Egypt divides on familiar fault lines

By Simon Allison 28 May 2012

The battle lines have been drawn. There will be a run-off election to determine who will be Egypt’s first post-revolutionary president, and it will pit the old rivals against each other once more: the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, for so long the oppressed opposition, against Egypt’s old oppressors, the disturbingly popular remnants of Mubarak’s regime. Revolution? What revolution? By SIMON ALLISON

The Muslim Brotherhood was always going to do well in Egypt’s presidential elections. Their political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, dominated the parliamentary polls just months before and their long record of social support and opposition to the government of Hosni Mubarak gives them a large reservoir of goodwill, which – as the ANC well knows – translates most effectively into electoral support.

Still, it was not a stellar performance from the Brotherhood or their candidate, Mohamed Morsi, known less than affectionately as the “substitute” or the “spare tyre”. Initially they weren’t planning on even competing in the polls, and had announced as much to the nation. Yet with the top job in their sights, they couldn’t resist fielding a candidate, which is when they nominated Khairat al-Shater. Except he was deemed ineligible, ironically because of a criminal conviction acquired while in opposition to Mubarak, and Morsi found himself thrust into the spotlight – a man of whom few had heard.

Yet, despite it all, Morsi found himself with the most votes in the first round of voting: 25.3% of them. It was a reminder to its doubters that the Muslim Brotherhood is still the most potent force in Egyptian politics, even with a dour leader and a bungled campaign. But for the Brotherhood, the numbers are a wake-up call: they’ve lost tens of thousands of votes between the presidential and parliamentary elections, with many of the defections coming in areas considered Muslim Brotherhood strongholds.

Nonetheless, it’s job done for Morsi and his supporters, who turn their attention now to the run-off election, which will pit Morsi against the candidate that finished second. This is where things get really interesting. Morsi will not be facing his fellow Islamist candidate, the charismatic and, by some accounts, unifying figure of Muslim Brotherhood-dropout Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, considered the pre-election favourite. Nor will Morsi have to contend with the politicking of Amr Moussa, the chameleon-like figure who seems to prosper no matter what the political dispensation. And the revolutionaries’ pick, Hamdeen Sabahy, is also out of the contest (although Sabahy is challenging the election results, alleging fraud).

Instead, Morsi is in a straight-up fight with the most unlikely of candidates, so unlikely that I neglected to include him in my election preview last week: Ahmed Shafiq, the largely unrepentant Mubarak-era stalwart and the last pre-revolutionary prime minister. It’s almost as if Morsi is running against Mubarak himself. Despite the revolution, despite the months of chaos and change, it seems that Mubarak’s appeal lingers, and Shafiq is its grateful beneficiary.

While it might come as something of a shock, it’s not altogether surprising that a hefty chunk of Egyptians hanker after the stability and relative prosperity of the Mubarak era. I was in Egypt during the revolution, and – outside of Tahrir Square – I met just as many people vocal in their support for Mubarak as there were would-be revolutionaries. At the time, I largely dismissed the pro-regime sentiments, thinking that people were still too scared of Mubarak’s security forces to speak openly to a journalist. This was probably a mistake.

The fact is, plenty of people benefited from Mubarak’s state. The stability he brought was good for business (or at least better than the instability caused by his departure), violence was usually limited to anyone silly enough to speak or act out against the regime, and Mubarak’s infamous patronage networks – where money and influence were doled out in return for unquestioning support – was a source of income for many, many families.

For these people, the new Egypt has not been worth the hassle. The economy is in tailspin, no one knows who is really in power, the threat of violence is never far away, and the patronage system has mostly collapsed. All they want is a return to the good old days, and they think Shafiq can provide just that. His spokesman tellingly commented that people had voted for Shafiq to “save Egypt from the dark forces (that is, the Islamists),” and that “the revolution has ended”.

But Shafiq himself, despite his past, is peddling a somewhat different line. “I pledge to every Egyptian that there will be no turning back and no recreation of the old regime,” he said after the elections. “Egypt has changed and there will be no turning back the clock. We have had a glorious revolution. I pay tribute to this glorious revolution and pledge to be faithful to its call for justice and freedom.”

But Shafiq is not speaking to the people who voted for him, who he knows will do so in the run-off, come what may. Support for the old regime and the Muslim Brotherhood is mutually exclusive. He is already playing the new political game, which is about attracting the votes of people who chose neither him nor Morsi in the first round.

The top prize in this game is endorsements from candidates who have dropped out: Abol Fotouh, Sabahy and Moussa in particular will be courted by each side, perhaps lured with promises of cabinet seats and powerful positions.

This is the chance for these candidates to push some of their own agenda and ensure that the 50% of Egyptians who are not represented by the Muslim Brotherhood or the remnants of the Mubarak regime still have some say in government. The revolution hasn’t ended just yet. DM

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Photo: Supporters of presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi hold his posters while listening to Sabahi’s news conference outside his campaign headquarters in Cairo May 26, 2012. Sabahi’s lawyer said he would demand that the electoral committee halt the election until alleged voting irregularities had been investigated and until the constitutional court rules on whether Presidential candidate, and ex-air force chief, Ahmed Shafiq was legally eligible to stand. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih.


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