Egypt Rings in the Old

Why Voters Went for Mursi and Shafiq


Election posters in Egypt (Jonathan Rashad / flickr)

A powerful sense of innovation and possibility surrounded the February 2011 protests that pushed Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak from office. If the results of the first round of Egypt's presidential elections last week are any guide, that sense has all but disappeared. The old guard is back, and the revolutionary youth and the populists are out. The two remaining candidates, Muhammad Mursi and Ahmed Shafiq, represent the most hierarchical institutions in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. These institutions have been battling each other for more than half a century, and they won the first round not by finding creative ways to attract the center but by energizing their traditional bases.

Earlier this year, it seemed that things might turn out differently. One contender for power was the ad hoc youth coalition that pushed the revolution forward in January and February 2011. The young revolutionaries, including the Google executive Wael Ghoneim, shunned political hierarchy. Instead, they sought to establish a rhizomatic organization that stressed peer-to-peer communication. Disdainful of smoke-filled rooms and political intrigue, they asked supporters in May 2011 to submit questions via Facebook that they should ask the military (they got 850 suggestions), and they posted summaries of their meetings with the country's top brass on the Internet. In a world of political transition, they were giving postmodern politics a try.

But as postmodern politicians they could not bargain with powerful interest groups in Egypt, including the military. Tahrir Square had been great theater, but when the stage lights switched off there was no way to keep the attention of the masses. In fact, the revolutionaries' first defeat came more than a year ago in March 2011, when less than 25 percent of Egyptian voters joined them in opposing a slate of constitutional amendments meant to set the terms of Egyptian politics going forward. The group was defeated even more soundly in parliamentary elections last winter, when avowedly pro-revolutionary parties won just a handful of seats. Their disdain for formal leadership cost them influence; as one analyst put it in a private meeting, "It's unclear if the revolutionary youth dislike politics or they're just bad at it."

So if Egypt wasn't ready for postmodern politics, what about just plain modern politics -- the kind one might find in any other country? Two candidates who bore that standard in the recent election were Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fatouh, an independent moderate Islamist, and Hamdeen Sabahi, an opposition leader since the days of Anwar Sadat.

In the run-up to the elections, Abou el-Fatouh had assiduously courted a diverse coalition by, among other steps, employing a Marxist political adviser and a secular media expert and stressing the importance of citizenship and personal freedoms. In doing so, he managed to win the confidence of conservative Salafis and liberal secularists. He also seemed willing to have measured confrontations with the military. For example, he insisted that the budget for the armed forces be transparent and part of the overall national budget. He also argued that the military needed to restrict its role to defending the country. In part, what was so refreshing about Abou el-Fatouh was that he was a normal politician. After decades of politics based wholly on loyalty -- to religion, region, or institution -- Abou el-Fatouh was different. His speeches were both vague and charismatic. His style allowed diverse constituencies to project their own views onto him.

Meanwhile, longtime opposition leader Sabahi ran as an unabashed nostalgist who sought to return to the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser and resurrect Egypt's role as regional leader. Sabahi's populist politics -- his election slogan was "One of us" -- resonated with tens of millions of Egypt's poor. He called for boosting the minimum wage by more than 50 percent and for strengthening social welfare programs. In poor neighborhoods and villages, his posters were everywhere. His message also found favor among some revolutionaries looking to upend the status quo.

But, in the end, normal politics were not enough, either. In part, too many postmodern and modern candidates were competing for the same disaffected voters, diluting their power. Further, new candidates were relatively unskilled at get-out-the-vote efforts, so turnout favored the old guard. Now Egypt will return to the days of traditional patronage networks.

In a race between Mursi and Shafiq, the edge likely goes to Mursi, whose advantage is not so much personal charisma as the Muslim Brotherhood's countrywide network of activists. He is likely to draw the totality of the Islamist vote -- bringing conservative Salafis under his wing in addition to the modernist Muslim Brotherhood -- along with revolutionaries and others who feel an urgent need for change.

Meanwhile, Shafiq enjoys support among Christians who fear an Islamist government, Egyptians yearning for normalcy after 15 months of tumult, and the clients of the old security state. He has the tacit support of many of the Gulf monarchies, the military, and others who seek to preserve as much as possible of Egypt's Mubarak-era order. Yet his mere presence on the ballot incenses many of the revolutionaries. Much of the public fears that his thugs will wreak havoc before the election so as to boost the vote for the stability he claims to represent. Others worry that the military and intelligence organs of the government will steer the election results in his favor.

Many Egyptians seem disgusted by the choice and are likely to sit out the election. Turnout for the parliamentary elections was close to 60 percent, but in the first round of presidential polling, turnout was below 50 percent. If many of Abou el-Fatouh and Sabahi's supporters stay home, as they threaten to do, turnout will be lower still. That would favor Mursi, whose well-oiled political machine excels at get-out-the-vote operations among his supporters. The Brotherhood faces strong opposition, it is true, but animus toward the ancien regime runs even deeper.

It is too early to know what Egypt's exact future will be, but it is relatively clear what issues will shape it. The first is the relationship between civilian and military authority. The press had emphasized the financial side of this equation, positing that the military will be loath to give up any influence, given its considerable economic holdings.

Yet something even more important is at stake for the military: civilian oversight in general and the autonomy to decide promotions. Since the 1952 military coup that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power, Egypt's military has controlled its own budget and been able to shape its own officer corps. The military had reason to pay special attention to the makeup of this body; Egypt's civilian government had changed the nature of it in 1936, when it decided to open admission to the military academy to the sons of non-aristocratic families. In so doing, it created the cadre that, sixteen years later, overthrew Egypt's monarchy.

Mubarak, a former Air Force general, was careful to cultivate senior officers who did not evince much interest in change. Rather than being creative and strategic, the officers who got ahead in Egypt tended toward the obsequious and exacting. As Mubarak aged, so, too, did the leadership on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The average age in that body is well over 60. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the former minister of defense and, since 2011, the chair of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Egypt, is 76. Without the octogenarian president to preside, retirements are imminent. And in the absence of either a president or a constitution, Egypt's factions are set to battle over the shape of its officer corps.

If today's military has a free hand on promotions, the new senior flag officers will be in the SCAF's mold. If the parliament or an Islamist president is able to influence promotions (or if both are), the officer corps will increasingly reflect change and dynamism. Sympathies toward the Muslim Brotherhood had been enough to blacklist an officer in the past, but that may change with Egypt's new political map.

Alternatively, an unreconstructed military is likely to seek to sustain its autonomy in Egyptian politics. If it were in the current mold, it would also likely see itself as a firewall against Brotherhood control of Egyptian politics and an antagonist to the Islamist civilian leadership.

The other fulcrum for Egypt's future is the economy. It was already slowing at the time of Mubarak's fall, in part due to a decline in foreign direct investment (much of which came from the Gulf). In addition, the sluggish global economy has cut into tourism and tolls from the Suez Canal. Political change in Egypt has accelerated the drop in each of these areas, and capital flight has set in. Indeed, many of the Gulf monarchies that helped propel Egypt's economy in the past are now playing passive roles.

The concerns of those countries' leaders are twofold. First, as one observed to me, "It's easier to put money into Egypt than to get money out of Egypt." Decisions now, as under Mubarak and his predecessors, are squeezed through an opaque and ponderous bureaucracy. Second, the Gulf monarchies are deeply disturbed by Egypt's current course. Over three decades, they had grown to appreciate Mubarak for his deference, reliability, and caution. They mourned his fall and shudder at the humiliation of his trial. Meanwhile, they have no truck with the political Islamists coming to the fore. These countries are religious, but religion, as they see it, should be used to reinforce rulers' power, not to challenge it. Gulf kings and emirs carefully cultivated their own clerical establishments to stress religious teachings that preach obedience to the ruler.

Since most Gulf states are interested in Egypt's return to secular authoritarian governance, they quietly support Shafiq. Although countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pledged billions of dollars in aid to Egypt, the money has been slow in coming. If Shafiq loses the general election, as most predict, few of those funds will come to Egypt at all.

Similarly, many Western powers have proclaimed an interest in Egypt's economic success, but have been slow to promote it. Their own weak economies are one cause for their caution, but they, too, are concerned about what an Islamist-leaning Egypt might look like. For its part, Egypt has been unable to agree on the terms of a needed International Monetary Fund loan, as political parties battle over who should set those terms and who should get the credit.

At some point, after the presidential election and constitution have been settled, Egypt's new leadership will seek to renegotiate its relations, including its economic ties, with the rest of the world. The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party has talked about attracting more than $50 billion in investment by 2014, once the military has left power. Doing so would require spectacular creativity on the Egyptian side and spectacular confidence on the investor side. But if the presidential race is any guide, the political class is becoming less innovative, not more so.

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