Democrats should not be distressed by the first round of Egypt’s presidential election, a Washington meeting heard today.
While the run-off will be contested by two highly illiberal candidates, the results were a “huge loss” for the Muslim Brotherhood and could signal secular groups’ emergence as a major new force in Egyptian politics. Whatever the result of the June 16/17 run-off, the Obama administration should take the opportunity to “reinvent” U.S.-Egyptian relations, experts told an Atlantic Council forum on Assessing Egypt’s Presidential Election.
The election sends a “very important signal” that the Brotherhood’s core vote is limited to the six million votes secured by Mohammed al-Morsi, the candidate of the group’s Freedom and Justice Party, said Justice Yussef Auf, a sitting Cairo judge.
Morsi and former air force commander Ahmed Shafiq emerged as the two leaders in the first round of voting on May 23-24, with 5.76 million and 5.5 million votes, respectively, or 24.77 and 23.66 percent of over 23 million valid votes.
But the surprise performance of left-wing Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, who came third with 4.8 million votes, 20.71 percent of the total, signals a “new emerging power” in Egyptian politics, Auf told the forum.
Some 57% of voters supported non-Islamist candidates, according to Ahram Online’s analysis (left). The five million voters who backed Sabbahi and similar secular, pro-revolutionary candidates like labor lawyer Khaled Ali, represent a vital new constituency that rejects the polarized choice between Islamists or the old regime, said Auf, a judge from Giza governate who recently completed a fellowship at the American University in Washington.
After giving the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and ultraconservative Salafists some 75% of the seats in the parliamentary elections, 57% of voters backed secular candidates. The electorate’s volatility makes attempts to predict a victor in next month’s run-off poll an exercise in futility, say some experienced observers.
“Everything I thought I knew about this country has collapsed,” said Hisham Kassem, independent publisher and veteran opposition activist. “All analyses of the polls are so far unconvincing. The game has changed considerably.”
But some analysts are prepared to hazard a prediction.
Morsi is clearly the frontrunner and the election is “his to lose,” Georgetown University’s Samer Shehata told the Atlantic Council forum. Both candidates are already trying to “rebrand” themselves, but Shafiq is only likely to attract some of Amr Moussa’s 11% and a smattering of other secular voters, while Morsi is already adopting a “discourse of inclusion” to attract support from rival Islamists and secular revolutionaries that will likely take him over the 50% threshold.
Both Morsi and Shafiq will feel obliged to make concessions since ‘both are well-aware that they are not the preferred choice of a significant 75 percent of voting Egyptians,” analyst Hazem Helal observes.
Nevertheless, some analysts believe Morsi faces an uphill task to convince non-Islamists of his inclusiveness, especially since the Brotherhood’s support for the regime’s crackdown on pro-democracy NGOs, backtracking on promises not to contest the presidency and attempts to pack the constitutional panel with Islamists confirmed its demonstrable opportunism and reluctance to share power.
“Morsi’s chances in the runoff are weak, unless he could reach agreement with political forces and reposition himself out of the Muslim Brotherhood’s box,” said Khalil al-Anani, a political scientist at Durham University. “Mobilization will not be enough for Morsi without a real and genuine change in discourse and actions.”
The Islamist candidate today made a series of new campaign pledges, including a commitment to appoint a Coptic vice-president “if possible,” and a promise to safeguard the right to stage peaceful protests.
“Our Christian brothers, they are partners in the nation. They will have full rights that are equal to those enjoyed by Muslims,” Morsi said. “They will be represented as advisers in the presidential institution, and maybe a vice president if possible.”
He would not insist on an Islamic dress code for women, who will also enjoy full rights in employment and education.
“Women have a right to freely choose the attire that suits them,” he said.
Morsi tried to appeal to pro-democracy groups by pledging to defend the gains of the revolution, including rights of assembly, but he also took pains to praise the country’s armed forces, dismissing activists’ calls for officers to be tried for human rights violations over the past 15 months.
“There is not a single Egyptian who doesn’t like the military. The military played a glorious rule in protecting the revolution,” Morsi said. “There were mistakes, yes, but also positive steps. Among those positive steps is the elections held under the protection of the police and military.”
But many observers share Egyptian voters’ wariness about Morsi’s democratic credentials.
“Morsi’s emergence as the Brotherhood’s standard-bearer should be taken as an indicator of the organization’s modus operandi,” writes Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It is internally dictatorial, ideologically intolerant, and — perhaps most importantly — only willing to embrace political gradualism when pressured by stronger authorities.”
Observers note that Morsi’s assurances are at odds with public campaign pledges to implement sharia law, which worried liberal-minded Muslims and especially Christians, many of whom backed Shafiq.
Shafiq’s appeal as a law-and-order candidate rose dramatically following violent clashes at the ministry of defense in the Abbaseya district of Cairo earlier this month, observers suggest.
“Obviously the control of state media, the law and order narrative put forward by SCAF” — the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, made up of Egypt’s ruling generals — “is potent in combination with Abbaseya,” said Michael Hanna, an analyst with the Century Foundation. “It had a big impact on the election, drawing the stability vote from Moussa to Shafiq, whom some state-run polls were putting in the lead in the last days of the campaign period.”
The Brotherhood is probably displeased with Morsi’s performance, said Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Yet the result reinforces a central fact of Egypt’s pre-revolutionary politics, she said: the machines won.
While the Islamists’ organizational prowess is well-known, the counter-revolution by former regime feloul was more surprising, even if it is typical of transitions that the Old Guard eventually reasserts itself, she told the ACUS meeting.
“Organization matters,” says Samuel Tadros, an Egypt expert at Washington’s Hudson Institute. “The Muslim Brotherhood machine is unparalleled, but Shafiq has built an impressive organization of dedicated young men.”
Several questions need to be answered before attempting to predict the results of the June 16-17 runoff.
“Do Salafis mobilize? Do non-Islamists rally around Shafiq due to fear of complete Muslim Brotherhood domination? Does the Brotherhood attempt, as it seems it is, to turn this into Islam versus Christians and seculars?” “We will see in the coming days,” he told The Jerusalem Post.
The low turnout in this week’s poll is possibly more ominous for the transition process since it suggests that “a large number of voters are either skeptical or disenchanted” with the revolution, said Dunne, a former State Department analyst.
Whatever the result of the run-off, the U.S.-Egyptian relationship “needs to be reinvented,” she said. The earmark for military assistance should be removed, the proportion of military to civil assistance reassessed and free trade accords negotiated in a shift away from the traditional “patron-client relationship,’ said Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Washington should be “thinking outside the box” about its relations with Cairo, Egyptian jurist Auf agreed, while Shehata called for the U.S. to adopt a new “civil discourse that validates citizenship and equal rights.”
The first round produced “the worst of all the possible run-off combinations,” George Washington University’s Marc Lynch writes in Foreign Policy. “That tantalizing glimpse of a successful transition to a civilian President who could represent the revolution and challenge the SCAF seems to once again be dancing from view.”
But the result was “not the worst possible outcome,” said Shehata. There was little violence, no widespread fraud, the process was transparent and the integrity of the transition process is largely intact.
The next few weeks will see much horse-trading, he said, and it would be no surprise if the “risk-averse” Brotherhood tried to “assure voters and reduce tensions” by reaching out to seculars and supporters of its former official Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh.
Ideally, the Brotherhood would offer commitments on a civil state, personal liberties and perhaps offer senior appointments to political rivals.
Liberal secular MP Amr Hamzawy today called on Morsi to pull out of the race in favor of Sabbahi, who came third in the race by garnering almost 21 percent of the vote.
But Sabbahi is not well-placed to exercise any leverage over the Islamists, said Georgetown’s Shehata.
Despite his strong performance, his was the least-organized, worst-funded and ill-disciplined campaign, and it does not hold out much promise for providing a focal point for Egypt’s notoriously fractious secular forces.
Some observers are skeptical that a group as authoritarian and tightly-disciplined as the Brotherhood is prepared to share power in a genuinely pluralist arrangement.
“What government are they talking about? After they take the presidency, do they just want to give us a couple of ministerial portfolios?” said Hossam Issa, a secular law professor at Cairo University. “Do ministers have any weight vis-a-vis the president?”
“What happened [recently] proves that they want to write the constitution on their own,” he added.
The Islamist group’s approach is consistent with its history of semi-clandestine politics and opportunistic alliances.
“It has money and numbers, and a sense of political cunning bequeathed it by its founder, who in his time was a chameleon of supreme pragmatism and concealment,” writes Fouad Ajami in the Wall Street Journal. “And so the Brotherhood was part of Tahrir Square—those magical 18 days that toppled Mubarak—and yet it wasn’t. It played cat-and-mouse with the armed forces and signaled its unease with the politics of mass protest.”
If Morsi wins, the Brotherhood will need to confront an issue that has been a source of internal friction within the movement, says Daniel Brumberg, an analyst at the US Institute for Peace: the political role of the military.
“Thus, for example, party leader and veteran activist Dr. Esam el-Erian has stated –in one breath mind you– that his party ‘will not allow (the military) to wield political influence in the new state,’ but that ‘dismantling the army’s hold on the civil state is a gradual process because any quick decision will led to a civilian-military confrontation,’’ Brumberg writes.
“It will not be easy to square this circle, but that will be in the challenge in the coming years. It is a long process.”
The Brotherhood’s recent actions “have helped generate enormous mistrust and resentment among the political class [which] …combined with growing polarization around Islamism and fear of one party dominated both branches of government, has pushed at least some forces towards Shafik,” writes Lynch.
While the Islamists are largely pragmatic and its leaders emphasize the need to prioritize economic reform, but it needs to provide further reassurances.
“Forming meaningful coalitions in the next few weeks ahead of the election, and making firm guarantees on the constitution, would help…. though such promises are difficult to make credible,” he notes.
It is not merely that the Brotherhood is the country’s “best organized” group, says Trager, the Next Generation Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“It is the only organized group, with a nationwide hierarchy that can quickly transmit commands from its Cairo-based Guidance Office (maktab al-irshad) to its 600,000 members scattered throughout Egypt,” he writes in the New Republic. “The hierarchy works as follows:
The twenty-member Guidance Office sends its marching orders to deputies in each governorate (muhafaza), who communicate with their deputies in each “sector” (quita), who communicate with their deputies in each “area” (muhafaza), who communicate with their deputies in each “populace” (shoaba), who finally communicate with the leaders of each Brotherhood “family” (usra), which is comprised of five Muslim Brothers and represents the organization’s most basic unit. This chain of command is used for executing all Guidance Office decisions, including commanding Muslim Brothers to participate in protests, organize social services, and—during the most recent elections—campaign and vote for Mohamed Morsi.
Two additional aspects of the Brotherhood’s Leninist structure ensure organizational discipline and obedience to the leadership, Trager adds:
First, the social lives of members are deeply embedded within the organization. Muslim Brothers meet with their five-person Brotherhood “families” at least weekly, where they study religious texts, discuss politics, organize local Brotherhood activities, and share their private lives with one another. ….
Second, the very process of becoming a Muslim Brother ensures that only those who are deeply committed to the organization and its principles become full-fledged members. Indeed, becoming a Muslim Brother is an intricate five-to-eight-year process, during which each member is gradually promoted through four tiers of memberships before finally becoming a “working Brother” (ach amal).