Monday, June 25, 2012

The Presidential Election

It having been so long since I posted, I thought that the day of the Presidential Election results would be a good time, and provide a good topic (in case I’m accused from the start of being confused, this was written yesterday – the actual day of the results!). I don’t profess to know more than you could have found out from the BBC, or any other half-decent news organisation – but I do have the advantage of having followed things quite closely here, which my readers may not have. If you have, then you may find this account a little simplistic; I may even be accused of ignorance in some facts. But please give me your indulgence: this is not a painstakingly researched, intellectual account of events over the past couple of months, but simply the perspective of a vague foreigner with less than perfect Arabic.

On to the topic of today’s post: the election. For a little background, it took place, as in the French system, in two rounds, though here they have been divided by a month. Though by the time you get this, you will probably have heard the final result, I am going to go through events chronologically, as I experienced them, so allow yourselves to imagine that we are in late May. There are quite a few candidates, but most of them aren’t important and won’t get anywhere, and anyway, I don’t know their names. These are the important ones:

Mohamed Mohamed Morsi (this is not a mistake – I refer you back to an earlier post in which I explained the Egyptian system of names), the Muslim Brotherhood candidate. He was the Brotherhood’s second choice, the first having been banned, is not well-known outside of the Presidential race, and is quite uncharismatic.

Abu el-Fotouh used to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but sat someway further towards the political centre than the leadership, was rather vocal in his opposition, and was finally expelled from the organisation when he announced he would run for President as an independent (this was in defiance of a Brotherhood decision not to field a candidate for the Presidency. Apparently, they changed their mind). In contrast to Morsi, he is very charismatic, and had a large following among the Islamist-ly inclined who weren’t affiliated to the Brotherhood. Curiously (being a relatively liberal Islamist) he also had quite a following among the Salafists, after their own candidate was also banned (more on that below). He was considered to be one of two main ‘candidates of the revolution’ – those who had been involved in the revolution itself, and were largely supported by the revolutionaries.

Another candidate in the relative centre-ground was Amro Moussa, the former Foreign Minister and head of the Arab League - he lost some support for being a former-Mubarakite (though I believe that he wasn’t too popular with Mubarak by the end).

The second ‘candidate of the revolution’ was Hamdeen Sabahi a charismatic Nasserite who is particularly popular among the youth (and bearing in mind Egypt's demographics, 'the youth' is quite a lot of people). His policies looked somewhat horrific for the economy – at their most basic, he wanted to legislate for wages to rise and prices to fall, as well as nationalising various industries and introducing new subsidies here and there (the subsidies are already a problem: The Economist noted on 19 May that if Egypt were to abolish its fuel subsidy, its 10% budget deficit would be wiped out – though I’m not sure whether they included in their calculations what happens to the economy when a large proportion of the population can no longer put petrol in their tanks, or gas in their oven).

Finally, among the main candidates, there is Ahmed Shafiq, the ‘stability candidate’. He was Mubarak’s last Prime Minister, a former Air Force general, and is thought (unsurprisingly) to be the favoured candidate of Egypt’s ‘deep state’. He is particularly popular among Christians (who persecuted by official Egypt already, fear Islamist power), the upper-middle class (who did rather well out of the former regime), and many of those who weren’t really bothered by the revolution in the first place, and feel that things have just got worse since.

If you’re wondering why I have gone into such detail on a raft of candidates most of whom didn’t even make into the second round, it is in the hope of providing some background to the tensions that followed for the second. As you probably know, only Morsi and Shafiq made it into the second round, with about 47% of the first round vote between them. Abu el-Fotouh and Moussa, who came fourth and fifth respectively, were widely thought to have a very high chance of making it through to the second round, but ultimately occupied too close a position among the field of candidates, and split the moderate vote.

Sabahi came third, but won Alex, and about 20% of the total vote. He was very quick to claim foul play, and on the night of the first round result I stumbled into three different protests by his supporters whilst walking around Alex. Other candidates also cried foul, but unlike in the parliamentary elections (in which I heard several first hand accounts of dodgy practices) there didn’t appear to be a great deal of evidence, and the electoral commission dismissed the complaints out of hand. (This is not to say that they were without basis, just that I don’t know, and am sceptical. I probably would have ordered an investigation, had I been the commission – not to do so looked suspicious in itself.) There were two key disappointing outcomes to the first round. The first was the protesting the result. I felt that, especially coming from those who had launched the revolution in order to bring about democracy, to protest the result of a democratic election (as opposed to the policies of a democratically elected leader) because one doesn’t support the winners is hypocritical. However, the second was the result, which left an unpleasant choice for many people (particularly those who had risked their lives to bring about the possibility of an election in the first place). On the one hand, a vote for Morsi was a vote for the Muslim Brotherhood – he is very much a creature of the organisation, and it is feasible that he wouldn’t ultimately be taking some of the decisions supposedly taken by the President. On the other hand, a vote for Shafiq would have been a vote for the old regime, for the army, and specifically for a man with blood on his hands. If he had won (which rather gives the game away that he didn’t), the army and the ‘deep state’ would have viewed the revolution as a brief hiatus in their natural rule – and I wouldn’t have been surprised for there not to have been a free election when the next is due. Of course, the same may be true with Morsi in the Presidential Palace – especially if the army decides that the Brotherhood is no threat to its power.

Between the second round and the result, another unpleasant twist in the drama occurred. The voting took place over two days. At the end ofthe second day the military announced that Parliament was to be dissolved (this was the result of a case in the Supreme Court which challenged the results in a third of the seats, because they were meant to be reserved for independents and were won by party candidates – it was expected that there would be by-elections in those seats, but the military appears to have taken the opportunity the judgement provided), that the constitutional assembly was dissolved, that they were assuming all legislative power, and the power to appoint a new constitutional assembly. In essence, this was a coup (though against what, it’s hard to see – they don’t appear to have done anything illegal, given the powers that they assumed after the revolution), and severely circumscribes the power of the new President. This in itself put people on edge; the tension was further exacerbated by the election results (due last Thursday) being delayed. Initially, it was announced that this was so that the Electoral Commission could address irregularities; then the army said it was to prevent civil unrest. The change of explanation prompted a gut feeling that the delay was in order to rig the vote, and the protests (which were already quite large) grew. I fear that this is essentially the end of the road for the revolution; though with Morsi as President, there will be some remaining pressure on the military to concede its powers back to the Parliament or the President – or to launch a full-fat coup.

The feeling in Cairo today was exceedingly tense. When I went out at ten this morning, things were relatively normal, though the traffic was light. When I returned to the centre of town at two, the traffic was exceedingly heavy, which (though Cairo is usually quite congested) seemed abnormal. And then, by 3pm, there were almost no cars on the street at all until the result was finally announced (after an interminable speech by the monotonous head of the Electoral Commission) when the streets exploded in relief and celebration. Morsi had won by 13 million to 12 million. Those who aren’t celebrating remain indoors. They include the staff of my hostel, who are miserable – but they would have been miserable with either result, and possibly see this as marginally preferable to the other outcome. Those I have spoken to either spoilt their ballot or did not vote in the second round. The younger of my friends in Alex were also deeply unhappy about the choice they were presented with. The older, by and large, voted for Shafiq. Both groups will be disappointed and nervous following the result.

Update: 25 June

Things today are much more relaxed, and pretty much back to normal. The prevailing sense seems to be relief. We shall see how long that lasts…

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