Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood organized a 760-km (470-mile)-long human chain from Cairo to Aswan of supporters (left) holding posters and wearing T-shirts bearing the image of Mohamed Mursi, the group’s candidate in next week’s presidential election. The “show of strength” by the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party ahead of the poll highlights the group’s prodigious organizational capacity.
But a win for Mursi or Ahmed Shafiq, Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, would increase the risk of violent confrontation, analysts warned today.
The Islamist group’s electoral performance and grass-roots networks provide a stark contrast to the inchoate and disorganized ranks of liberal and secular democrats, demonstrating “the disarray of the protest movement that called for a democratic transformation in the Arab world’s most populous nation.”
A new poll suggests that potential new bases of support may be opening up for democratic forces as Egyptians exhibit growing disillusion with Islamist politics.
Support for the Brotherhood fell from 63% in February to 42% in April, while the group’s FJP also fell from 67% to 43% over the same period, according to a newly-released Gallup poll. The ultraconservative Salafists witnessed a similar – if less dramatic – decline from 37% to 25%, with the Salafist Nour Party falling from 40% to 30%.
Popular support for the Islamist-led parliament has also waned, with only 44% of respondents supporting the view that the party with most seats should select the body to write a new constitution, compared to 62% in February. Only 27% believe that the majority party should choose the vice president, down from 46% in February.
The percentage endorsing the view that the Muslim Brotherhood’s strong position in parliament is “a good thing” declined from 62% to 36%, while those opposed to a strong Brotherhood presence in the assembly grew from 27% to 47%.
“The FJP’s failure to keep its initial promise of not running a presidential candidate and its over-reach of power in stacking the Constituent Assembly with ideologically friendly figures and members of parliament seems to have eroded many Egyptians’ confidence,” Gallup suggests:
Instead of parliament and political leaders in the country focusing on reversing the country’s financial decline and working to hold former regime members accountable, Egypt’s transition has been wrought with political power grabs and partisan quarrels. Political Islam and the parties and groups that fall into the country’s eclectic “Islamist” camp will continue to be major players in Egypt’s domestic political market. However, the latest Gallup data suggest that Egyptian support for such movements is conditioned on performance and not a blanket subscription based on ideology.
Public opinion has turned against the Brotherhood because it has broken several pledges to act in a non-sectarian manner, observers suggest. The Islamists’ attempt to pack the panel drafting the country’s new constitution was a wake-up call for many Egyptians, said Amr Hamzawy, a leading liberal parliamentarian. He had been able to work with FJP deputies on some issues in parliament, he told a recent meeting at Washington’s Wilson Center, but it has become clear that the Brotherhood is committed to its own sectarian agenda.
While the group is purportedly opposed to foreign funding of Egyptian political actors, vociferously supporting the regime’s prosecution of US-funded civil society and pro-democracy NGOs, it is clearly a beneficiary of substantial foreign funds and overseas influence, Hamzawy said. The Guidance Council – the Brotherhood’s governing body – is the main recipient of foreign cash, mostly from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
“He alleged that the Brotherhood made the decision to break its pledge not to run a candidate for president only after an FJP delegation was advised to do so by Turkey’s AK Party on a trip to Istanbul,” according to one account. “If one believes Hamzawy, the cooperation between the two groups is much closer than publicly acknowledged.”
It is unclear how recent shifts in opinion will affect the presidential vote, but some analysts suggest that a win for Mursi or Ahmed Shafiq, Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, would not only be the most divisive result but also increase the risk of violent confrontation.
“It will complicate and make it more conflictual if Mursi or Shafiq wins,” said Joshua Stacher, a political scientist and Egypt analyst based at Kent State University.
“The chances for more street activity will be incredibly high,” he said. “There is a real possibility that if the Muslim Brotherhood were to win, that the military could shut down the state bureaucracy on them.”
A win by the Brotherhood or the Mubarak holdover Shafiq would accentuate Egypt’s political polarization, said Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University.
If a Shafiq presidency would be a “reproduction of the old system through some new names,” a Brotherhood victory might provoke military intervention. “I am afraid that this kind of polarization will reproduce a coup,” he said.
A strong showing by Shafiq in the first round of the poll could be an indication of vote rigging, said former State Department analyst Michelle Dunne.* The presidential poll will have fewer election monitors than the parliamentary elections, creating more opportunities for election fraud, she told a Council on Foreign Relations seminar (below) in Washington this week.
The Gallup results may be more promising for the prospects of the leading Islamist contesting the poll.
Formerly a leading Brotherhood official, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, broke with the group in order to launch his presidential campaign for president and he has attracted the support of many secular activists and voters impressed with his relatively moderate stance on the Islamist agenda.
Observers note that Fotouh has made a conscious effort to ease the concerns of seculars, women and minorities, including the Christian Copts, by blending liberal and religious discourse.
“We are going to be the side that unites all the people,” he said. “To build a nation where the liberal can find freedom and dignity; that is included in our Islamic program.”
“There is no contradiction between religion and citizenship, religion and constitution, or religion and the state,” he claimed. Shariah protects the rights of all citizens, irrespective of their religious beliefs.
Some independent voices reject the suggestion that the central cleavage in Egyptian politics is between Islamist forces and the rest.
“The religious-secular divide is largely artificial. The real, dangerous struggle is between civil society and the deep state,” says Hossam Bahgat, a leading human-rights lawyer. Maybe so, but the fact that the Brotherhood, Salafists and Fotouh endorsed the regime’s crackdown on pro-democracy NGOs is hardly an indication that they back civil society.
“But in attempting to build a broad political coalition by appealing to multiple constituencies,” the FT’s Borzou Daragahi writes, “Dr Aboul Fotouh’s approach also illustrates the perils of mass politics at a time of political, social and economic crisis, and many experts say his campaign has lost critical momentum in the final weeks before the first round of elections on May 23.”
The former Brotherhood official has run “the most innovative campaign,” but he may fall victim to the country’s growing polarization, says Ibrahim Awad, a professor of public policy at Cairo’s American University. “He was a bridge between the camps. I don’t think he made any major blunders. But Aboul Fotouh would have been doing much better in a non-polarised electorate. The moment the electorate became polarised into Islamic and non-Islamic camps, he started to lose support.”
But Fotouh’s critics, and even some supporters, acknowledge that by seeking to appeal to all the major constituencies he has failed to fully satisfy any of them. After being endorsed by the major Salafist groups, some of them balked when he refused to take a hard line on applying Islamic law. His deputies now complain that the Salafists have failed to help rally Islamists to counter the organisational prowess of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is fielding Mohamed Morsi as a candidate.
Meanwhile, potential liberal and Christian supporters, alienated by his alliance with the Salafists, have also been drifting toward former foreign minister Amr Moussa, longtime Mubarak ally and former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq and to leftist nationalist Hamdeen Sabahi.
Fotouh’s attempt to craft an agenda that appeals to a coalition ranging from liberals to Salafists is evidence of his insincerity and opportunism, says his closest rival.
“With the Salafis, he’s a Salafi, with the liberals a liberal, and he’s a moderate with the moderates,” Moussa said.
Such views find an echo amongst other observers
“Aboul Fotouh talks about religion in a liberal way,” says Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology who supports the leftist Sabahi. “But he left the Muslim Brotherhood tactically. It was not over ideological issues or principles. Many people don’t trust him.”
Moussa’s candidacy is supported by those “who want change but not too much of it,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
Aboul-Fotouh’s has maintained the Brotherhood’s welfare-populist approach to economic policy, say observers, proposing an economic policy “clearly biased to the poorer classes.”
“The philosophy is that Egyptian individuals should be the target of development, not just a tool for economic growth,” said Samer Atallah, an assistant professor of economics at the American University in Cairo and an adviser to Fotouh.
In a reflection of the political marginalization of the secular liberals who initiated the revolution, the presidential poll “has boiled down to a choice” of two illiberal, questionably democratic alternatives – “former members of Mubarak’s regime, who the revolutionaries believe will keep the old system intact and will not challenge the military’s grip on politics, and Islamists, who they worry will impose an equally authoritarian system but based on religion.”
The successful candidate “will face a daunting task,” notes the Economist:
The 15 months since Mr Mubarak’s fall have seen foreign-exchange reserves haemorrhage by two-thirds, the official unemployment rate rise by a quarter to nearly 13%, and the government budget deficit surge to 10% of GDP, financed by borrowing at inexorably rising rates that now nudge 17%. The budget shortfall could be resolved at a stroke by scrapping energy subsidies, but in a country where 40% of people live in poverty, this is a sizzling political potato.
Tricky constitutional questions also loom. One concerns how to frame relations between religion and the state: should sharia remain, as before, a guiding principle for legislation, or should its specific rulings be binding? Another is what to do with the army, whose tentacles reach everywhere. Even more daunting is the task of dismantling the shadowy matrix of security agencies and operatives whose unaccountable powers accumulated over 60 years and permeate laws, institutions and the 6m-strong bureaucracy.
“The lack of trust between Egypt’s polarised centres of power, combined with the shakiness of key institutions such as the courts and the parliament, suggests the road ahead will be rocky. Yet optimists also make a good case,” says the Economist:
On a surprising number of issues there is consensus. All the main contenders agree that Egypt needs a market economy with a commitment to social justice. All concur that education and health need sweeping reform. Despite much rhetorical bashing of Israel, no one seriously calls for abandoning Egypt’s treaty obligations. Civilians, both Islamist and liberal, are generally convinced that the army must return to the barracks, but remain free of overweening control by the new civilian authorities.
Some left liberals are investing in the next generation by backing one of the marginal and youngest of the 13 candidates, labor activist Khaled Ali, known as “the lawyer for the poor,” AP reports:
Ali is a distant underdog in the polls and has almost no chance of winning. But his candidacy is aimed at showing Egyptians that the revolution does have a face.
“Give the revolution a chance to rule,” the 40-year-old Ali proclaimed at a recent rally. Ali, who helped organize labor protests in the early 2000s that were the first to call for Mubarak’s ouster, has sought to set an agenda for the coming period. He calls for return of the public sector and state subsidies of the poor.
But at the top of his campaign is “demilitarization” of the country.
The military is infused through the system. It provided all of Egypt’s four presidents. Former generals head many state institutions. Most governors come from army ranks. Laws enshrine the military’s economic might — for example, giving it the priority over large swaths of land, some of which it leases out to cronies.
All this will take pressure to uproot, Ali said recently in one of the many political TV talk shows.
“Mubarak is not just a name, it is a system, policies and a network of interests. It will not go away without real confrontation.”
*Dunne, a former Middle East specialist in the White House and Department of State, is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.