The first round of the Egyptian presidential election, like every other election over the past year and a half, and unlike those over the previous sixty years, brought its own surprises. The usually unreliable polls were again wrong, as were most of the pundits (both Egyptian and foreign). In first place was Mohamed Morsi, the second-choice candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Close by in second place was deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, the former air force general Ahmad Shafiq. The two candidates who had widely been presumed frontrunners, the liberal Islamist Abdul Moneim Abul Fetouh and Mubarak’s former foreign minister and head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, took fourth and distant fifth places, respectively. The surprisingly strong third place candidate, Hamdeen Sabbahi, had been written off by most observers and many activists as too secular, too nationalist, and too Nasserist to be anything but a has-been. A shift of a tad more than three percent of the vote would have put him in the final round with Morsi.
Most Egyptians probably consider the contest between Morsi and Shafiq an apocalyptic scenario, although for very different reasons. The MB see events since January 2011 as a successful revolution that has brought them, for the first time in their history, to the power that their popular support warrants. They fear that a Shafiq presidency would restore the old order, not only stripping the MB of its newfound power and influence, but also hunting down its leaders for trial and jail. For them this is a moment in which their existential fears and hopes are on the line. The same applies for many of Shafiq’s supporters who saw the revolution as an overly zealous assault on a stable and increasingly wealthy society that has long since exceeded any reasonable bounds. They fear that a Morsi presidency would allow the Muslim Brotherhood to combine its control of parliament with the power of the executive to dominate the country, as did the old regime but with the additional, revolutionary intent of enforcing their particular version of Islamic law and politics. Supporters of the losing candidates in large measure see the revolutionary events of 2011 as an incomplete and failing endeavor to change Egyptian politics profoundly. For them no matter which candidate wins, the hope of a more open, socially just, and truly pluralist order will be lost in a renewed dictatorship. The perceived stakes of this election are, therefore, exceptionally high.
While it often has appeared that Egypt was divided into revolutionary and counter-revolutionary camps, this election indicates there are at least three major groups in the country: the Islamists centered in the MB, partisans of law and the old order, and supporters of a populist social-welfare state broadly construed. Each seems to be able to regularly command about a third of the electorate and there is no reason to believe that any of them will be leaving the scene any time soon.
After a year in which the Islamist movements, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, appeared to have dominated politics, the presidential election revealed a very different political landscape to the complete dismay of many Egyptians. The election campaign and, even more, the pre-campaign period were, as most of the last eighteen months have been, an emotional roller coaster. The first-choice candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, the deputy general guide Khairat Shater, was disqualified because he had been convicted (on trumped-up charges) of a felony fewer than five years before the election. A week after the first round of the presidential election the MB-dominated parliament finally proposed a law granting political amnesty to those convicted of political crimes under the Mubarak era. Had they moved more expeditiously, Shater could have run, as could Ayman Nour, who had challenged Mubarak in 2005 and served four years in prison for his temerity. The presidential commission also disqualified the Salafi candidate, Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail who violated a constitutional requirement that no candidate for president have parents with non-Egyptian citizenship. Abu-Ismail himself had supported a “yes vote” in the constitutional referendum, which made that a binding condition, despite knowing that his mother had become an American citizen. He knew then, as when he proposed running for the presidency, that he was in complete violation of the constitutional provision, which, unlike the abrogation of the political rights of felons, could not be changed by an act of parliament.
It is no small irony that Abu-Ismail was disqualified for having a parent who became an American at the end of her life. So, too, would any Egyptian married to a foreigner, whereas Morsi can be president despite having children who are American citizens because they were born in the United States while he attended graduate school and worked as a professor in the California State university system. The somewhat xenophobic idea that the presidency must be an office reserved for “pure” Egyptians, untainted by intimate connections with foreign countries in their childhood or their marital bed, runs headlong into the reality that many professional and middle-class Egyptians have a variety of relationships with the United States, European countries, or the rest of the Arab world.
Many polls were conducted in the weeks before the election and they invariably showed Morsi winning less than ten percent of the vote while bestowing the leading positions on Moussa and Abul Fetouh. The two conducted the first open debate between presidential candidates in Arab history during which they traded barbed comments and directly insulting questions. Morsi and Shafiq, meanwhile, the two least charismatic figures in the race, were ignored or (when remembered) mocked. By the end of the campaign, even English speakers knew that Morsi was the Brotherhood’s “spare tire” without having to reflect much on the level of preparation and discipline required thereby. The MB’s decision to field a presidential candidate after months of denying that they would remains something of a mystery. Yet one obvious reality is that they had come to realize that almost any president other than one of their own would rapidly move to restrict their power. Another irony of contemporary Egyptian politics, frequently noted by Abul Fetouh (himself a former member of their inner leadership) is that the MB does not, strictly speaking, have legal status. Rather like the foreign NGOs whose staff members were charged with criminal behavior in the winter, the MB is not a registered organization, and its finances, elections, and internal organization are not subject to public review or government regulation. Unlike the NGOs, however, the MB is a powerful political and social force, but, in the wake of the revolution, it could be transformed by a president bent on making it at once legal and, thus weakened. This Abul Fetouh explicitly promised to do.
Believing, as did most observers (including me, had I been asked), that the second round would be a battle between Abul Fetouh, representing the hopes of the revolution, and Moussa, representing the fears of the felul (the conservatives and remnants of the old regime), many activists and members of the political elite spent weeks debating whether it made more strategic sense to back Abul Fetouh from the beginning or wait. The best strategic thinking was that Moussa would come in first, that Sabbahi would pull votes away from Abu al-Fetouh, leaving Morsi to sneak into the second round. The scenarios widely (and at times wildly) considered were many, but usually included a run-off between Abul Fetouh and Morsi, which would ensure some form of Islamist domination of the presidency, or between Abul Fetouh and Moussa, in which Egyptians would have to decide whether to back the most liberal of the Islamists or the most conservative of the liberals. The country, everybody knew, was dividing into two camps: the revolution and the counter-revolution of the generals.
Although the second and final round of the election will necessarily require a division of Egypt into two camps, the arithmetic of the first suggests that some surprising governing coalitions are possible. The top five candidates received about ninety-eight percent of the vote, so we can ignore the remaining eight. The first two, obvious coalitions, represent the hopes of the MB and the old regime, respectively. Morsi hopes he can combine Abul Fetouh’s 17.5 percent of the vote with his own twenty-five percent of the vote and half of Sabbahi’s votes, and govern through what he and his supporters will deem a revolutionary Islamic coalition. This assumes, of course, that all or almost all of Abu al-Fetouh’s supporters prefer an Islamist candidate, and that many of Sabbahi’s voters will not cast ballots for a former Mubarak official. Shafiq, on the contrary, assumes that he can combine his twenty-three percent of the vote with Moussa’s eleven percent and win a significant portion of Sabbahi’s voters who have already demonstrated that they will not vote for the MB. There is also every reason to believe that Shafiq would benefit more from abstentions than the MB because abstainers are more likely to be found among dismayed supporters of Abul Fetouh and Sabbahi than among supporters of Moussa and Shafiq, for whom this election poses an existential challenge. No longer available but tantalizing was a different coalition that earlier seemed impossible. Had, for example, Sabbahi and Abul Fetouh run as a presidential/vice presidential ticket together, there is every reason now to believe that Sabbahi would have gained some thirty percent of the vote and entered the run-off with Morsi with the near certainty that supporters of Moussa and Shafiq, a combined thirty-five percent of the vote, would vote for any opponent of the MB.
A last coalition of sorts that nobody talks about but obviously exists, at least in theory, is a “coalition of order” between the MB, Shafiq, and Moussa supporters. If the assumption that guides the “Islamic revolutionary” coalition is that the MB were part of the revolution, there is also the possibility that they now speak for a large group of Egyptians for whom the revolution has gone far enough and who want a return to “normalcy.” Between Shafiq, who believes the revolution has gone too far, and the MB, who believe they have brought it just far enough, there is more room for political compromise than there would have been between either of these camps and Sabbahi. A Shafiq presidency with significant MB participation in the government could easily claim to represent some sixty percent of Egyptians. Shafiq would be unlikely to give the MB the so-called ministries of sovereignty, but he might be quite willing to entrust them with several of the social ministries.
While any dreams of a Sabbahi-Abul Fetouh ticket are now spilled milk, they do suggest a profound problem with the Egyptian oppositional political leadership, namely a seeming inability to put personal or partisan advantage aside, which ultimately cripples their ability to accomplish their own goals. Given that there was no prior electoral experience to suggest that Sabbahi had significant support that outweighed that of Abul Fetouh, their difficulty in reaching a common candidacy is understandable. It will nevertheless weigh heavily on the country’s future, and it will weigh even more heavily if they and their followers cannot establish any ongoing institutional presence.
Going forward the question is which coalition—particularly the revolutionary Islamist one or the stability one—will be victorious in the presidential race. Both have significant support among the Egyptian population, but neither has sufficient support to win alone. The votes of the third (I prefer not to think of it as “centrist” or “moderate,” two words that have bedeviled and confused discussions of Egyptian politics for more than a decade) coalition will decide the outcome. Supporters of Sabbahi and Abul Fetouh comprise nearly forty percent of Egypt’s voters in the first round, or about sixteen percent of eligible voters, since sixty percent of Egypt’s voters did not come to the polls. We know very little about who they are or where they are geographically, other than at the almost useless level of the governorate.
The result is sufficiently surprising that many people suspect fraud, but no one can quite say how it occurred. Claims of fraud and the occasional mention that turnout was much lighter than in the parliamentary rounds masks one of the most important features of the first presidential round: the collapse of the MB/FJP vote due both to abstentions and shifts.
One of the surprising and so far unasked questions in the election is what happened to the significant number of MB and Salafist (primarily Al-Nour Party) voters who cast ballots in the parliamentary elections but were AWOL last week. Clearly millions of supporters of the MB in local elections did not cast votes for the presidency. The FJP, headed by Morsi, collected more than ten million votes (37.5 percent) in the parliamentary elections but Morsi himself won about 5.5 million (twenty-five percent). Some 7.5 million Egyptians (twenty-eight percent) voted for the Salafi Al-Nour party in the fall, but even if you make the absurd assumption that Abul Fetouh’s entire vote came from them, then why did he get only four million votes (eighteen percent)? Clearly some of the MB and Salafi voters (who are of course not themselves members of the MB or necessarily Salafis) voted for Sabbahi or Moussa, but many must have not cast ballots. Had Morsi received the same votes that went to the FJP (which he heads) and half the votes cast for Al-Nour Party, he would nearly have won the presidency on the first round. He would have won nearly thirteen million votes out of twenty-nine million (forty-five percent) cast instead of 5.5 million out of twenty-two million. There was significant shock about the 586,000 votes (fifty-six percent of the those) cast for General Shafiq in the governorate of Menofia. But Menofia looks like an example of something else entirely. Nearly 1.2 million voters there went to the polls for the FJP alone in the two proportional list constituencies that made up the province for the parliamentary elections. This is more than the total number of votes cast in the province`s presidential election. Morsi got about 200,000 votes; so, if half the remaining million who voted FJP in the winter had gone back to the polls for the party’s leader in the spring, he would have handily defeated Shafiq.
Not quite as puzzling but far from obvious is where exactly Shafiq’s and Moussa’s 7.5 million votes (thirty-five percent) came from. The vote for former National Democratic Party (NDP) offshoots in the parliamentary election was just under two million (about seven percent). If you make the assumption that the combined five million parliamentary Al-Wafd and the Egyptian Bloc (eighteen percent) voters went for either Moussa or Shafiq, then you are in the ballpark. This is, in essence, the claim that many supporters and members of the MB and the Salafi movements make, specifically that the electoral base of these parties was Christian and those voters cast their presidential ballots for Shafiq. Plausible as it may appear, this assumption is not realistic.
The claim that Shafiq’s victory was due to Christians is not borne out by the numbers. As political commentators and activists have pointed out, Shafiq’s vote came primarily from overwhelmingly Muslim governorates such as Menofia, where he won nearly 600,000 votes (about eleven percent of his total) and Sharqiya, where he won more than 625,000 votes (about twelve percent). News accounts also suggest that in wide sections of the Delta voters turned on the MB, but again the crucial issue here is the absent vote for the FJP, rather than the vote for Shafiq. Had Shafiq won 5.5 million votes out of nearly 30 million (about nineteen percent) his second-place showing would be less remarkable.
It is nevertheless certain that few if any Christians voted for (or will vote for) Morsi. Because Morsi has been reported as saying Christians who voted for Shafiq are not really Egyptians, the claim that they constitute the base of the old regime’s attempt to regain power is troubling for many reasons. This incendiary assertion suggests that the MB/FJP will use sectarian language to motivate supporters to the polls, as they did during the March 2011 referendum and the parliamentary votes. It also reveals the profound difficulty that the MB and the Islamist trend more generally have with understanding why Christians and many Muslims as well distrust them. That the Christians, as a minority facing discrimination and prejudice, might have their own legitimate interests in a truly plural and secular (in the American not the French meaning of the term) polity is clearly foreign to the MB. It is this unwillingness to recognize the limits on its power as a majority that makes so many Egyptians—Christian and Muslims—fearful of the MB.
The electoral campaign is important because it will bring to the executive office a candidate committed to the elimination of the losing side from public life, though not necessarily to their physical liquidation. The campaign also seems important because it will, almost necessarily, be a campaign that exacerbates the country’s already deep divisions over the revolution, its meaning, and the long-term value of the changes it has already wrought.
What applies to the MB applies as well to Shafiq who is campaigning on a promise to end, if not reverse, the revolutionary events of the last year. Both candidates appear unable to recognize that the Egyptian public is profoundly divided. The revolutionary solution to wipe out the counter-revolution (or felul), broadly defined, and the counter-revolutionary solution to eliminate the revolution, also broadly defined, will thwart any possibility of creating a democratic state in a plural society. It appears, moreover, that at least a third of the country understands this all too well and voted accordingly. Continued calls, especially by the losing candidates in the presidential race, for a presidential council are a recognition of this reality. Unfortunately this proposal to solve deep political divisions through an administrative improvisation, are too late, too little, and unrealistic. So, too, are attempts to resolve the dilemma through demands for guarantees from the two candidates and their respective supporters. The renewal of demonstrations in the public squares of Egypt as I write this, however, suggests that the Egyptian people have not yet said their last word to those political elites who refuse to recognize that a return to authoritarianism, whether of the minority or a presumed electoral majority, is no longer a solution.
[Originally appeared in Nisr Al-Nasr]