Uncertain Future: The Egyptian Presidential Elections

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By: Dr. Aref Assaf
Two finalists emerged following the roller-coaster first round at the polls last month: Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, and Ahmed Shafiq, who had been appointed a prime minister in 2011 in the final days of the regime of deposed President Hosni Mubarak. Each took less than a quarter of the vote, with three eliminated candidates splitting most of the remainder.

Egyptians will go to the polls this weekend to make their choices known. The crisis of Egypt will not abate, however. No candidate received more than 50 percent of the votes in the primary elections, so a runoff had to be held between Morsi and Shafiq. Morsi represents the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and received 25.3 percent of the vote, while Shafiq, a former Egyptian air force commander and the last prime minister to serve in Hosni Mubarak’s administration, received 24.9 percent. The Islamist faction had done extremely well in the parliamentary election, and fear of an Islamist president caused the substantial Coptic community, among others, to support the candidate of the old regime, which had provided them at least some security.

Morsi and Shafiq effectively tied in the first round, and either one can win the next round. Morsi’s strength lies in his support of both the Islamist elements and those who fear a Shafiq presidency would entail a possible return to the old regime. Shafiq’s strength is that he speaks for those who fear an Islamist regime. The question is: who will win the non-Islamist secularists’ support.? They oppose both factions, but they are now going to have to live with a president from one of them. If their secularism is stronger than their hatred of the former regime, they will go with Shafiq. If not, they will go with Morsi. And, of course, it is not known whether the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military committee that has ruled Egypt since the fall of Mubarak, will cede any real power to either candidate, especially since the constitution has not even been drafted.

This is not how the West, nor many Egyptians, envisioned the Arab Spring would come to a head in Egypt. They overestimated the significance of the democratic secularists, how unrepresentative the anti-Mubarak demonstrators were of Egypt as a whole, and the degree to which those demonstrators were committed to Western-style democracy rather than a democracy that represented Islamist values.

What was least considered was the extent to which the military regime had support, even if Mubarak did not. Shafiq, the former prime minister in that regime, could very well win. The regime may not have generated passionate support or even been respected in many ways, but it served the interests of a number of people. Egypt is a cosmopolitan country and one that has many people who still take seriously the idea of an Arab, rather than Islamist, state. They fear the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamism and have little confidence in the ability of other parties, such as the socialists, who came in third, to protect them. For some, such as the Copts, the Islamists are an existential threat. The military regime, whatever its defects, is a known bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood. The old order is attractive to many because it is known; what the Muslim Brotherhood will become is not, and is frightening to those committed to secularism. They would prefer to live under the old regime.

We seem to have forgotten that these regimes arose as expressions of nationalism against European imperialism. The more that Westerners intervened against them, as in Iraq, the more support the regime, in principle at least, would gain. But most important, Westerners did not always recognize that the demand for democratic elections would emerge as a battleground between secular and religious tendencies, and not as the crucible from which Western-style liberal democracies would emerge. Nor did Westerners appreciate the degree to which these regimes defended religious minorities from hostile majorities precisely because they were not democratic. The Copts in Egypt cling to the old regime because it protected them. The Alawites see the Syrian conflict as a struggle for their own survival.

The outcome of the Egyptian election demonstrates this dilemma perfectly. This is the regime that Gamal Nasser founded. It is the protector of secularism and minority rights against those who, it is feared, seek to impose religious law. The regime may have grown corrupt under Mubarak, but it still represents a powerful tendency, a known quantity, among the Egyptians.

If the Muslim Brotherhood wins, then it will be relevant to see what the Egyptian military council does. But the idea that there is overwhelming support in Egypt for Western-style democracy is simply not true. The issues Egyptians and those in other Arab countries battle over derive from their own history, and in that history, the military and the state it created played a heroic role in asserting nationalism and secularism. The non-military secular parties do not have the same tradition to draw upon.

As in many other Arab countries, the military remains both a hedge against the Islamists and of the rights of some religious minorities. Those factions may win, but regardless of who prevails, the outcome will not be what many celebrants of the Arab Spring had hoped for. The ‘lesser evil’ argument we hear so often in US elections is playing out in Egypt. They are left with a choice between the military and the Islamists.

Ultimately, the elections will produce a president, not a solution to Egypt’s constitutional crisis. Efforts to at least agree on who should partake in the drafting of the new constitution seem to have reached a deadlock. And no one is certain what powers the new president may give himself moving forward.

Dr. Aref Assaf, President American Arab Forum, a think tank specializing in Arab and Muslim American affairs.

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