The presidential poll, unpacked

On 29 May, Egypt Independent, in collaboration with Jadaliyya, hosted a round-table discussion on the Egyptian presidential election. The discussion featured a group of our columnists and commentators. Moderated by Ahmad Shokr, the discussion featured American University in Cairo political science lecturers Ashraf El Sherif and Mohamed Menza; columnist Akram Ismail; human rights activist Heba Morayef; independent analysts Mohamed Naiem and Mohamed Said Ezzeldin, in addition to historian Zeinab Abul-Magd.

The advancement of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy and former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq to the presidential runoff scheduled for 16 and 17 June has created a serious dilemma for many Egyptians. Voters’ choices have become limited between choosing a figure who represents the Hosni Mubarak regime during its most brutal days, or supporting the head of the Brotherhood’s political arm at a time when the group’s seriousness about power sharing with other members of the community seems uncertain.

Indeed, the results of the first round of voting has raised numerous pressing questions regarding the future of the revolution and the choices facing revolutionary forces, often dubbed the “third bloc” in reference to its autonomy from both traditional Islamist political trends and remnants of the Mubarak regime.

The surprising results of the ongoing election have forced Egypt’s opinion shapers and intellectuals to re-evaluate their own reading of the country’s political map. As one participant remarked, the election offers a unique opportunity to deepen our understanding of Egypt’s political society. Similarly, another participant noted that elite-led prescriptions are meaningless if detached from the public pulse, which can be detected by understanding the election’s results.

Besides institutionalizing political Islam and the regime as two main poles of political life, participants noted that Shafiq’s and Morsy’s initial victories underscore the importance of organization in winning elections. Shafiq, one participant stated, is in fact the candidate of the “state,” and has evidently enjoyed the support of many bureaucratic interests allied with the previous regime. Shafiq, we were reminded, had succeeded in gathering 70,000 signatures in order to get his name on the ballot, thus amounting to the second-highest number of signatures, following Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the ultraconservative preacher who was ultimately disqualified from the race.

Surpassing the other candidates in terms of qualifying signatures was the first indicator that pro-regime forces had embarked on mobilizing their resources on behalf of Shafiq. Thus, the first round shows that the regime may in fact possess the organizational resources to secure a win for its candidate in a free and fair election.

After it was dissolved by court order in April 2011, Mubarak’s National Democratic Party seems to be recreating itself in rural areas, especially Upper Egypt, where Shafiq secured the second-highest number of votes. One participant alluded to how members of the security apparatus lobbied influential families in the south to mobilize support for Shafiq. NDP efforts to re-establish itself suggest that the party may return to the political scene if Shafiq wins the presidency.

Unlike the parliamentary elections, in which fragmented Mubarak regime affiliates performed poorly, the presidential race offered pro-regime forces an opportunity to rally around a leading figure like Shafiq and organize more cohesively to secure representation.

On the other hand, despite Morsy’s success in advancing to the runoff, many participants argued that the group’s performance was disappointing and highlights a drop in its popularity. The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party claimed more than 40 percent of seats in Parliament, but its candidate secured a mere 25 percent in the presidential election’s first round. Morsy came fourth in Alexandria, second in Cairo and lagged behind in traditional Brotherhood strongholds in the Nile Delta.

This plunge could be attributed to the Brothers’ poor performance in Parliament, and its attempts to dominate the assembly that will be tasked with drafting the country’s constitution, among other factors. After they were willing to give the Brotherhood a chance to prove itself in Parliament, the reasoning goes, Egyptian voters ultimately withdrew their support after the group’s failure to live up to public expectations.

This crisis is not confined only to the Brotherhood and its party, but encompasses Egypt’s Islamist current in general, including Salafis. Islamist forces succeeded in mobilizing support for the constitutional amendments during the 19 March 2011 referendum, in which 77 percent of voters supported the Islamists’ position of approving the amendments, which led to the holding of elections in which Islamists were sure of their win, before the writing of the constitution. Subsequently, Islamists secured about 68 percent of seats in Parliament. In the presidential election’s first round, on the other hand, Islamist candidates — namely Morsy, Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh and Mohamed Selim al-Awa — were only able to garner 40 percent of the votes.

Salafis, one participant noted, seem to be having a “soul-searching” crisis. While Salafi leaders had endorsed Abouel Fotouh, there is evidence they were unable to persuade their supporters to vote for him against Morsy, who adopted firmer stances on the question of applying Sharia.

The success of Morsy and Shafiq in securing about a quarter of the votes each could also be attributed to the polarization of the political field in such a way that crowded out centrist candidates. All candidates who adopted centrist, conciliatory positions failed to advance to the runoff. This could mean that almost half of the voters were searching for a firm president with decisive, even if extreme, positions.

Rhetoric oriented toward compromise and moderation seems to have failed to secure the same level of support, hence the elimination of candidates such as Abouel Fotouh and, to a lesser extent, Nasserist hopeful Hamdeen Sabbahi.

Forty percent of the vote went to Sabbahi and Abouel Fotouh, who came third and fourth, respectively, and were seen by many as pro-revolution candidates. Some discussion participants interpreted this 40 percent as an emergent “third bloc” that is more embracing of revolutionary forces.

Many intellectuals had supported Abouel Fotouh based on the belief that the revolution would not succeed in the electoral arena without an Islamist candidate. In this respect, some of Abouel Fotouh’s supporters perceived him as the most viable pro-revolution candidate in that he had sufficient Islamist credentials to compete against the Brotherhood in winning over a presumably pro-Islamist electorate that voted overwhelmingly for Islamist candidates in the parliamentary elections.

The presidential election results, however, may have broken the myth that Egypt’s electorate is largely Islamist, suggesting that there are a great number of swing voters whose voting patterns are unpredictable. For example, many regions commonly known in the past as hubs for pro-Islamist voters, such as Alexandria, showed overwhelming support for Sabbahi.

The unexpected success of Sabbahi, who closely trailed Shafiq, came as a surprise to many analysts. The concentration of Sabbahi’s votes in important urban centers such as Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said is consistent with the claim that support for the revolution is primarily urban. Some analysts see in Sabbahi’s success an opportunity to frame him as a popular leader of the revolution, in an attempt to replace the rather elitist profile of Mohamed ElBaradei, the reform advocate who inspired revolutionaries but failed to garner popular support. At the same time, round-table participants disagreed on whether the voting bloc that went to Sabbahi does in fact reflect a cohesive, powerful “democratic street” that could compete with the electoral savvy of Islamist and old regime political forces.

While there was no agreement on whether the 40 percent who opted for revolutionary choices do in fact represent an emerging “third bloc,” there is certainly at least a “thirst” for it, as one participant put it.

The discussions surrounding the runoff and the choices facing revolutionary forces in this battle seemed less conclusive, reflecting the uncertainty permeating Egypt’s political arena. Some participants believed that the runoff is a battle between the Brotherhood and the old political order, and that it is futile for revolutionary forces to support either camp.

One participant assessed the problem in the Islamist-Mubarak regime binary by saying that the Brotherhood is battling the regime using its very same logic, a legacy of the 1952 regime. It is here where an alternative logic, a revolutionary one, emerges as a separate path. Many acknowledged that it is difficult to imagine that this revolutionary logic, primarily adopted by the multitudes who took to the streets on 25 January 2011, can rule the country.

Yet it is within this third bloc that hope lies to open up the political arena and help it transcend the classic military-Islamist duality inherited from the 1952 regime. In this context, the presidential election becomes one of many other battles that the revolutionary forces should face.

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