Egypt’s Presidential Elections: No One Stands Out

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Officials count the ballots after the polls are closed in Cairo 24 May 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Suhaib Salem)

By: Sarah El Sirgany

Published Saturday, May 26, 2012

As Egyptians await confirmation about the identity of the candidates who will move on to June’s runoff, voters are more concerned with keeping candidates out rather than getting their favorite candidate in.

Fayyoum - Outside the Rady polling station in Sinurus, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafi al-Nour Party stood alert. A fight that started on the first day of presidential election had resumed Thursday noon. About an hour after the injured were taken to hospital, men on both sides were still arguing.

The friction between the two Islamist blocs that had dominated the parliamentary elections in 2011 in the Fayyoum province might not last for long though. As preliminary results of the presidential vote trickled down, there was a strong possibility the Salafis, who backed Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh, will reunite with the MB, who had fielded Mohammed Mursi, in the runoffs. Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister appointed by Hosni Mubarak before his ouster, was likely to be second to Mursi.

Official results have not been announced yet by Egypt’s Presidential Committee. However, if projections hold true, the ultraconservative al-Nour Party, which wanted to establish itself as a political force independent of the seasoned Brotherhood, would find it difficult to go against a man who stressed a commitment to Sharia throughout his campaign in favor of Shafik.

“The Salafis’ animosity to the Brotherhood won’t go as far as supporting Shafik,” said Mazen Hassan, professor of electoral systems at Cairo University.

When uncertainty dominated the scene on Wednesday, Ahmed Murad, the head of Mursi’s campaign in Suez, was unfazed by the Salafi vote for Abul-Fotouh. The endorsement by al-Nour and Salafi sheikhs, he argued, might not convince their base to vote against Mursi’s “Sharia project”. Abul-Fotouh had promoted a more inclusive, centralist platform that targeted Islamists and liberals.

With a member of the former regime as the other option, going against Mursi might even be a tougher sell. In the urban center of Fayyoum, Basma Youssef, a veiled doctor, praised Abul-Fotouh for his centralist approach. Few meters away, school teacher Dalia Mahmoud, also in a face-veil, said Abul- Fotouh was an Islamist that would stop the Brotherhood from solely controlling legislative and executive authorities.

These carefully structured model answers and the argument of ensuring power isn’t concentrated with one party won’t hold in Shafik’s favor, as he’s seen as too close to the ruling military council. If al-Nour wants to distance itself from the MB politically, it might have considered Hamdeen Sabahi, the dark horse of the race. But even if an upset had pushed Sabahi from third to second place, the Salafi support would still be a long shot.

For the MB, it’s better to go to the runoffs with Shafik; it would mean getting the entire Salafi bloc back along with part of the votes that went to Abul-Fotouh and Sabahi, Hassan explained. Competing against Sabahi, he argued, would have been much more difficult. In addition to facing the anti-Islamist vote, they would have to work harder to secure the Salafi backing, or else they would be running alone against the revolutionary and civil forces.

The Anti-Islamits Votes

Sabahi, who went into the election riding a popularity surge, presented a choice that’s both pro-revolution and non-Islamist. While many thought he was competing with Abul-Fotouh, each ruining the other’s chances, many voters who marked the box next to his eagle symbol were torn between him, Amr Moussa and Shafik, as non-Islamist alternatives.

Inas Mohamed, a 49-year-old administrative manager from Suez, was mulling over the choice between Sabahi and Moussa. She made up her mind after deciding that Sabahi was more aware of people’s needs than the former Arab League chief.

The slight possibility of Sabahi making it to the runoffs was good news for voters who didn’t want to give the MB absolute power, specially since the Islamist movement had abandoned street protests in favor of a political path. The religious nature of the once-banned group posed a threat to civil freedoms and minorities’ rights. On the other hand, Shafik would be a bitter u-turn to the Mubarak regime and into the arms of the military council that has ruled Egypt since February 2011.

The Regime’s Debate

Mursi and Shafik present two extreme ends of a polarized political and social spectrum. The face-off between the MB and the old regime seemed like the worst case scenario for many Egyptians.

The debate between the two likely candidates to move on to next month’s runoff takes cue from the Mubarak regime, which for years had pitted itself as the only force capable of standing against the Islamists.

While the anti-Islamist argument seemed to have become irrelevant after the sweeping victory of the Islamists in parliamentary elections, a worsening economic crisis portrayed them as incapable of addressing — much less solving— the core problems after four months in parliament.

Before any results were made official, voters were debating the less of the two evils, comparing Shafik and Mursi and debating which candidate they hated more.

“People won’t vote for their favorite candidate, but to exclude the less favorable one,” explained Hassan, saying that’s standard in runoffs.

Shifting affiliations

In what proved to be an unpredictable election, the voting blocs can’t be simply defined along the revolution-versus-fuloul (remnants of the old regime) and Islamist-versus-liberals fault-lines. Shafik, for example, got some voters who saw the debate as somehow irrelevant.

In the village of Rohaim north of Fayyoum, Ramadan Hassanein said Shafik was the only man that could steer Egypt out of its prolonged transition. The 41-year-old father of four was complaining that the fuel crisis, which has crippled the farming industry in his village and made his job as a microbus driver more difficult, was caused by remnants of the former regime. Shafik, he said, wasn’t part of that corruption. “He could take Mursi and Abul-Fotouh as his deputies to achieve consensus,” he added, “We just have to be patient.”

Along the same lines, Sabahi’s glorification of the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s policies could have cost him some votes, but it earned him the support of part of the working class who yearn for the socialism of the 60s. The Islamist-versus-liberal debate was largely absent in these circles.

After their loss, Sabahi, Abul-Fotouh and Moussa - with 10.9 million votes or 50.1 percent collectively under their belt - could have a decisive voice. Speculations about post-results endorsements abound. The voters won’t necessarily vote for whomever their initial choice endorses.

On Friday night, Shafik’s campaign was already flirting with Sabahi’s supporters. A doctored picture of the two candidates together was posted on the ex-military general’s official Facebook page under the banner “Supporters of Shafik and Sabahi together against the dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Earlier, the MB called for other political forces to unite to fight the former regime. “We...call on all patriotic political players to unite and get together to protect the revolution and fulfill the promise we made to the masses of our great people,” it said in a statement.

Others had their eyes set on concessions and guarantees for a more inclusive political dialogue.

“Any talk about unconditional support to Mursi out of fear of Shafik is illogical and unacceptable. There has to be a written and public political agreement,” said Khalil al-Anani, a scholar of Middle Eastern Politics at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University, stressing the need for “political maturity.”

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