammered unrelentlessly by Assad but seems willing to accept arms from other countries..

      I don’t think we can understand the Egyptian situation without understanding how Egyptians view what’s going on. That is the benefit of Informed Comment. It is informed. This is not Russia, 1917 or China, 1949. Nor is the nature of the struggle of Egyptians today the same as the fight against colonialism. Juan is right. Read his post again. It deals with on-the-ground dynamics, not theory.

  4. Seems to me that Egypt is going the way of Pakistan…there will be a nominally “civilian government”, there will be elections, there will be more freedom of speech than there was in the past, but, in the end, the military will call the shots from behind the scenes no matter who is the President and who has the majority in Parliament. They will see that they can still rule a country without having to have an open military dictatorship. Just as Pakistan has an anarchic situation in its north-west border provinces and much internal violence, Egypt will have the same in the Sinai. Journalist Dexter Filkins wrote that having the Taliban and the violence they cause is good for the Pakistani regime because they can then turn to the Americans and demand money to get them to restrain the “extremists” and the can remind their own population that if the military relaxes its rule, the anarchy the Taliban generates could spread over the whole country. Same with the Egyptians and the anarchy associated with the Beduin in the Sinai.
    I recall reading that the military controls something like 40% of the Egyptian ecnomy. There was no way they were going to give up control of that. It is true that in Iran, after the Revolution of 1979 there was a mass purge of the military and other arms of the government including mass executions and imprisonments. It seems that in Egypt, there is no one who has the power to do such a thing and the military has enough internal cohestion to resist such a purge. Thus, nothing will really change.

  5. What I took issue with is the reasonableness of the blog post when there should have ire in his tone about how the generals have just systematically dismantled the new system that was taking shape. It’s as if they sat back and watched the new structure being built all the while knowing they would crack down when the time came. When Shafiq wins, it will be status quo ante. The generals will have brilliantly fooled the people. They will have outmaneuvered everyone and the clock will be turned back. The people will see they were duped. They’re in shock right now about the dissolution of parliament. They see all too clearly what’s happened. It’s sad to see this is what came of what they saw as their revolution so Juan’s very detached professorial tone is disappointing in light of the terrible injustice perpetrated on the Egyptians. Their will was subverted though it must be said there is no leadership/organization to speak of in that country after the disastrous Mubarak era.

  6. Cancellation and annulment of election results is a modus operandi of the American empire in its client states with a wink and a nod or sometimes even active participation. Iran, Algeria, Palestine and now Egypt. When democratic elections results don’t fit the American plan for the Middle East, the clients simply cancel them and America winks and nods.

  7. There is one obvious difference between Shafiq and the rest of the candidates who ran in both rounds: Shafiq will have institutional support in carrying out his agenda. This makes him, out of those who survived the disqualifications, the single most dangerous candidate.

    Morsi, or, for that matter, any non-Shafiq candidate, would face SCAF and other military bodies trying to restrict the power of the presidency as much as possible. Morsi would have to receive united help from the parliament in challenging institutional powers like the army and judiciary to seek in implementing almost anything. The generals would seek incessantly to undermine and discredit his term in office.

    By contrast, Shafiq does not face that difficulty. SCAF will do everything possible to transfer power from the parliament to the presidency and Shafiq will help the military select a constituent assembly that will indulge military tastes. Together, the institutional power sources will try to limit dependence on the parliament so that the military retains most real power. This would be cloaked in the creation of a supposed “unity” government that maintains only the fragilr illusion of being inclusive.

    The only person that SCAF will allow to have near dictatorial powers is their tool, Shafiq. If Morsi wins they will do everything they can to resist actions he might undertake. This means that even if it were true that both were aspiring dictators (which does not seem to be true), only Shafiq would actually have the capacity to literally become one. There would be far fewer factional checks on his power, regardless of the makeup of the next parliament.

  8. Once the parliament was dissolved, any question about which candidate would end up having more untrammeled power was conlusively answered. Morsi could only have hoped to have power remotely like what Shafiq will wield by having a Brotherhood/Salafist dominated parliament and a somewhat favorable constitution.

    The possibility of the political scene being dominated to an unacceptable degree overwhelming comes from military leaders, corrupt business and political insiders, and their associated sycophants.

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