Home The Washington Diplomat June 2012

Egyptians Vote, But Can They Decide on a Path Forward?

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Nearly a year and a half after Egyptians mobilized on the streets of Cairo, demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian revolution is still very much a work in progress. Although it only took 18 days to kick Mubarak out, the fate of the country he led for more than 30 years is up in the air, but the presidential election scheduled for May 23 and 24 (with a runoff on June 16 and 17, if necessary) will likely dictate the direction of the country as it slowly transitions toward democracy — or slips back into autocracy, or adopts another hybrid altogether.

Vastly different segments of Egyptian society have been vying to represent the new face of the Arab world's most populous nation, from the Muslim Brotherhood, which enjoys widespread support and has pledged a Western-friendly government rooted in Islam, à la the Turkey model; to the unabashedly ultraconservative Islamists known as the Salafis who, among other things, would restrict women's dress and the sale of alcohol; to secular liberals who feel sidelined by the very revolution they helped spark. Also thrown into the mix are remnants of the Mubarak regime who promise stability, veteran technocrats who promise effective governance, and the military, which promises to relinquish control to a civilian authority by the end of June, although just how much it will give up remains to be seen.

After Mubarak grudgingly left the scene in February 2011, the military took over, dissolved the parliament and created a body called the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, ostensibly to oversee the country's transition toward democracy. And while the Egyptian military remains widely respected in some quarters of society, others deeply resent it, with more than 100 Egyptians having died protesting the military's stewardship of the country.

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Photo: Jonathan Rashad (www.flickr.com/photos/drumzo/)
Protesters swarm Tahrir Square demanding the removal of President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 9, 2011. They got their wish, but whether they get a new president who brings the country together, or tears it apart, remains to be seen.

The election was also thrown into chaos after a slew of prominent candidates were barred from running in April, fueling speculation that the military was trying to rig the contest.

The election should be a milestone for Egypt and the wider Arab world, but will it usher in a functioning civil government or lead to more power wrangling? Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, who was born in Alexandria, believes the election will go relatively smoothly and is confident that the military will respect the will of the voters.

"People have died and everyone's conscious of that," he said in a recent interview.

As of press time, despite a few trouble spots, voting was proceeding as scheduled without any major problems, though the outcome was difficult to predict. It was a historic moment for millions of Egyptians, although the power struggle certainly won't end once the ballots are counted. Plans to draft a new constitution have stalled and it's still unclear exactly what powers the country's new president will have.

"On a strictly legal basis, you have this constitutional declaration which gives the president an awful lot of potential power," said Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University. "But it's not clear how much power they'll actually be able to exercise without the Parliament, especially since the Parliament is controlled by other political parties which aren't aligned with whomever will be president."

In the recent parliamentary elections, voters gave the most seats to candidates from the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. Another Islamist party allied with the Salafis, Al-Nour, received the second-most votes. The Brotherhood, seeking to allay fears of an Islamist takeover, initially pledged that it wouldn't field a candidate for the presidential election, but reversed course, nominating Khairat el-Shater, its leading strategist, in March.

But the High Election Commission disqualified el-Shater and nine other candidates, including Mubarak's former spy chief and Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an ultraconservative, on technicalities in mid April.

Handicapping the roller-coaster race is tricky; a recent poll released by the Egyptian Cabinet's Information and Decision Support Center indicated that 42 percent of the respondents were undecided. Thus far, the campaign has been driven more by personalities than issues and party loyalties.

But three leading candidates have emerged: Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood considered to be a liberal Islamist, Mohamed Morsi, who replaced el-Shater as the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party candidate, and Amr Moussa, a former diplomat who was the secretary-general of the Arab League for most of the last decade.

Two other candidates are also putting up a fight, including Ahmed Shafik, a former Air Force general and vestige of the old regime who served as Mubarak's last prime minister. Another figure that's emerged is Hamdeen Sabahi, who is positioning himself as an alternative to Islamist and Mubarak-era figures.

"The dark horse is Hamdeen Sabahi, a poet turned populist campaigning as a follower of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of the Egyptian revolution of 1952," wrote David D. Kirkpatrick of the New York Times on May 23, noting that "Sabahi is campaigning on vows to increase the government's role in the economy, provide more subsidies to workers and farmers and take a tough line against Israel."

Shehata of Georgetown University believes that Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh will capture the most votes in the first round, with Aboul Fotouh likely winning the runoff election in June. Brown said he thought that Egyptian voters would turn to Moussa, as an experienced beacon of stability in a time of chaos.

The candidacies of all five men reveal a nuanced electoral landscape in which questions of social identity are competing with bread-and-butter issues such as the economy, complicated by the tug of war not only among religious and secular groups, but also within Islamic groups themselves. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, while close to the Salafis culturally, is comprised of educated middle-class and business-minded voters who tend to look down on the Salafis, who in turn appeal to many poorer Egyptians.

Yet all three of the leading candidates appear to be adopting a somewhat conciliatory approach toward the military, which wields enormous power and has vast commercial interests in the country. Each has pledged to work closely with the military leaders and Moussa went so far as to blame demonstrators for trying to storm the Defense Ministry. Aboul Fotouh has been mildly critical of the military's commercial ties and leadership, but has also pledged to appoint one of the ruling generals as his defense minister.

Aboul Fotouh, 60, is seen as a strong contender, forging an unusual coalition of reform-minded liberals and more conservative Salafis to the right of the Brotherhood — a reflection of the conflicting yet at times overlapping interests among Egypt's various political parties. Aboul Fotouh is a former doctor and political prisoner who was expelled from the Brotherhood last year for advocating moderate policies such as the separation of religion and politics and for defying the group by deciding to run for president. He publicly supported the revolution from the start and has called for national unity. He also advocates a constitution based on Sharia law, but not to the degree advocated by more conservative candidates, and he says that individual freedom and social justice are key to advancing Islamic law.

But Aboul Fotouh, who was imprisoned on political charges in 1981, from 1996 to 2001, and again for five months in 2009, stresses that the Muslim Brotherhood shouldn't have a political wing and that preaching and politics shouldn't mix.

"The overlap between what's partisan politics and what's missionary is disastrous for the religious mission and a disaster for the party as well," Aboul Fotouh recently told El Rahma, a major Salafi satellite channel.

Despite his stance against religion in politics, he's earned the endorsement of Salafi leaders, who see him as the strongest candidate and who fear a Brotherhood monopoly even though they're closer to the Brotherhood on social values. And as David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh of the New York Times recently pointed out, "Leading Salafis hinted in recent days that they did not expect quick fulfillment of their goals for a state governed by Islamic law. Instead, they wanted a president who could deal with Egypt's pressing needs while allowing them freedom to preach and advocate."

To that end, the charismatic Aboul Fotouh fired up the crowd during a campaign speech in Alexandria in early May by highlighting his pledge to tackle corruption and influence peddling.

"The time when Egyptian blood was shed without a price is over," he said. "The time when Egypt's dignity was humiliated is over. The time when Egypt's fortune was stolen to be given to a certain group of people is over."

Despite the recent boost for Aboul Fotouh, who leads Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the two men could split the Islamist vote, giving the advantage to Amr Moussa, 76. Moussa, the frontrunner in preliminary polling, served as Mubarak's foreign minister for 10 years but, according to the New York Times, was dismissed after a song called "I hate Israel and I love Amr Moussa" became a hit in 2001. Moussa sparked concerns in Israel and the United States in April with a comment that the peace accord between Israel and Egypt, signed at Camp David in 1979, was "dead and buried."

But he also said he would honor the portion of the agreement pertaining to Egypt and Israel. Moussa is seen as a pragmatist whose objection to the Camp David Accords is based on the language pertaining to the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. The career diplomat has long been a champion of the Palestinian national movement and his scathing criticism of Israel has earned him popularity across the Arab world.

Yet he's also drawn criticism over the years for his supposedly passive stance on the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Israel's attack on the Gaza Strip in late 2008, and for stating on Egyptian television in 2010 that he would vote for Mubarak for a sixth term. Still, some believe he may be the man who can help find common ground among the military, the Islamists and the liberals.

"Moussa is very likely the military's choice at this point," wrote Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations in a recent op-ed. "A former diplomat who served as secretary-general of the Arab League, he is an establishment figure who has vowed to give the military a voice in key policy decisions through a national security council that would include top military officers."

But in the article "Is Egypt Headed for Islamist Rule?" Coleman also warned that Moussa's victory was far from guaranteed. "The big swing factor is the Islamist vote. Moussa, a secularist, has said that Egypt cannot afford an 'experiment' in Islamic democracy at this time. Yet more than 70 percent of voters in the parliamentary election last fall opted for Islamist candidates. With the rejection of el-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate is now Mohamed Morsi, 60, who represents the older, more conservative wing of the Brotherhood and openly endorses a strict Islamic vision."

Morsi is currently polling in third place and hasn't yet stoked the level of enthusiasm that el-Shater enjoyed, although he did take the top spot among the 250,000 Egyptians who'd voted abroad before the election. He received a Ph.D. in engineering from the University of Southern California in 1982 and afterward taught at Cal State Northridge for three years before returning to teach in Egypt. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s and became a member of the group's highest decision-making body, the Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau, in 1995.

Derisively nicknamed "the substitute," he's considered a conservative voice within the Muslim Brotherhood and many believe that he won the Freedom and Justice Party nomination based on his close ties to el-Shater. Despite the Brotherhood's organizational strength, Morsi's campaign hasn't taken off, partly due to his late start and partly because he's not seen as very charismatic.

In attempting to boost his credentials, the Brotherhood has promoted him as a "symbol of the revolution" who was arrested on political charges twice during the Mubarak years, once in 2006, when he was detained for seven months, and briefly on January 28, 2011, along with other members of the Brotherhood, in a pre-emptive measure as Mubarak tried to squash the growing protest movement.

As a member of the Egyptian Parliament from 2000 to 2005, he made attempts to expose government corruption and pushed wide-ranging reforms, but was also a noted social conservative who was critical of the Miss Egypt beauty pageant, among other things.

Most recently, Morsi has positioned himself as the most conservative candidate in a bid to attract Salafi support, marking a shift for the Muslim Brotherhood after it tried to distance itself from a hard-line Islamist platform.

But now the group seems to have lurched back to the far right by embracing Morsi, who's frequently called Israeli citizens "killers and vampires."

Brown of the George Washington University said that despite his time in the United States, Morsi is probably the most anti-American candidate of the three leading contenders.

Both Brown and Shehata opined that the United States and Israel would probably be most comfortable dealing with Moussa, as a known commodity, but they also believe that the United States could do business with any of the three candidates.

"If Morsi or Aboul Fotouh wins, there will be some hand wringing in the U.S.," Brown said. "But at the same time, in Washington, there's now a little more familiarity with the Brotherhood, so there will be some nervousness, but I don't think it will lead to the sudden recoiling in horror, like with the Hamas election, but rather a more measured, wait-and-see response."

Many liberals believe that the country's two most powerful institutions, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, will hatch some sort of deal to share power, but others are doubtful that an agreement could take shape. The Islamist-dominated Parliament has rejected the military council's economic plan, and it's unclear how the two sides can bridge their differences.

Whoever wins the presidency, one of their first tasks will be to revive Egypt's moribund economy. Tourists have trickled back into the country, with arrivals so far this year tripling over last year, but are still well below their pre-revolution peak. Moreover, unemployment and inflation are up, the state's foreign reserves are dwindling, and a $3.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund has been held up.

Despite the economic and political turmoil, a recent Pew Research Center report found that two-thirds of Egyptians consider democracy preferable to any other form of government, though six in 10 also consider law and order a very important priority. Moreover, most Egyptians remain "optimistic" about the country's prospects and "embrace democracy and religion in political life."

Likewise, Shehata is optimistic about Egypt's future and believes that the election will be an important bellwether, not just for Egypt, but also for the wider region.

"This is the most populous Arab country, it's very important politically and strategically, and it will affect the direction or the perception of what's happened over the last 15 months," he said. "If there can be democratic elections in Egypt and if a president comes to office as a result of popular will and that president seems to have some authority and things are moving in a positive direction, that sends a message to people not only in Syria but also in the Gulf countries, Sudan and Jordan that there might be some pain and some setbacks, but this is the direction of the future and that change can happen."


About the Author

Dave Seminara is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and a former diplomat based in Northern Virginia.

Last Edited on May 31, 2012