Egypt’s Difficult Choice: The First Round Is Over, Now Comes the Hard Part

Elections are vastly complicated affairs, the dominant characteristic of which appears to be unpredictability. Egypt’s presidential election in 2012 was no exception to this rule, and took everyone by surprise.

Of the 13 candidates, there were five frontrunners, arguably representing three different camps: 1) The Islamist camp, represented by Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi; 2) the “filul” camp, or remnants of the former regime, led by former Egyptian Foreign Minister and Arab League head Amr Moussa and former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik; and 3) the “revolutionary camp” represented by moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Nasserite Hamdeen Sabbahi. Aboul Fotouh managed to straddle both camps through his “something for everyone” approach. A former Brotherhood Guidance Bureau member who finally split with the group over his decision to run for president, he gained a widespread following through his brand of moderate, inclusive Islam and liberal politics.

For months beforehand, most opinion polls predicted similar results. They placed Moussa as front-runner, with Aboul Fotouh hot on his heels, Shafik panting to keep up and Mursi lagging far behind. Sabbahi made discreet but insistent appearances at the back of the line, although he did keep edging closer to Morsi. There were some variations on this theme, with Moussa and Aboul Foutuh jockeying for first place but generally a run-off was expected between the two.

The televised presidential debate between the two presumptive front-runners— the Arab world’s first —is widely perceived to have damaged both their chances. Moussa’s performance was panned as arrogant and elitist and Aboul Fotouh came across as significantly more Islamist than he had in previous  campaign appearances. The fact that the Salafists had just declared their backing for him didn’t do Aboul Fotouh any favors with his liberal constituency. Undecided voters who had been leaning toward Aboul Fotouh or Moussa in opinion polls began rapidly jumping ship.

The election that finally took place on May 23 and 24 yielded a result that has been widely hailed as Egypt’s worst-case-scenario (at least from the standpoint of liberals and revolutionaries): a run-off between the Brotherhood’s Morsi and Hosni Mubarak’s former right-hand man, Shafik. Those who did not vote for either candidate are paralyzed, caught between a candidate they do not want to vote for and one they feel they cannot vote for out of loyalty to the ideals of the revolution. The Egyptian electorate is rapidly polarizing into two camps and widespread abstentions are expected during the run-offs.

Of the many lessons learned in the first round, the first and most obvious is that it does not appear possible to obtain accurate polling data on Egyptian voters. The two frontrunners falsely projected by most polls came in at fourth and fifth position. Worse still, Sabbahi—placed in fourth or fifth position in every single poll—soared ahead, not only beating Moussa and Aboul Fotouh but roundly trouncing Morsi in areas traditionally considered Islamist strongholds like Alexandria. Sabbahi eventually placed third, a respectable showing for an underdog whose campaign resources and advertising budget were dwarfed by Morsi’s and Shafik’s.

The second lesson is that —contrary to popular assumptions — the Brotherhood does not have Egypt in its pocket. Morsi has been dismissively referred to as “El-Stibn” or “The Spare Tire” since the Brotherhood’s first-choice candidate, Khairat El-Shater, was disqualified by a court ruling, leaving the uncharismatic Morsi to fill in as a back-up. The organization itself is suffering from a huge loss of support as a result  of lackluster performance in Parliament (where it controls 43 percent of the seats in the lower house), perceived collusion with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and tepid support for the revolution. The naked attempt at a power-grab during the formation of a Constitutional Assembly earlier this year exposed the group to public censure and ridicule, as did its failed attempt to withdraw confidence from Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri’s cabinet. While the Brotherhood’s extraordinary mobilization tactics and overwhelming voter outreach network ensured that Morsi finally came out ahead, they gained less than half the votes they had won during the Parliamentary elections a mere six months ago. To add insult to injury, Shafik rode to victory in Sharqeya, Morsi’s hometown.

Shafik’s strong following could only have come as a huge surprise to those who have cocooned themselves from public opinion. While both Egypt’s liberals and its Islamists have been stridently vocal, neither has managed to draw in what is referred to as “the silent majority.” There was overwhelming national support for the overthrow of Mubarak’s regime but Egyptians have since been battered by the results: economic hardship resulting from a sharp downturn in Foreign Direct Investment, plummeting tourism revenues, and a newly timid and inefficient police force whose inaction has resulted in soaring crime. Shafik’s approach—and appeal—were direct. The Islamists have not delivered, the liberals have yet to offer anything tangible, and Shafik’s pledge to restore order, attack crime, and bring life back to “normal” was one that resonated powerfully with Egyptians who have lost patience with continued insecurity and unrest.

Shafik’s success has opened up deep fissures in Egyptian society, polarizing the country into perceived pro-revolution and anti-revolutionary camps. More disturbingly, there have been attempts to whip up sectarian divisions, with claims that Egypt’s Coptic Christians voted exclusively for Shafik. Absent among the strident calls, however, has been a willingness among either the liberals or Islamists to take responsibility for having failed to put forward a viable alternative.

Both Moussa’s and Aboul Fotouh’s poor showings were surprising (especially the latter’s, partially attributed to a betrayal by  the Salafists whose promised votes failed to materialize) but no performance was more surprising than Sabbahi’s. Lacking the deep pockets and strong campaign teams of the other candidates, he nevertheless came from behind to snatch third place. His success does not, as has been suggested, represent a secret Egyptian yearning for a return to Nasserism. It represents a not-so secret Egyptian yearning for decent leadership: his supporters represent a broad cross-section of society who are simply looking for a competent policy maker capable of unifying and inspiring a nation in transition.

After the results, Sabbahi’s supporters submitted an appeal to the Supreme Presidential Electoral Committee (SPEC), as did Aboul Fotouh and Moussa, alleging electoral fraud. However, the committee has already released final results and declared that the run-off will be between Morsi and Shafik, and its findings cannot be appealed under the electoral law.

The elections also proved that pluralism has finally come to Egypt’s political sphere. Voters queued for up to seven hours, in some cases, refusing to give up or go away when procedural hitches stretched the waiting time. While the turnout was less than expected (only 46 percent compared to 62 percent in the parliamentary elections) the presidential election was fiercely contested and voters bucked all stereotypical expectations. The weeks leading to the run-off are likely to be strained and possibly violent, but Egyptians have already won. They have won the right to elect a leader, rather than have one imposed, to play a role in their future, rather than simply be dictated to. They have learnt the power of the ballot box and while the next president might represent a new faction, he will have to realize that it is no longer business as usual.