Egypt: An Election within a Coup within a Coup

Arab satellite television is showing lines of Egyptian voters at polling stations on Saturday, as some proportion of the 50 million eligible voters makes a decision between a former air force general and a leader of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.  The miltary has spread 150,000 troops through the country to safegaurd some 13,000 polling stations.

It will matter who wins, but it may not be pivotal.  The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has made a coup within their earlier coup, and holds ultimate power in its hands.  From playing president in the past year and a half, it appears now to intend to shift and play the role of the legislature until a new one is elected.  It likely will take a big role in drafting the new constitution, and so can greatly constrain the power of the presidency if it likes.  Moreover, the president will likely appoint a prime minister and a cabinet, and so will not rule alone even on the civilian side. Shafiq has spoken of appointing a Muslim Brotherhood prime minister, and if Mursi has any sense he would appoint a secular one.

It is impossible to predict an outcome, and polling before the first round of presidential elections was notoriously inaccurate.  But there are some indicators we could look at.  In the first round, the three major secular candidates together got nearly 12 million votes, while the two major Muslim candidates got a little over nine million votes.  But there were 13 candidates, many of them secular, and the Muslim religious candidates got less than 40 percent of the whole.  If the same pattern held true in this weekend’s election, then Ahmad Shafiq, the secular candidate, will win.  He got about five million votes, and will likely pick up the 2.5 million votes that went to Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister, also a secularist.  Supporters of some of the minor secular candidates may also come out for him.  It is not clear, however, if he can pick up the 4.5 million votes that went to the leftist Nasserist, Hamdeen Sabahi, who was supported by the labor movement and by many leftist youth.

Likewise, Mursi got about 5.5 million votes, and his Muslim rival Abdul Moneim Abou’l-Futouh got a little over four million.  But it isn’t clear that Mursi can pick up Abou’l-Futouh’s constituency.  He had broken with the Muslim Brotherhood and declared himself a ‘liberal’ Muslim.  He attracted some of the leftist, youth and liberal vote because of these stances.  Many of those who voted for him might not be willing to support a hardline fundamentalist like Mursi.

The other wild card is turnout.  Only 50 precent of eligible voters went to the polls in the May 23-24 elections (I was in Egypt then and went around to polling stations; some had lines, but many did not).  The dismissal of parliament and the dismal choice between a former regime figure and a hard line fundamentalist could well discourage Egyptians from bothering to vote.  I can’t figure out whether a low turnout would give an advantage to either candidate.  Both have powerful party machines behind them.

The choice is stark, at every level of policy.  (Quotes from the two candidates are here).

Ahmad Shafiq is a man of the Hosni Mubarak regime.  He is pro-American, committed to good relations with Israel, and warns that the Muslim fundamentalists want to drag Egypt back into the Middle Ages.  Although he promises ‘freedom of expression and of the internet’ if elected, he also pledges to curb public protests and to impose law and order.  He is close to the real power behind the throne, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.  He is, in short, a ‘Mubarak lite.’

In contrast, Muhammad Mursi, 60, an engineering Ph.D. trained at the University of Southern California who claims to have worked on a NASA project as an assistant professor, is committed to the imposition of a literalist interpretation of Islamic canon law on Egypt.  He was a member of parliament 2000-2005, and was spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood bloc.  His supporters say his loss of the seat in a run-off in 2005 was engineered by the Mubarak government.  He was jailed more than once under Mubarak, and one of his sons was arrested last February and badly beaten by the military, leaving him with broken bones.  His supporters maintain that he would therefore never arbitrarily jail anyone else.  While he says he respects popular sovereignty and admits that there is no such thing as ‘Islamic democracy,’ only ‘democracy’– his vision of making a rigid interpretation of medieval Islamic law the law of the land in Egypt disturbs liberals and leftists.  He says he is committed to the peace treaty with Israel, as long as the Israelis observe it.  But he was a member in Sharqiya Province of the ‘Committee for Resistance to Zionism,’ has called the Israeli leadership ‘vampires,’ and his party supports the fundamentalist Hamas party that rules the Gaza Strip.  Mursi would likely have cool relations with the US and Israel.

Either way, the winner will be forced into a ‘cohabitation’ with SCAF, rather as Turkish governments of the 1990s had to share power with the Kemalist officer corps.  The president’s hands will be tied in many areas.

Those who question whether Egypt even had a revolution should stop and ask themselves if Shafiq really could jail 30,000 dissidents, as Mubarak did in the 1990s?  Or could arrange for his son to succeed him?  Or could subject all media to strict censorship and make it illegal to speculate about his health?  Shafiq may hope to be Mubarak lite, but the ‘lite’ qualifier is not meaningless.

My sense from talking to a wide range of Egyptians in May is that they feel they can endure almost any outcome for four years, that is, until the next election.  If the incumbents don’t do a good job, they are confident they can throw them out.  I think Egyptians have taken the dissolution of parliament relatively well precisely because all it really means is that they get an early chance to correct any mistakes they made last fall.

On the other hand, if regular elections are not held, or if people widely feel they are fraudulent, then I think there would be a big political explosion.


Editor's Note: This essay originally appeared on June 16, 2012, on Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion, a website featuring commentary by Professor Juan Cole.  It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Cole.

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