Michael Petrou on elections in Egypt: The Arab Spring for this?

A return to the Mubarak era—or Sharia law? That’s the choice facing voters in Egypt’s presidential runoff

The Arab Spring for this?

Amr Dalsh/Reuters

An Egyptian revolutionary, looking back at the last year and a half since protesters forced former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak from power, might reasonably wonder how much has really changed.

Despite all the deaths and injuries during demonstrations that brought democracy to Egypt, and despite nationwide votes in parliamentary elections and the first round of a presidential poll, the choice Egyptians now face in the election’s final round on June 16 and 17 is between the two forces that dominated Egypt before the Arab Spring bloomed: the Muslim Brotherhood and a military-backed autocracy.

The two candidates contesting this week’s runoff vote are Ahmed Shafik, a former air force commander and Mubarak’s last prime minister, and Mohamed Morsi, candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.

Shafik comes from the very heart of the regime Egyptians struggled to overthrow. He has described Mubarak as his “role model” and says the military should continue to play a political role in Egypt as “the guardian of constitutional legitimacy.”

“This was the person who was prime minister when hundreds of Egyptians were being killed in Tahrir Square during the revolution,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. “He is as old-regime as you can get without bringing back Mubarak himself.”

And yet Shafik won close to 24 per cent of the first-round vote, just a shade less than the almost 25 per cent earned by Morsi. “There is this kind of far-right, nationalistic, xenophobic, pro-military, neo-fascist constituency in Egypt, and apparently they vote,” says Hamid.

Walid Kazziha, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, attributes Shafik’s success in part to frustration over Egypt’s instability since the revolution. “There is a sizable constituency that seems to say: ‘Enough is enough. We want to go back to law and order, and what you need is a strong hand to hold the place together and finish with this anarchy of the last year and a half.’”

Kazziha says Egypt is polarizing for this vote. On one side, backing Shafik, is the country’s “deep state”—its government, security forces, army, and their attendant business interests. On the other is Egypt’s oldest and most well-organized opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Both Morsi and Shafik have tried to appeal beyond their natural constituencies. Shafik says he will save Egypt from the “dark forces” of political Islam, reaching out to those who might fear the Muslim Brotherhood more than they resent the old regime. Morsi has sought to dampen those same fears, especially among Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, declaring, “Egypt belongs to us all.”

The election puts Egypt’s liberals and leftists—who played a prominent role in the revolution—in a dilemma. Neither Morsi nor Shafik is a natural candidate, yet there are no other choices on offer. Shafik represents a return to everything they fought so hard to get rid of, while for many Morsi represents potential for a different kind of oppression.

“Liberals are worried that the Brotherhood is going to become more conservative, more intolerant, in the future,” says Hamid. “So the Brotherhood can say all it wants in the present. That is not going to reassure liberals who still have this fear down the road that who knows what’s going to happen?”

But Hamid argues that Egyptian liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood can, and should, reconcile for this vote. “Right now I think the division in Egypt that is most relevant is revolution versus counter-revolution. Now it might go back to Islamists versus liberals in the future, but for this brief moment in Egyptian history I think the battle lines are somewhat clear.”

Such a reconciliation would not be easily forged. Liberals and Islamists have different ideas about everything from drinking alcohol to the role of religion in society. It’s also a partnership that carries some risks for liberals, says Kazziha. “In an alliance with the Muslim Brothers, liberals can’t be the backbone,” he says. They might strengthen the Islamists without having much influence over them.

And yet the alternative—electing Shafik—would turn back time, says Hamid. “People realize there is the real possibility of the electoral restoration of the old regime. It would essentially erase the revolution.”

The lesser of two evils?

‘I will not choose between the plague and cholera,’ the mother of fallen protester Khaled Said reportedly said, refusing to cast a ballot for either of Egypt’s presidential candidates

Mohammed Morsi

  • Age: 60
  • Profession: Engineer
  • On Mubarak: The Muslim Brotherhood remained, throughout the Mubarak era, Egypt’s largest opposition group
  • On religion: Promises to impose Islamic sharia law
  • On women: Would bar women from the presidency
  • On Israel: Once called Israelis ‘killers and vampires’

Ahmed Shafik

  • Age: 70
  • Profession: Air force chief
  • On Mubarak: His ‘role model’; compared Egypt’s revolution to a disrespectful child who slaps his father
  • On religion: His secularist coalition capitalizes on fears of an Islamist take
  • On women: Has publicly mused about appointing a female vice-president
  • On Israel: Got the vote of the overwhelming majority of Israel’s Egyptians