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Friday May 25, 2012

Egyptian Electorate Embraces Status Quo

Posted by Jeffrey Wright at 1:23 pm

After two days of voting earlier this week, Egyptian election officials have begun counting the ballots in the country’s first-ever contested presidential election. Though not all of the votes have been counted, early reports indicate that Freedom and Justice Party (the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood) candidate Mohammed Morsy will face Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, in a run off to be held June 16 and 17. Given polling before the elections, this result is rather unexpected, and for forces sympathetic to the Jan. 25th Revolution, it represents a concerning embrace of Egypt’s status quo.

One way to divide Egypt’s presidential candidates is to separate status quo figures from revolutionary figures. Morsy and Shafiq represent the two most powerful forces in Egypt’s current political environment, both of which seek to cement the status quo with slight changes: The Brotherhood (Morsy) and the military and security state (Shafiq). The military has been the dominant institution in Egypt since the Free Officers’ Revolution in 1952, and it clearly does not intend to cede power in the areas important to it, like civilian oversight of its budget or its sprawling business empire. Shafiq, a former commander of the Air Force (like his old boss) and Mubarak’s last Prime Minister during the last days of the revolution, is not likely to challenge the military’s stranglehold on political power in Egypt. The irony of the same man bookending the revolution is not lost on anyone in Egypt, and Shafiq’s success should not be taken as an indication that Egyptians are eager for the return of the ancien regime. Instead, the Shafiq phenomenon is a reaction to the instability and insecurity of post-revolution Egypt, a direct product of the SCAF’s abdication of its duty to provide security and the Mubarak regime’s cynical release of criminals during the revolution. That many Egyptians want security is not surprising, but it is distressing to think the revolution’s result could be a restoration of the old political order.

Morsy, too, seems unlikely to challenge the military’s dominance in Egypt. The Brotherhood largely stopped resisting the government in the late 1970’s, a reaction to 25 years of repression under Nasser, and later Sadat. Under Mubarak, they were a quiescent group, providing social services that the government refused to while participating in politics only on the terms of the Mubarak government. With their control of the Parliament and the Presidency, a Morsy government would see no reason to challenge the military, instead making an accommodation that would provide them control over domestic and religious issues and leave foreign policy to the generals.

Two of the other candidates, however, did represent a real challenge to the status quo: Hamdeen Sabahi and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. Aboul Fotouh forged a coalition unlike anything ever seen in Arab politics - an odd mix of liberals, Salafists, moderate Islamists, and intellectuals. He has signaled independence from the military, and may have been willing to challenge the current order. Sabahi, too, would have been an innovation. A poet turned politician, he spoke with force about the need to ensure Egypt’s poor share in the economic gains the country has made since the early 1980’s. If the initial results are to be believed, the military has fended off both of these challenges to its dominance.

In the coming days and weeks, many commentators will blame liberal and secular forces for not uniting behind one candidate. This is a valid critique, but it often ignores the role of the military. The SCAF deliberately mismanaged this transition from the very beginning, and it should be no surprise that the election results have not challenged the SCAF’s dominance. From the late announcement of rules governing the parliamentary elections, to the bungled constitution-writing process, to the lack of accountability for former regime figures, the SCAF’s mistakes are too consistent and numerous to be attributed to incompetence. This list excludes a number of important events, not least the Maspero Massacre last October, in which a peaceful demonstration by Copts was attacked by the military. All of these measures seemed designed to make the political process as unappealing as possible, and reward forces already invested in the status quo at the expense of revolutionary figures.

Egypt’s vote was peaceful and seemingly fair (though the SCAF barred many international election monitors), which is itself an important achievement. Though the vote may have been fair, the playing field was tilted in favor of status quo parties since the military took power on February 11, 2011. Hopefully, an Egypt with an open parliament and an elected President can accomplish over years what the revolution could not in days: an Egyptian military controlled by elected civilians.  

Tagged as Issues, Arab Spring, Egypt, Posted by Jeffrey Wright

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