Egypt's Presidential Choices: The Trouble with Democracy

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Mohammed Salem / Reuters

Protesters shout during a demonstration against presidential candidates Mohamed Morsy and Ahmed Shafik in Cairo's Tahrir Square on May 28, 2012

Updated: May 29, 2012, at 6 a.m. E.T.

Not only did Egypt pull off its first democratic presidential election in the country's history last week, but it managed to make it a relatively clean vote. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter told journalists in Cairo over the weekend that international monitors working for the Carter Center had noted minor violations during the election, but nothing so serious as to impact the result. Enthusiasm seemed high: Egypt's electoral commission reported a relatively strong turnout.

And yet the results are not what anyone expected. Neither of the two initial front runners for the June 16 and 17 runoff vote qualified for that round of voting. Instead, the two men who came out on top, according to the Election Commission's final results, are the two most polarizing candidates on the ballot: the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsy and ousted President Hosni Mubarak's former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik. "It's a charade," says Adel al-Sobki, who owns a Cairo supermarket and says he voted for the Arab nationalist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi. "We're now stuck with either the old regime or the Muslim Brotherhood." Some residents showed their displeasure right away — angry mobs of young men set fire to Shafik's campaign headquarters just hours after the official results were announced. In Tahrir Square, several thousand protesters also chanted slogans against Shafik, Morsy and the military rulers who took over after Mubarak's ouster.

To Egypt's liberals and leftists, it's a nightmare scenario. In a race that involved 13 candidates and five front runners — including three relative moderates like Sabbahi — the country has wound up with two extremes to choose their next leader from. It's a reality that has left some Egyptians promising to boycott the June electoral finale and others simply wondering: Where did we go wrong?

Hassan Nafaa, a political scientist at Cairo University, has a couple of theories. He says the biggest factor in Egypt's electoral outcome may be the failed strategies of the country's losing moderates and their supporters. Hamdeen Sabbahi and Abdel Moneim Aboul Futouh, an independent Islamist, may have been too similar to each other for either one to win, he argues. The two came in third and fourth, respectively, but only Shafik and Morsy will proceed to the runoff. Both Aboul Futouh and Sabbahi hold moderate political views and were active participants in last year's uprising — factors that appeal to voters across the spectrum, from liberals to Islamists and socialists, thus probably dissipating their support across the same range.

Other Egyptians voted for the popular former Arab League chief Amr Moussa. But in the end, Egyptian moderates — perhaps a political force only as a combined mass — were too divided. "Had they coordinated and voted in one direction — either to support Aboul Futouh or Sabbahi — one of them would be in the runoff," says Nafaa. "There was a lack of coordination between the so-called revolutionary forces."

That lack of organization may have proved critical. When the high electoral commission announced the final results, Sabbahi and Aboul Futouh's campaigns might have expected to see numbers revealing a tight race. But Morsy and Shafik were the only two candidates who have solid voting constituencies — a reality that most political analysts underestimated going into the election. For Morsy, that was the Muslim Brotherhood, long the strongest opposition to Mubarak's rule and in the aftermath of the uprising, Egypt's most organized political machine. The Brotherhood may be a minority among the country's 85 million people, but after competing in numerous parliamentary elections — including the sham votes under Mubarak — they know how to get voters to the polls. On election day, their supporters pushed undecided Egyptians to the polls and ran help tables to guide voters to their appropriate polling stations. Morsy's candidacy also appealed to the ultraconservative Salafis, whose own candidate had been disqualified by the electoral commission ahead of the vote.

Analysts say Shafik, a former air-force commander and Mubarak's last Prime Minister, had automatic backers too: the Egyptians who never supported the revolution to begin with, as well as the country's powerful armed forces. Egyptians currently serving the military and police force are technically banned from casting votes, but some of Shafik's opposition allege that thousands of soldiers may have voted anyway or at least used their clout to convince voters one way or the other. "The whole state apparatus was behind Shafik," says Nafaa. "Maybe there was no direct intervention, but all those who are enrolled in the army may have gotten directives to vote for him, and this is forbidden."

But there is no doubt that Shafik also struck a chord with millions of Egyptians who say they're fed up with a struggling economy and the plummeting public security since Mubarak's downfall. For many of the country's poor, Shafik's unapologetic attitude about his ties to the old regime seemed to promise a military toughness that would return security to the streets. To Egypt's Christian minority, and indeed many secularists fearful of an Islamist takeover, Shafik's hard line on the Brotherhood also harked back to Mubarak's era, in which religious conservatives stayed in jail or under close watch by state security — never allowed to attain too much power or impose their will on the country's legal system.

It's that authoritarian image that has many moderate Egyptians in a dilemma two weeks ahead of the big decision. Will they use the country's first democratic presidential race to elect a man so similar to the one they ousted, or will they risk an Islamist government that may strive to write Egypt's soon-to-be-drafted constitution in a far more conservative way and thus change their way of life?

The irony, many unhappy voters are quick to point out, is that the tough choice is unlikely to unite the moderates any more than the first round of voting did. Some say they're so dismayed by the options that they won't even bother to vote in the next round. Others simply disagree on which option is worse. "Shafik would be just like Mubarak, nothing more, nothing less," says Magdy Mohamed, a small-business owner. A Shafik win would wind back all of the democratic and judicial gains that Egyptians have accomplished in the past year and a half, he says. "They might even allow Mubarak to go free. Then the people will go to the streets, and we will demand our rights all over again," he adds. But Amr Shalabi, a university student who says he voted for Amr Moussa, sees it the other way around. "I have no choice now but to choose Shafik," he says. "We can't allow the Brotherhood to take power."

The next two weeks are likely to be tense, as candidates square off in a fresh round of campaigning, and Egyptians debate the pros and cons of each. The Muslim Brotherhood has started holding talks with other political parties in an effort to rally a larger constituency that encompasses liberals, secularists and antimilitary activists to take on Shafik. The group and its candidate, Morsy, have promised throughout the campaign to embrace policies that promote justice and equality for all of Egypt's religious and ethnic groups, even if those policies are founded on Islamic law. But Nafaa says that interparty talks may force them to make more concrete concessions on what their future government will look like and what kinds of articles wind up in the country's constitution. No matter. Whoever becomes Egypt's next President is sure to face plenty of opposition.

— With reporting by Sharaf al-Hourani