Egypt further polarised by choice between theocrat and enforcer

Tue, May 29, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:Abstention by over 50% of voters may explain why two traditionalists made it to second round

EGYPTIAN VOTERS defied pundits, pollsters and the people as a whole by projecting two old regime figures, Muslim fundamentalist Muhammad Mursi and former minister Ahmad Shafiq, into the second round of the presidential election on June 16th-17th.

The choice before voters, as Dina Ezzat observed in Ahram Online, is now between “theocracy” and “a police state”, placing those who mounted the revolution between “a rock and a hard place”. Mursi, who won 5.8 million votes, is the candidate of a veteran faith movement that has been both outlawed and tolerated by pre-uprising regimes but has always managed to operate its welfare projects, clinics, schools and religious outreach programmes. One of the main strengths of the Brotherhood is its grassroots organisation, which can mobilise popular support. Its political machine was set in motion as soon as Mursi declared his candidacy. He was portrayed, unconvincingly, as a revolutionary dedicated to the goals set by the secular leaders of the uprising, although he pledged to implement the Brotherhood’s 80-year-old programme by installing Muslim canon law, sharia, and gradually transforming Egypt into an “Islamic state”. However, the Brotherhood did not win nearly as many votes as its leaders expected. Almost half of the 47 per cent of Egyptians who backed the Brotherhood in the 2011 parliamentary poll did not vote in the presidential election or did not vote for Mursi because they have been angered by the movement’s brief but negative record as the dominant party in the people’s assembly.

Shafiq – a former airforce commander, aviation minister and the last prime minister appointed by president Hosni Mubarak before he was ousted – took 5.5 million votes. He was also backed by powerful political patronage networks, notably the armed forces, the former ruling National Democratic Party, and the state-run media. However, his failure to secure a decisive lead revealed that the machinery of the old regime has lost a great deal of its potency and influence since the toppling of Mubarak.

Shafiq ran as the law-and-order candidate, appealing to millions of Egyptians who have been unsettled by the failure of the post-Mubarak interim regime to provide security and restart the stalled economy.

Fearful of the Brotherhood, many Coptic Christians voted for Shafiq, who pledged to counter and contain the movement.

Hamdeen Sabbahi, a liberal lawyer, labour activist and Nasserite socialist, unexpectedly came in third, with 4.8 million votes, winning Cairo, Alexandria (a former Brotherhood stronghold), and other major population centres. Since he did not have powerful political forces behind his candidacy, he was the real winner, the candidate of the people rather than of a machine.

He campaigned on an equal rights platform and secured the support of many secular revolutionaries who mounted the uprising that drove Mubarak from office.

However, he was not formally endorsed as the candidate of the revolution. This denied him the electoral boost he needed, although 40 per cent of Egyptians voted against the “fundamentalists and the feloul (the Mubarak regime)”. As the results were announced, his supporters began to trickle into Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the uprising, to protest at the outcome.

The candidates who had been expected to win, former foreign minister and Arab League chief Amr Moussa and independent fundamentalist Abdel Moneim Abul Fattouh, came fourth and fifth. Moussa lost votes to Shafiq, who entered the race the day before it began, and Abul Fattouh shed votes to both Mursi and Sabbahi.

The outcome of the contest is likely to further polarise Egypt’s politics, which have pitted secular liberals against Muslim fundamentalists granted their freedom by the uprising. While these two camps have sparred, the counter-revolutionary military, which wields presidential power, has bolstered its political position by putting Shafiq in place in order to evade accountability for pre-and post-uprising abuses and deaths, retain control of the military budget and its vast economic empire.

A key factor in the presidential election was the unexpected abstention of 53 per cent of eligible voters. Analysts argue that they did not cast ballots in the country’s first, landmark multi-candidate presidential poll because they no longer believe voting will bring improvements in their daily lives.