Egypt – Facing a Hobson's Choice in the Presidential Run-offs
Prabir Purkayastha,Newsclick, May 26, 2012
Egypt's first round of Presidential polls has shown that the two institutions – Islamists and the military – still dominate the political landscape, even if their hold is weakening. The surprise in the elections has been the unexpectedly strong showing of Hamdeen Sabahi, the Nasserist left-secular candidate.
Egypt's first round of Presidential polls has shown that the two institutions – Islamists and the military – still dominate the political landscape, even if their hold is weakening. The two candidates that will now go to the final run-off are Mohammed Mursi (25.5%) of the Muslim Brotherhood and Field Marshal Ahmed Shafiq (24.4%), Mubarak's Prime Minister and clearly the candidate of the military-security apparatus. The surprise in the elections has been the unexpectedly strong showing of Hamdeen Sabahi, the Nasserist left-secular candidate, who came 3rd, with 21.3% of the votes.
Without any organised support, Sabahi not only did well, he also won in Cairo and Alexandria, the two major cities in Egypt. While Shafiq's coming 2nd is a severe jolt to the people who fought against Mubarak, it shows that while Mubarak might have left, the remnants of the old regime still remain. Shafiq and Amre Moussa, the former Foreign Minister under Mubarak and later Secretary General of Arab League were the two prominent candidates of the old regime, termed feloul (or remnants) by the Egyptians. Moussa, initially considered one of the front-runners did rather poorly, securing only 10.9% of the votes and coming a poor 5th. Together, the two candidates of the old regime polled about 35% of the votes, showing the waning grip of the military-security establishment.
The other surprise in the elections was the comparatively poor showing of the Islamist forces. Even though Mursi topped the 13 candidates in the fray, the combined Islamist votes of the Muslim Brotherhood (Freedom and Justice Party) and the Salafists (Nour) dropped sharply from that of the Parliamentary elections where they had secured about 70% of the votes. In Alexandria, supposedly an Islamist stronghold, Nasserist Sabahi came out on top, securing 34% of the votes. Brotherhood's Musri was relegated to the 3rd place, behind Abul Futouh, another Islamist candidate who had left the Brotherhood a year back. Even if we total the Futouh and Mursi votes, it adds up to only 37%, well below the 66.5% they had secured in the Parliamentary elections last December. Alexandria is also the city where Khaled Said, a young man was killed by the security forces, leading to the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said”, one of the triggers of the Egyptian revolt.
In other Governates, where Islamists were strong, there was a sharp drop in the total votes polled, indicating the disillusionment with the Islamists in the last six months; a lot of their supporters preferred to stay home then cast their votes. The strong organisational base of the Brotherhood came to their rescue in Upper Egypt, where Mursi polled well, while Shafiq managed to do well in the Delta region the traditional base of the now disbanded National Democratic Party (NDP) of Hosni Mubarak.
If we look at the larger picture, it shows that while money and organisation was the key factor in the Parliamentary elections, a lot more space has opened out now. After the elimination of the three front-runners by the election commission, the initial front-runners were assumed to be Abul Futouh, a charismatic ex-Brotherhood figure, who sided with the anti-Mubarak movement well before the Brotherhood. The establishment candidate who was also thought to be a front-runner was Amre Moussa, who though a Mubarak Foreign Minister in the 90's, was thought could win over the centre. The two were articulate and put up a well-sprung electoral machinery as well. They even held a televised debate among themselves, where they both came out poorly, discrediting each other rather than gaining ground.
The Salafists, having lost their own candidate due to the disqualifications, plumped for Futouh. However, as Mursi started to take a much more hard-line position, supporting the Sharia laws, even talking about a Islamic caliphate, the Salafists split, with a section supporting Mursi. Futouh, who had appeared initially to be a moderate, also started declaring himself much more openly for an Islamist agenda. This helped Shafiq, who then could play on the fear of the Islamists and also the need for a strongman in the turmoil of Egypt today. His message, one would have thought quite menacing, was “Action not words”, but it did manage to strike a chord amongst certain sections.
One of the problems with the secular and left forces in Egypt is their lack of organisation and political experience. With no formal political space having existed for the left in the last 40 years, the new-found political space is as much an opportunity as well as a challenge. They have to learn the rules of this new game – how to look for alliances, how to make their votes count, how to learn to take tactical positions while having clear strategic goals – these cannot be learned in theory, but only in the rough and tumble of grass-roots politics. Anywhere in the world where there has been a transition to a democratic polity, even if a partial one, it takes time for the new forces to emerge. Egypt obviously is no exception.
The left was also split, in having put up 3 other candidates apart from Sabahi, in the field of 13. While Hamdeen Sabahi may not been their best choice based on his credentials, nevertheless if the left had united behind him while still retaining their ideological stance, they could have pushed Shafiq to 3rd place, making the run-off one between secular and Islamist forces. This is what the current elections was all about – how to dismantle the old regime while not handing it over to the Islamists.
The Ancien Regime, a combination of the military and security apparatus and the NDP, the Mubarakists, and the Islamists were the only political forces that were allowed to function under Mubarak. Muslim Brotherhood, was the official “opposition” under Mubarak, al beit under the control of the state. The Salafists – the other Islamists – had also been allowed to function under Mubarak, though largely in the religious sphere. It is not surprising that the Islamists and the Mubarakists should be first out of the block in the Parliamentary elections and now in the Presidential fray as well. The Parliamentary elections was too close to the overthrow of Mubarak so the total victory of the Islamists then over Mubarakists. Within a short period, the Islamists have lost their sheen. Worse, they have been shown to be firmly on the side of the neo-liberal economic order and therefore aligned to the larger imperialist agenda in Middle East. Their only rupture with Mubarak's policies is Israel; on all others, their position regarding employment, privatisation of public services remain the same as the Mubarak regime's.
Though the Presidential elections will now only have the unhappy choices of either voting the old order or an Islamist President, it does not mean nothing has changed. As a blogger Iyad el Baghdadi, wrote, “The revolution was never in polls or ballot boxes. It was in our psyche”. Egyptian politics has changed, and this is perhaps the last time that the old players – the Islamists and military-security apparatus – will control the political process.
Mass politics has just started in Egypt and the results are already visible with new forces emerging on the political scene. Democracy is not just about elections – it is about peoples rights. It is the streets and the struggle of the Egyptian people that will decide the future of Egypt. The genie is out of the bottle and not even Ahmed Shafiq and the military can put it back again.