Egypt’s Presidency: A referendum on the revolution?

In June, Egyptians will take to the polls to effectively vote for – or against – the revolution.

Ahmed Shafiq
According to post-Mubarak Egyptian law, presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq should have been technically disqualified due to his affiliation with the previous regime - yet he is now a frontrunner in the bid for the presidency [AP]

Singapore – Votes have been cast in Egypt, and the question that should be on the mind of every Egyptian and Arab should be: Has the revolution been voted out?

This is one reason why the second run-off in mid-June – now likely to be between Dr Mohammed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq – will be a referendum on the revolution, no longer a mere contest between two presidential candidates. With the stakes for the revolution being higher than ever, the results raise more questions than answers.

Free Egypt: The sleeping Arab giant awakes

In themselves, the elections – the third (behind Parliamentary and Shura council elections) in the painstaking initial process of democratic reconstruction – are a landmark event for Egyptian and Arab democratic reconstruction.

The figures speak for themselves: 41 per cent of 50 million registered voters, divided over 13,100 districts, and a total of 9,293 polling-station. Thirteen candidates contested the first round in May, competing to be the country’s first popularly and democratically elected president.

In particular, its significance for Libya and Tunisia cannot be emphasised enough.

Failure here would cast a shadow over progression in the two other Arab Spring states, and its spectre will also hang over how this fervour unfolds in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. Failure for this revolutionary moment could just be around the corner: the return of the folool (relics or remnants of the Mubarak regime) to the apex of power.

To an extent, there is a quasi-illegal aspect in these elections: according to the country’s law of disqualification, designed to bar the folool from returning to power, Ahmed Shafiq’s candidacy should never have been allowed.

It will remain one of the mysteries of these elections and the whole process of transition in Egypt as to why Mubarak’s last prime minister was given the green light to contest the elections – as was the case with Omar Sulayman – and the democratically elected parliament was overruled in its decision to ban Shafiq.

If Dr Mohammed Morsi prevails in the mid-June run-off elections – which is very likely – the result may sway Tunisian and Libyan Islamists to borrow a leaf from Egypt’s Ikhwan (Islamic Brotherhood) and field their own presidential candidates.

The stakes are high for Egyptians, the Arabs and even the world. The United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and even Iran will be watching these polls very closely.

 Egypt’s Choice: Morsi and Shafiq emerge as frontrunners

The revolution: A lame duck?

The results in the presidential runoff thus far have been shocking, and worries a folool could win, although alarming, has reminded the electorate not to become complacent, and to partake in voting. It is a rude awakening in a constituency increasingly noted for polarisation and revolutionary wariness, discerning a decrease in voter turnout compared to the previous two elections for parliament and shura council.

Those who resisted and defiantly ousted Mubarak now face the prospect of a return of a key figure in the ousted regime that was being groomed to replace Field Marshal Tantawi. This is akin to the last nail in the coffin of a revolution let down by all actors involved in the transition phase.

The rude awakening apart, the results are not all bad news.

This is what the Egyptian presidency has revealed: massive endorsements of figures like Hamdeen Sabbahi, till six months ago no more than political footnote, bodes well for the future of political parties. His ranking in third place, with more than a fifth of the total vote, qualifies him to lead a socialist/Nasserist political party.

The same goes for Abdel Moneim Abolfotouh, who polled more than 18 per cent of the vote. Better still, if these two individuals coalesce they can enliven Egypt’s political map for the better. However, ideological differences may not favour such a scenario.

Morsi vs Shafiq

Under pressure from various quarters, a pseudo-revolutionary narrative was initiated under the auspices of the Shafiq campaign. The idiom recycled the fear-mongering of the ousted regime using the tropes of an Islamist take-over of Egypt and the spectre of total chaos in the country’s streets.

What distinguished Shafiq from other candidates in this campaign was a thinly veiled counter-revolutionary posturing that attempted to refashion him as a man of the state able to ensure political stability in the face of post-revolutionary disorder.

Against this background, those who voted for Shafiq responded to cues that struck deep-seated chords in Egyptian society pandering to actual or imagined fears: a large number of Copts, and the wide spectrum of the folool and their clients.

Morsi’s campaign pandered to the metaphor of “Nahdah” (renaissance), an Islamist logo par excellence. However, even this was not in these elections electrifying. Their brilliance in mobilisation and organisation – and getting the voters of their core constituency to polling stations – got the Ikhwan and Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) enough votes to give Morsi pole position.

Yet even this result belies ambivalence with potentially perilous implications: has the revolutionary ethos and popular support of the January 25 revolution worn thin? It is as if the transition has become a bittersweet interval in the post-Mubarak reconstitution of the Egyptian polity.

 Inside Story – A showdown between old and new in Egypt

In this vein, the Ikhwan are not blameless. They have partly played ball with the very forces whose counter-revolutionary machinations have since the revolution been obviously conspicuous. A combination of realpolitik and ideological purity, as they have been challenged to respond to diverse audiences within and without Egypt, meant their balancing-act politics could not be devoid of punishing disequilibrium.

Thus the Ikhwan and the FJP have not polled enough to win an outright majority in the first round of the long-awaited presidency. Through arrogance, misplaced sense of overconfidence, they opted to field their own candidate when there was a plethora of Islamist candidates, like Abdel Moneim Abolfotouh. In fact, they have divided the Islamist vote and perhaps cost Abolfotouh the opportunity to be the country’s first democratically elected president. Alternatively, they could have endorsed a non-Islamist candidate such as Hamdeen Al-Sabbahi, which would have increased their political capital amongst the leftists and the revolutionaries.

They equally worked in cahoots with SCAF when they went ahead with the 19 March 2011 constitutional amendments. And they applied pressure on SCAF to dissolve the Ganzouri Government and speed up the process of handing over power only when it became evident that the top brass was putting a spanner in the works of a smooth and swift democratic transition.

Morsi can still win the mid-June run-off, but this requires a paradigm shift. And such a shift will be the only way to avert degeneration of the revolution into a mere coup by the ballot box – as opposed to the bullet – staged by SCAF, on behalf of the folool, as a stakeholder in the ousted regime.

The clock cannot be turned backwards, given the huge sacrifice by all Egyptians. And there is no denying that some of the credit of the revolution was due to the Ikhwan throwing their weight behind the early Tahrir Square critical mass.

The French turn: The June run-off

As in the French elections, the Egyptian first round of the presidency proved to be a kind of vote driven by anger, expressing a backlash against the new political class’s failure to measure up to the promises of the revolutionary moment. Hence the second round features as the plebiscite, to vote in a fashion that champions the common good, ie safeguard the revolution and its gains, propelling it forward as the means to break once and for all with the dictatorial past.

Between them, the key three leading non-establishment candidates – Morsi (24.9 per cent), Sabbahi (21 per cent), and Abolfotouh (19 per cent) – polled nearly 65 per cent of the popular vote. That is a clear expression of popular will for a non-establishment or non-folool candidate. The vote therefore was not a vote against the revolution. Nor the vote for Shafiq is meaningful when one looks at the big picture.

 The role of religion in Egypt’s election

In this respect, the Ikhwan are to blame. They have reneged on their earlier pledge not to contest the presidential elections.

And it is that miscalculation that today has placed the revolution on an unsteady footing at the end of what was meant to be the culmination of the transition period. Worse still is that having erred on the side of caution, the Ikhwan have not only divided the popular vote, but also opened the door for a man closely associated with Mubarak to recapture the highest political office in Egypt.

Faced with this sinister scenario, boycott of the mid-June run-off elections cannot be an option for those who rose up against dictatorship in the January 25 revolution. Similarly, it is no longer for the Ikhwan, and many of its high-ranking members opposed fielding a presidential candidate.

To this end, Morsi and the machinery behind him must broaden their political horizon when devising tactics and strategies for the run-off round. This they must do with Sabbahi, Hamdeen, Al’Awwa, Ahmed Maher and the April 6 Movement, Copts, women, amongst others.

A contract is needed for going back to the basics of revolutionary transition: coalition-building, compromise, broad inclusiveness, partnership, and power-sharing. The ball is particularly in the Ikhwan and FJP’s court. There is a single lesson and trajectory henceforth: to rule with others through a contractual and normative agenda that transcends ideology, partisanship and interest.

The June referendum is a rendezvous with history for all Egyptians – and Arabs. It will be the vote of the century – no election will have such significance for the presence and future of a nation and the Arab world as whole. It is the vote by which a nation will either live or die, and the flames of a revolution will once again be extinguished or rekindled.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).