Egypt’s elections and the revolutionaries’ dilemma

By Simon Allison 22 May 2012

It’s the calm before the storm. In Cairo and Alexandria, Port Said and Aswan, campaigning for Egypt’s next president has stopped, thanks to a three-day “cooling off” period designed to give voters some respite from the relentless onslaught of adverts, interviews and rallies. In theory, at least.

These elections will be Egypt’s first. The country has voted before, but those were largely symbolic affairs designed to give Mubarak’s regime a sheen of democratic legitimacy, even though it was an open secret that the numbers reflected the support the president thought he needed rather than the support he had; hence the frequent 90%-plus winning percentages Mubarak’s officials would announce to a population that knew what to expect.

None of the candidates up for election on Wednesday and Thursday can expect such dominance. It will be a huge surprise if anyone gains even a simple majority. This means, according to Egypt’s newly relevant electoral laws, the two candidates that attract the most votes will fight it out in a run-off election scheduled  for 16 and 17 June.

Although opinion polls contradict each other constantly, and estimates suggest over 30% of the electorate has yet to make up their minds, there are three names out of the 13 candidates that are consistently ahead of the pack: the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Mursi, the secular Amr Moussa and the enigmatic Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, whose Zuma-like ability to say what particular audiences want to hear could well win him the presidency.

Mursi was never supposed to be running for the top office. The Muslim Brotherhood, which dominated the parliamentary elections earlier this year and are the most established political force in Egypt, completely botched the run-up to the presidential elections. First they said they wouldn’t field a candidate, then they U-turned and nominated someone who (rather controversially) turned out to be ineligible, before finally settling on Mursi – a relative unknown whose lack of public charisma isn’t helping his cause.

Mursi is often dismissed as “the substitute”, and has performed poorly in polls, but nonetheless he should not be underestimated, if simply by virtue of his association with the Muslim Brotherhood and their political front, the Freedom and Justice Party. He has also been trying to portray himself in Islamic mythology as the next Caliph, destined to rule over all Muslims and one day establish a new capital in Jerusalem. This is an unexpectedly fundamentalist message from the Muslim Brotherhood, reflective perhaps of their desperation to make up for earlier blunders, but one that will hold some appeal in what is an overwhelmingly conservative country. Coupled with the deep grassroots support enjoyed by the Brotherhood, Mursi’s candidacy cannot be dismissed, no matter what the polls say.

The polls have been much kinder about Mursi’s Islamist rival, Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, with his roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, before breaking away from the organisation to launch his own tilt at the presidency. His campaign has been brilliant, seeking to bury religious division and instead focus on addressing Egypt’s deepest problems. Support for Aboul Fotouh comes from across the political spectrum, with endorsements from high-profile ultra-conservative Salafist politicians, disgruntled Muslim Brotherhood officials and even a core of liberal activists at the forefront of the revolution last year.

Aboul Fotouh’s dismissal of the religious divide that supposedly exists between Islamists and liberals is a particularly powerful rallying call. He argues that Egyptians, on the whole, are Islamist anyway, and that the constitution already guarantees the primacy of Sharia law. “Today those who call themselves liberals or leftists, this is just a political name, but most of them understand and respect Islamic values. They support the Sharia and are no longer against it,” he told a Salafist television show in February. His unifying message and inclusive approach is the Egyptian equivalent of Obama’s “hope and change” campaign theme, and – rather like Obama – his supporters tend to be almost evangelical in their support.

Finally, there is Amr Moussa, former Arab League secretary general and the most impeccable of politicians. Moussa was a stalwart of the ancient regime, serving as Egyptian foreign minister for 10 years before becoming just a little too popular for Mubarak’s comfort. He was seen by some as Mubarak’s likely successor, and was even the subject of a hit pop song – “I hate Israel but I love Amr Moussa” ran the chorus. Mubarak was unimpressed, and pushed him into his Arab League sinecure in 2001, a prominent enough role to keep him happy, but divorced from the cut and thrust of Egyptian internal politics. With his usual sense of timing, Moussa announced his support for the revolution with a walkabout in Tahrir Square just as Mubarak’s fall became inevitable, but, crucially, before the president actually resigned.

So Moussa has revolutionary credentials, of a kind. But he also has Mubarak credentials, and these are proving most helpful in his presidential bid. While Mubarak was an autocrat and a despot, his patronage networks were so large that millions of Egyptians benefitted directly from his regime (often at the expense of others). They now miss the relative prosperity and stability of Mubarak’s regime, and some have lost a lot in terms of money and influence in the revolution’s aftermath. There are also those who have been hit hard by Egypt’s economic malaise. Many in the tourist industry, for example, have lost their livelihoods as a result of the steep decline in visitor numbers. They too hanker for the stability represented by Mubarak’s regime. For all these people, Moussa is the closest thing to the ‘good old days’. Moussa has also been very canny about raising fears of an Islamist-dominated government, positioning himself as the only viable secular alternative – which perhaps he is, given the dearth of other viable candidates.

While the polls may disagree with each other, they all indicate that neither Mursi, Fotouh nor Moussa will win an outright majority in the first round. There will be a run-off election between two of these candidates, notwithstanding a late surprise – which in the chaos of Egypt’s post-revolutionary politics, cannot be ruled out. A run-off will ignite a whole new round of politicking as candidates scramble to secure the support of those eliminated from the race.

And the military’s role in all this is similarly (some say ominously) unclear. A tacit agreement between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s interim military government is said to have broken down, and no one’s quite sure what the generals want – except, of course, to keep themselves in power.

The people suffering the most in all this are Egypt’s original revolutionaries. While Mubarak was toppled with the support of a broad cross-section of the population, the spark was lit by a bunch of young, liberal, tech-savvy activists who were fed up with Mubarak’s regime. Who do they vote for: the Islamist fundamentalists who might restrict civil liberties in their own way? Or the Mubarak hangover? “They don’t deserve your vote or mine,” said prominent blogger Mahmoud Salem, just such an activist revolutionary, dismissing all the candidates. Ironically, the revolutionaries’ dilemma is a direct result of being comprehensively out-manoeuvred in the post-revolutionary phase, unable to compete with Egypt’s established political forces.

Nonetheless, the revolutionaries didn’t fight for the right to appoint their own government. They fought for self-determination for all Egyptians and, although flawed, these elections are the closest that Egypt has ever come to that goal. DM

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Photo: A supporter of Mohamed Mursi, head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party and the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate, holds a poster of Mursi during his last campaign rally in front of the Abdeen Palace Museum in Cairo May 20, 2012.  REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany.


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