As Egyptians prepare to vote in tomorrow’s presidential poll, the diversity of candidates disguises what is essentially a polarized set of options: vote for Islamists of ‘regime remnants.’
The poll will nevertheless represent the start of a significant new stage in Egypt’s troubled transition.
“Free and fair elections and the installation of a civilian president would be a step in the right direction,” said Samer S. Shehata, an Egypt expert from Georgetown University. “It will be the first step in the retreat, or hopefully the removal, of the military from executive power.”
Each of the leading candidates has established a niche, says Shadi Hamid, an analyst at the Brookings Doha Center. “Amr Moussa is the ‘Change but not too much change’ candidate. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh is the Change and ‘Let’s transcend partisan divisions’ candidate — the sort of Obama thing. Mohamed Morsi is the ‘We vote the Muslim Brotherhood’ candidate,’” he says. “And Ahmed Shafik — he’s the ‘Nostalgia for the old order candidate.’”
With many secular and even Christian voters flocking to former Muslim Brotherhood official Aboul Fotouh, his candidacy has become the Rorschach test of Egyptian politics, says Hamid.
“Whoever is elected, and who SCAF accepts [as president], will be made aware of the balance of power between the president, the army and its rulers,” said Amir Salem, a human rights lawyer and longtime activist. “The transition has not yet reached a point where the president can act as a strong, independent entity.”
The failure of secular liberals, including the media-hyped Facebook liberals, to field a credible candidate reflects a combination of political naivety, strategic myopia and lack of organizational capacity, observers suggest.
Some of the leading self-styled revolutionaries agree.
“Before and after the revolution, we should have had a plan for what we would do after Mubarak left,” says Ahmed Maher, a founder of the April 6th movement that supported an outbreak of labor militancy in 2008, a precursor of the Jasmine Revolution three years later.
While the Islamists have sided with the military, supporting the crackdown on pro-democracy NGOs, for instance, Maher believes they are the lesser of two authoritarian evils.
“If there is Islamic rule in Egypt, we can protest, fight, quarrel, file lawsuits, stage demonstrations, but with army rule there is no room for negotiation,” he argues.
The popularity of the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party has taken a dive since the party won 40 percent of seats in the new assembly. The performance of the Islamist-dominated parliament and the Brotherhood’s sectarian opportunism has led to a decline in support for the Brotherhood 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%.
With a recent poll placing Morsi in fourth place, there are two reasons why the Brotherhood’s candidate is trailing, says Khalil al-Anani, a senior fellow at Egypt’s al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
“First of all, he doesn’t have charismatic character, which can convince many Egyptians outside the Brotherhood,” he says. “Second thing, there is a sense among Egyptians that the Brotherhood seeks to dominate all the political institutions.”
Furthermore, Morsi is an organization man and will clearly follow the party line of what remains a highly opaque, disciplined, Leninist-type sect.
“That’s one of the main weaknesses of him, that many people don’t believe that Morsi can act away from the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood,” says al-Anani.
The historically “reactive” Brotherhood has also struggled to make a strategic transition from the politics of protest to the prospect of power, says al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements at the UK’s Durham University.
“It is a mistake to try to make the jump from a long-banned movement to the main political power in the country,” he argues. “This is a trap and the Brotherhood has been lured into it.”
Some sixteen months after Mubarak’s ouster, Egypt “is still struggling politically, economically, and in terms of security,” writes David Schenker, the Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“The election, if credible, has the potential to some degree to help stabilize the state on these fronts. The key will be the process,” he contends:
Egyptians are going to be watching the voting process itself quite carefully. With dozens of American staffers of U.S.-based democracy promotion organizations still standing trial in Egypt in absentia, only a few foreign organizations — including just one U.S.-based organization, the Carter Center — plan to monitor the elections on the ground. As of May 16, however, credentials for these monitors still had not been issued by the Egyptian Higher Committee for Elections. Worse, the Carter Center has already been informed that it will not be allowed to observe any single polling station for more than thirty minutes.
The regime’s prosecution of US-based and US-funded pro-democracy NGOs has had a detrimental effect on civil society’s capacity to monitor the electoral process, say analysts.
“Because of the whole NGO scandal and sort of the attack on foreign funding, this is going to be at a much smaller scale than it was for the parliamentary elections and than it should be,” said Michele Dunne,* an Egypt expert with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. “There will be some monitoring going on. It’ll be small scale. And at the same time, the elections themselves will be much larger scale.” The scale of the poll could overwhelm monitors, she fears.
“The presidential election is even clearer and more exciting than the parliamentary elections were. So potentially, there are 52 million eligible voters, we could see 30 million or something like that turning out,” she explained.
Nevertheless, “wholesale fraud” is unlikely, writes Schenker:
Historically, that task has been the purview of the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior, an organization that is not at present working closely with the SCAF. Moreover, thousands of domestic Egyptian monitors are slated to observe the balloting. On Monday, for example, a campaign official working for Abdel Monem Abouel Fetouh told the Egyptian daily al-Yawm al-Saba that the candidate had “nearly 100,000 volunteers and registered representatives” to “follow up on irregularities” during the voting and spend the evening in the polling stations.
The presidential poll reveals Egyptians as falling into three main categories, Haitham Tabei a journalist at Asharq Al-Awsat, writes on EgyptSource:
1) those who support the revolution or the Islamist current and whose views cannot be changed;
2) a smaller group affiliated with the former regime, who are equally steadfast in their beliefs; and
3) the most important group – those confused voters who have not yet made up their minds, and who determined the parliamentary elections in favor of the Islamists led by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and Salafi Nour Party.
Many Egyptians argue that the revolution has not improved their living conditions, but has only increased their misery in light of deteriorating security conditions and protests that no longer satisfy them, the anger against mass protests and demonstrations rose more and more after the killing of a soldier by gunfire in the clashes at Abbasiya. State media reports that the army discovered weapons among the protesters, this instability, chaos and insecurity situation has made many voters inclined to choose a candidate capable of restoring security and order in the Egyptian street, rather than the candidates associated with the revolution.
The Parliament’s disappointing performance does not bode well for Islamists, who have failed to present solutions to problems of unemployment, low salaries, and inflation. In my conversations with Egyptians in the Delta region who voted in large numbers for the Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections, the perception that the Muslim Brotherhood aspires to control and monopolize all state authorities and institutions is now causing many voters to turn away from the Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Morsi.
This trend is also pushing voters toward Shafiq and Moussa. The latter enjoys considerable support in the Egyptian street because of his strong stance against Israel during his tenure as Foreign Minister. Many believe that the SCAF is keeping Shafiq in the race despite his initial disqualification by the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission (SPEC) to galvanize activists against Shafiq, and them more willing to accept Moussa as an alternative. But many activists here are fighting them both equally, and they believe that Moussa is only marginally better than Shafiq.
In summary, the January uprising has plunged revolutionary forces into a final battle against the former regime, and it is a battle of survival that will determine the fate of the nation. But the war is not only against candidates of the former regime but also against stereotypes that control undecided voters’ perceptions of the revolution and Islamists, which pushed them to vote in favor of former regime candidates although only fifteen months have passed since the revolution.