Who will win Egypt?

May 27, 2012, Sunday/ 14:45:00/ OMAR ASHOUR

CAIRO -- Everything about Egypt's revolution has been unexpected, and the results of the first round of the country's first-ever competitive presidential election are no different.

The rise of former President Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister, General Ahmad Shafiq, who will enter the presidential runoff alongside Muslim Brothers (MB) candidate Mohamed Mursi, has raised eyebrows across the political spectrum. So has the meteoric rise of Nasserist candidate Hamdin Sabbahi to third place, and the fourth place finish of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who was backed by liberals and hard-line Salafi Islamists alike.

Egypt's voters overwhelmingly chose the revolution over the old regime, shattering the myth that the push for change is an urban, middle-class, Cairo-based phenomenon: The eight revolutionary candidates received more than 16.4 million votes. But the failure of these candidates to unite on a single platform directly benefited Shafiq, who unexpectedly won 5.9 million votes (assuming no election-rigging took place).

Shafiq's success shocked many revolutionaries. “He is a murderer. His place is in jail, not on top of Egypt after the revolution,” said one activist. Indeed, Shafiq has been linked to multiple cases of corruption and repression, including the “battle of the camels” on February 2, 2011, when Mubarak's henchmen attacked Tahrir Square, killing and wounding protesters.

The rise of Shafiq is understandable in some areas but raises eyebrows in others. In Upper Egypt “more than 60 percent of Copts voted for him,” a source close to the Coptic Orthodox Church has said, and in Coptic-majority areas the pro-Shafiq vote exceeded 95 percent as he is widely perceived as a bulwark against Islamism.

Moreover, many state employees (around 5.1 million of them eligible to vote) and their families supported Shafiq, owing either to direct instructions from their bosses or to the perceived threat of creeping MB influence on government bureaucracies. Further, Shafiq received financing and support from Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP), as well as from business and security interests that had benefited under the pre-revolution status quo.


However, this is insufficient to explain Mursi's defeat in traditional MB strongholds. In Sharqiya, a bastion of hardcore MB support with 3.5 million voters, Shafiq defeated Mursi by more than 90,000 votes. In the Gharbiya governorate, another MB stronghold, he outstripped Mursi by more than 200,000 votes.

I have compared the first round results with the MB's performance in the parliamentary elections earlier this year. At that time the MB lost between 25 and 48 percent of their support in the Nile Delta (depending on the area), where 40 percent of Egyptians live. Assuming no foul play, Shafiq received around two million votes from four Delta governorates: Sharqiya, Gharbiya, Munufiya, and Daqahliyya.

Egypt's Islamists -- the strongest political force on the ground, and the most repressed under Mubarak -- have a serious stake in this election. But rather than uniting to improve their chances their popular support was split between three candidates, two of whom -- Mursi and Aboul Fotouh -- placed among the four front-runners.

Salafi support for Fotouh, a moderate former MB leader, proved to be a double-edged sword as it repelled many liberals and socialists who would have voted for him otherwise. Most revolutionaries who did not want an Islamist-dominated Egypt were alienated as well. Their votes went to Sabbahi of the left-leaning Nasserist camp, who surprised observers by winning 5.4 million votes.

If anything, the first-round results reveal the power of the non-Islamist revolutionary bloc, as well as the willingness of the Egyptians to punish Islamists for their weak performance in the Parliament. Indeed, six out of 10 Egyptians voted for Islamists in the parliamentary elections, a figure that dropped to four in 10 in the presidential election.

Mursi, who finished first with 6 million votes, had the MB's disciplined, dedicated, and experienced machine fully behind him. That meant a sophisticated election campaign that penetrated deeply into Egyptian society, urban and rural, in which women played a key role. “This is where they beat the Salafis. Their women are experienced, outgoing, gutsy and trained to be convincing and charismatic,” a Salafi activist who supported Fotouh told me. “Salafi women are shy, introverts. They can't compete for votes with the MB ladies.”

The MB must now try to persuade the 10.7 million voters who supported Fotoh and Sabbahi to back Mursi against Shafiq in the runoff election. The MB probably needs to reserve the vice presidency for a non-Islamist like Sabbahi. Likewise, Fotoh, or perhaps Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, will need to be appointed prime minister. Moreover, the MB will most likely have to offer some concessions to guarantee balanced representation of Islamists and non-Islamists in the assembly chosen by Parliament to draft a new constitution.

Whoever wins Egypt's presidency will face serious obstacles in challenging the status quo, owing to the dominance of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The president's mandate was outlined by a constitutional declaration in March 2011, but the SCAF has said that a more detailed one would be forthcoming after the election. That could mean weakening the president's powers and reserving some domains for the army -- at least until a new constitution is adopted.

What remains certain is that no democratic transition can be complete without elected representatives exercising meaningful control over the security services and the armed forces. That will be the ultimate test of the Egyptian revolution, and the most critical challenge for any president who does not embody a return to the past.

*Omar Ashour is director of the Middle East Graduate Studies Program, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter (UK), and a visiting fellow, Brookings Doha Center. He is the author of “The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements.” © Project Syndicate 2012.

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