Forecasting Egypt’s Presidential Race

Egypt a year ago was at best described as amid a budding democratic experiment that former President Mohamed Morsi’s rule damaged and weakened. The state of Egypt’s governance after the last three months since Morsi’s removal, while still in some sort of flux and transition, is hard to describe as another phase toward full-fledged democracy in the medium term, at least. In light of the Obama administration’s partial suspension of aid, in what many suspect was a response to what Human Rights Watch described as the “most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history” in the clearing of a pro-Morsi sit-in in August, the Egyptian government has taken steps to try to address its image in Washington. As far as the Egyptian government is concerned, these types of incidents, regrettable as they might be, do not obviate that it is on its way to becoming a democratic state. Clearly, these two perspectives are mutually exclusive.

Despite these differences, Egyptians are still likely to head to the ballot boxes again fairly soon, and there is still likely to be a presidential election. Considering the variables that may play out in an election is instructive for understanding Egypt’s current political predicament, and the challenges that will continue to characterize the country for the coming period.

In late May and early June, the Tahrir Trends project commissioned a countrywide survey in Egypt to identify the then current base for presidential candidates. The results were not particularly unusual, if not entirely encouraging. In the last presidential election, progressive forces in Egypt bemoaned that the two top choices of the Egyptian people were the two worst ones: a representative of Hosni Mubarak’s regime (Ahmed Shafiq) and the second choice of the Muslim Brotherhood (Mohamed Morsi). At least by June, Egyptians seemed not to have quite learned their lesson: 25 percent still indicated that Shafiq would be their candidate. A smaller percentage than in 2012 would have chosen Morsi (18 percent) — but he and Shafiq were still the top choices. Hamdeen Sabahi, the Nasserite candidate, was the choice of nine percent of the population; Amr Moussa, the former secretary general of the Arab League, could count on five percent; and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former reformist leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, had four percent. None of this is particularly surprising — as of June, the Egyptian population had not indicated they had identified an alternative to the choices of 2012. Perhaps more intriguing, however, were the numbers of people prior to the military ouster of Morsi who said they didn’t know who they would vote for — and the portion who said they would not vote in any case. About a quarter of the Egyptian population (26 percent) said they did not know whom they would vote for — and 7 percent said they would not vote.

Of course, these numbers are now several months out of date — and a lot has changed since then. What does this tell us about the forthcoming presidential elections? In terms of predicting who would win — not very much. A few months prior to the presidential election in 2012, few people could have predicted that Shafiq would have come in a very close second place. For example, most analysts assumed that Moussa was the chosen candidate of the networks that had previously backed Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), as well as the army. Few had really considered Shafiq — and indeed, it was not Shafiq who made the difference, but the backing he received. The same ought to be said for Morsi — without Muslim Brotherhood support, his candidacy would have been a blip on the political radar.

The question for the forthcoming elections is rather blatant: who will receive the endorsement, subtly or otherwise, of the same networks that brought Shafiq within a stone’s throw of the presidency? The obvious answer is that no one knows — because he (and yes, it’s likely to be a he) has not been chosen yet. The presidential elections are not due for months — perhaps next summer at this rate. However, some observations can be made on some of the possible options, based on last year’s candidates who have indicated they want to stay in frontline politics, and the new political realities post-July 3.

The consideration of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate is purely academic to the point of almost being moot. If the Brotherhood even ran a presidential candidate (which is highly unlikely under these political conditions), it is unthinkable to consider that any such candidate would win. The Brotherhood’s best chance was against a member of the former regime, and it only just barely won that election. The former regime candidate, Shafiq, however, could do very well, if the same networks that backed him in 2012 did so again. The real question is whether or not they will do so — and that ought not to be taken as a foregone conclusion. Neither the military nor the former NDP networks are wedded to Shafiq as a political personality — and if either choose not to endorse him, or endorse someone else, his candidacy is unlikely to stand strong enough.

Of the remaining two front-runners from last year’s election (Moussa has already indicated he won’t run), Sabahi is probably the one to watch. The other, Aboul Fotouh, backed early presidential elections, endorsed protests to force Morsi to hold them, but rejected any role for the military in Egypt’s then budding (if deeply weakened by Morsi) democratic experiment. The measured balance of this sort of position notwithstanding, this is a time of polarization, and a reformist Islamist such as Aboul Fotouh is unlikely to do any better than he did last year. Sabahi, on the other hand, has a significant independent support base. This Nasserite leader within the non-Islamist coalition is likely to keep it, and the National Salvation Front may formally endorse him as its candidate. Be that as it may, his non-military, non-NDP base of support is unlikely to make the difference to bring him to the presidency. Of course, the military establishment may well, if only subtly, endorse him — he is a strong backer of General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, and as a Nasserite, is unlikely to be critical of the military in general. But will the military rely on him at such a critical time?

At present, there are two possible additional candidates (and there could be more). The first is the obvious choice of Minister of Defense Sisi. If he were to run, he would almost certainly receive the endorsement of the major power structures in the country, and be able to count on a wide base of grassroots support. To put it simply — if Sisi were to run today, he would be a veritable shoe-in for the presidency. The military establishment is, overwhelmingly, the most popular institution in the country; and Sisi presently is an incredibly popular figure. The question is: Wouldhe run? That is not a foregone conclusion: as minister of defense, he holds a great deal of power, with far less accountability than any elected official. As president, he might have marginally more power, but would be held responsible by the population to actually improve the country. Very few people should relish that responsibility in Egypt — but it may well be that General Sisi has decided it would be best for him to become President Sisi. That ought to become clear relatively soon.

The second possible candidate may be hidden in plain sight: the current interim president, Adli Mansour. If he was to gain the endorsement of the same coalition that backed Shafiq, and there was no other candidate that was endorsed by the military, Mansour would almost certainly win the presidential race. On the public relations side, he might be a strategically useful choice as well. He is a civilian (who is nonetheless trusted by the military establishment), and as the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, he would be easily presentable on the world stage as a man that supported “rule of law” in the midst of Egypt’s transition. Of course, much may take place between now and the presidential elections in Egypt; Mansour’s government could become so incredibly unpopular for failing to make sufficient headway on the economic front that his candidacy could become a liability. Only time will tell. What is clear, though: Mansour’s victory would be almost definitely predicated upon either a military endorsement, or the absence of a military endorsement for any other candidate.

This analysis is all deeply affected by how the military will relate to particular candidacies. The military is, indeed, incredibly popular in Egypt — and it has a political impact that outstrips any other force in the country, if it chooses to exercise it. It is not a question of whether there will be free elections in Egypt, or whose policies will be most popular among average Egyptians. It is far more about who will gain the support and endorsement of the networks that backed Mubarak’s regime, and how the military responds. That, in itself, is a poignant reflection of where the democratic experiment in Egypt is at present — but it is likely to be the case for the coming presidential elections.