Some quick thoughts on the first round of Egypt’s Presidential Elections

May 25

So, it now looks like Egyptians will be facing a referendum between Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The results of the first round of Egypt’s historical presidential elections have resulted in an election that brings together the two most polarizing candidates in the field, Ahmad Shafiq and Muhammad Mursi. Unsurprisingly, many, including myself, are disappointed, if not depressed, at this outcome: essentially, one half of Egyptians are being asked to choose between two candidates that probably represented their last choice among all the original candidates.  There is a very real risk, in the light of this polarization, that Ahmad Shafiq will win, and the regime will be “vindicated.”  Indeed, I think a lot of people are certain that in a head to head match up between Shafiq and Mursi, Shafiq will win handily, the assumption being that the aversion to the Muslim Brotherhood — especially given its control of Parliament — will lead a majority of voters to hold their nose and vote for Shafiq.  While I hope this is not the case, I think this will be the probable outcome: a victory for Shafiq.  However, it nonetheless behooves us to consider why Shafiq might win, and what it means for Egyptian politics, and more importantly, Egypt’s short term future. 

First, a Shafiq victory should not obscure the fact that he was the first choice of less than a 1/4 of Egyptians.  On the assumption that Amr Musa was a candidate of the old regime, an assumption that I do not necessarily share, the old regime received the support of about one-third of the Egyptian electorate.  Two-thirds of the vote went to candidates who supported the revolution.  From this perspective, there is no basis to say that the results represent a repudiation of the Jan. 25 Revolution.  What the results do tell us, however, is that the Egyptian opposition remains too divided among itself to achieve a decisive victory over the old regime.  Ibrahim Hudaibi has an interesting analysis of some of the reasons why.

In my view, the basic error of the opposition was its failure to come together over a common political platform that would focus on how to solve Egypt’s structural governance problems.  I had suggested what the basic outlines of such a platform might be shortly after Mubarak resigned.  Unfortunately, the rush to hold elections meant that the opposition forces focused too much on who would reap the spoils of victory rather than ensuring that the victory had been finally won.

Many will blame the Muslim Brotherhood for its consistent policy of favoring a speedy-transition over a lengthy one, but in truth, as the transition continued, and SCAF lost much of its credibility, it seemed that all political parties came around to the need for a quick transition.  The blame, such as it is, should go to all of the parties who took part in the revolution: they failed collectively to agree to a common agenda that could have prevented the resurrection of the old regime, and it should not be forgotten that many members of non-Islamist political parties, fairly soon after Mubarak’s resignation, looked to the military as a protector from the Muslim Brotherhood.  With these election results, they might have gotten their wish fulfilled.

It is not a foregone conclusion, however, that Mursi will lose the second round. To win, he will have to articulate an agenda that is capable of convincing Egyptians that his plan for the future is one that can successfully meet the aspirations of all Egyptians, not just the followers of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Nor should we think that a Shafiq victory will undo the Jan. 25 Revolution.  The same structural problems that produced the revolution are still there, only worse, and the old regime is just as incapable of solving those problems today as they were on Jan. 24, 2011.  In fact, they are even less capable of doing so, because the entire world knows that they are politically bankrupt.  A Shafiq victory, moreover, could very well prompt renewed civil strife on a wide scale, leading to serious bloodshed. The old order has forever lost its ability to govern, and a Shafiq victory in the second round will not change that.

At the end of the day, despite all the problems with the Muslim Brotherhood, I think they are a more legitimate representative of Egyptian society than Ahmad Shafiq.  They are deeply rooted in Egypt’s civil society, not the military, and for that reason, they are much more likely to adopt policies that are responsive to the needs of the public than would Shafiq and his military comrades, whose only interest is restoration of the security state.  It is up to Mursi to reach out to the other defeated candidates, not just Abu al-Futuh, but also and especially, Sabbahi and Musa, and show that the Muslim Brotherhood, under his leadership, is capable of forming a broad coalition government that will work for the interests of all Egyptians.


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