Egypt: Between a rock and a hard place

Choosing between the military and the Islamists is no easy decision for Egyptians in their presidential election.

Defaced posters in Egyptian elections 390 (photo credit: Eliezer Sherman)
Defaced posters in Egyptian elections 390
(photo credit: Eliezer Sherman)
Will Egyptians side with the anti-revolutionary military old guard or the counter-revolutionary Islamist vanguard when choosing their next president?
The counter-revolution is gathering pace in Egypt. After initial elation at the spectacle of millions of Egyptians queuing patiently (in a country where queue-jumping is a national pastime) to cast their ballot for one of more than a dozen candidates in unprecedented presidential elections in which the winner was not known in advance, a by-now familiar feeling of disillusionment set in when the results of the first round were announced.
In a turn of events that proved surprising to just about everyone, the last two candidates left standing were Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s conservative wing and “Mubarak’s man” Ahmed Shafiq, one-time air force commander, ex-aviation minister and Mubarak’s unpopular first choice for prime minister when the revolution broke out early last year.
Neither Mursi nor Shafiq were the pundits’ favorite. In fact, both men were hovering low in most polls prior to the elections. The early favorites were the reform-minded, pluralist and relatively liberal former Muslim Brother Abdel-Moneim Aboul Fotouh, and Amr Moussa, the popular one-time foreign minister.
Moussa emerged from the revolution relatively unscathed due to his personal incorruptibility and the fact that he had distanced himself from some of the Mubarak regime’s most notorious and abusive years during his decade-long tenure as secretary-general of the Arab League.
Though I, in common with most young revolutionaries, opposed Moussa’s candidacy because of his close association with the former regime, some long-time dissidents have expressed their support for him. One example is Hisham Kassem, the veteran independent publisher and human rights activist.
“I want a strong president,” he told me prior to the elections while seated at a dusty desk amid the bare concrete at the Cairo offices of his soon-to-be-launched newspaper, which he has optimistically named al-Gumhoriya al-Gadida (New Republic) to reflect Egypt’s changing reality. “I don’t want Egypt to enter a Latin American scenario of political collapse and a new president every six months.”
While Moussa had the support of “stability-seeking” reformers like Kassem, Aboul Fotouh had the vote of many in the anti-establishment but pragmatic middle ground, who sought a consensus candidate.
“Aboul Fotouh genuinely believes in equality,” the prominent human rights activist Hossam Bahgat, who founded the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, reflected as a number of shishas, or waterpipes, bubbled thoughtfully around us.
However, these two men confounded expectations, with Aboul Fotouh ending up fourth and Moussa fifth, with third place going to the late-starting favourite for the secular, revolutionary vote, Hamdeen Sabahi, a reform-minded leftist and die-hard Nasserist.
With the race for the presidency now reduced to a contest between a counter-revolutionary, neo-liberal Islamist and an anti-revolutionary, neo-liberal general, revolutionaries and pro-revolution Egyptians have been left with an extremely bitter pill to swallow and a stark choice to make at the ballot box: vote for “felloul” (remnants of the old regime) or conservative Islamism.
A heated debate is taking place between secular revolutionaries about which of the two candidates to vote for in order to best preserve the  aims of the revolution, or whether it would be more principled to boycott the second-round vote altogether to show that neither man enjoys a sufficient mandate.
But what brought about this “nightmare scenario,” as it has come to be described in revolutionary circles?
Well, both men appear to have been helped by the fragmentation and disarray of the revolutionaries and the low turnout of just over 40 percent, which is tiny considering that this election was Egypt’s first truly free presidential race and some had hoped it would mark the birth of the “second republic.”
This low turnout was reflective of the paucity of good candidates, the disillusionment felt by pro-revolutionaries that their revolution had been “stolen” or “hijacked,” and disappointment at the revolution’s failure to deliver concrete socio-economic results following high initial expectations.
Ahmed Shafiq, who has the tacit backing of the army and the police, managed to steal votes from the Moussa “stability” camp but also capitalized on the “fear” vote, drawing support from those who harbored Mubarak sympathies and those who are terrified by the prospect of an Islamist takeover in Egypt, including the country’s vulnerable Christian minority. For his part, Mohamed Mursi seems to have walked away with the conservative Islamic vote, particularly in the more traditional rural areas in the south of the country.
Does the victory of these two contenders who have questionable democratic credentials mean that Egyptians do not prize freedom?
There are certainly some Egyptians who seem enamored of authoritarianism, as reflected by the surprising number of people I met in Cairo who voiced support for Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s shadowy and dangerous intelligence chief, as Egypt’s next president, who was later disqualified from the race.
That said, pro-revolutionary candidates occupied third and fourth place, with close to 40% of the vote. Furthermore, quite a lot of those who voted for the top two candidates did so not out of some anti-freedom platform but because they have other, more immediate fears and priorities for the transitional phase.
But if Egyptians vote for Mursi to oppose Shafiq as the symbol of the old regime that would mean that the Islamists will win the double whammy of the parliament and presidency. What would be the consequences of such an outcome of the future of Egypt?
As someone who believes wholeheartedly in a new Egypt of full freedom, equality and economic and social justice, I fear what impact this conservative current will have on society. But in order to understand its possible consequences, we need to delve into its causes.
Fundamentalist Islam, like fundamentalist Judaism and Christianity, is partly a response to the onslaught of modernity and the insecurity it has engendered. In Egypt, it is also a backlash against the corruption, nepotism, oppression and failure of the country’s secular regimes, as well as the unequal global order, to deliver prosperity, equality and dignity to ordinary people. Also, in situations of grinding poverty, poor education and stark inequality, people often fall back on the safety cushion of religion.
Moreover, part of the appeal Islamists enjoy is due to the fact that they have always been in opposition, and the few months they have been at the wheel of parliament have already corroded their popularity and turned many former supporters against them, who accuse them of being a religious version of Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party.
If Islamists fail to deliver visible improvements on crucial bread-and-butter issues, such as employment, health and education, then the electorate is likely to conclude that Islam, or at least Islamism, is not the solution to their woes, and may turn to the secular revolutionaries as an alternative.
But what if these elections turn out to be “one person, one vote, one time,” as Western critics of Islamism claim?
“Don’t panic,” is Hisham Kassem’s attitude. “I don’t think the Islamists are powerful enough to change the identity of the state.”
Many Egyptians also believe that the Islamist-secularist fault line is exaggerated and even a distraction. While it certainly does exist, it is not a black-and-white division, with a significant proportion of secularists supporting traditional values and religious intolerance, while many Islamists, particularly younger ones, believing in democracy, religious freedom and individual rights.
Also, the ranks of the right wing and left wing, the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary, the progressive and reactionary are to be found on both sides of the Islamist-secularist border.
“It’s much more comfortable for the two sides to engage in a culture war,” observes Hossam Bahgat. “But the real issue is building a democratic system, and striving for social justice and economic justice. The battle over identity is just polemics.”
Khaled Diab is an Egyptian journalist currently based in Jerusalem.