A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, June 1, 2012

Egypt's Hobson's Choice: Rock or Hard Place?

from April 6 Movement
It's been a week now since Egypt's election results became clear and it became rather obvious that the two candidates left standing were about the most polarized choice possible: the Muslim Brother and the fallul, the Old Regime remnant. Mubarak always said the only choice was him or the Brotherhood, and his prophecy seems fulfilled: Shafiq is a former Air Force commander, facing charges of corruption already.

I have held off on long analysis, posting mostly on specific developments, but as this runoff gathers speed I want to finally take a shot at it. I assume my readers have been following the commentary on the subject, but especially want to note the pieces by Marc Lynch, The Arabist (of several posts, especially "Why Accept These Elections?"),  Magdy SamaanMirette Mabrouk, Barbara Slavin on the reaction here in Washington, VJ Um Amel at JAdaliyya on Twitter, Hani Shukrullah in Ahram Online, and many more. There is a huge body of commentary already out there; perhaps I'm not going to add much here, but I'll try.

You also need to study these maps from Ahram Online, showing how the vote broke down by candidate and governorate. Let me start with this pie chart from that source:
Ahram Online

The electorate did not split between Morsi and Shafiq: they each took about a quarter; the other three candidates split just over half among them. A slight increase would have pushed Sabahi (Sabbahi here) past Shafiq. What is in fact striking is the degree to which this was a five-man race, though only two could be in the runoff. Only about half of eligible voters voted, and the results split five ways to all intents and purposes (the remaining candidates being marginal). Here:
Ahram Online
The results weren't polarized but spread across a spectrum, but the two survivors happen to represent the most extreme poles. Complaints that "5 million shouldn't decide for 50 million [eligible voters]" aren't really valid; the vote was genuinely diverse. As Marc Lynch put it:

It's important to keep the results in perspective.   The results look less surprising once it's recognized that the two most powerful forces in Egypt won the first round.  Neither did especially well.  The Muslim Brotherhood won 25%, which is just about exactly where most experts have pegged their popular support for years and is significantly lower than in the Parliamentary elections.  Another quarter of the vote went to the SCAF's candidate, Shafik, likely reflecting the widespread reality of popular exhaustion with the revolution.  Neither of those results should be a surprise.  The real tragedy is that the center, just as many had warned, destroyed itself by failing to unite around a single candidate and dividing the remaining 50% of the vote among three candidates.  This too, alas, should not be a surprise.
In fact, the elections also reveal the profound differences between the two metropolises and the rest of Egypt, a problem often commented upon but rarely fully appreciated during and since the revolution. Hamdeen Sabahi led strongly in Cairo and Alexandria. Morsi and the Brotherhood swept Upper Egypt, though Shafiq ran strong there as well. Shafiq carried the Delta strongly, except for Alexandria.
Ahram Online
Let's leave aside the question of whether there was any rigging. Some have raised the fact that a large number of new voters were registered since the Parliamentary vote last year and that this somehow favored Shafiq. Maybe it did, but increasing voter registration in itself is a standard tactic of candidates anywhere, unless they weren't actually eligible. Despite lots of rumors, the observers of the elections didn't detect huge systematic fraud. The five-way split looks like no Egyptian election in history, even in the pre-1952 period. The election was a success, but the polarized second round raises tensions all around. One side is for God and the other side is for Law and Order, and the voters are left with a choice which, based on the pie chart above, fully half of them rejected in round one: they are left voting for the lesser of what they already determined are two evils.

Many say, of course, that you can get it right four years from now. But many suspect the Muslim Brotherhood, and more probably suspect Shafiq the Mini-Mubarak, might not in fact yield power to new elections in four years, or five, or whatever (remember, the Constitution is still to be written). Morsi says he will govern with all elements of society and respect women's right to dress as they please, and might ("might")  even have a Copt for Vice President. But he, his FJP Party and the Brotherhood itself all promised they wouldn't run a candidate for President right up to the moment they did so, so some reason exists to doubt their promises. As for Shafiq, he has reportedly told businessmen he would use executions if needed to restore order within a month, which is hardly reassuring. Egyptians just had their first competitive Presidential election and now must choose between two men neither of whom seems to reassure them they will have another in just a few years.

There is much more to say. I'll be returning to the subject. Meanwhile, another commentary from the great middle ground who found themselves with a Hobson's choice: the banner says "The difference between Morsi and Shafiq is like the difference between a disaster and a black [worse] disaster."

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