May 2012


Over the last two days, Egyptians have been taking part in the first round of what was preordained to be a runoff election for President. As you may have gathered from the news coverage, this is the first truly free election in the nation’s history. I tend to be skeptical of such phrases, but there are a number of international monitoring organizations present (as there were for the parliamentary elections), and by and large they confirm that things have been free and fair. Certainly they have been peaceful and robust, with people waiting in long lines all day yesterday, though less so today. Fridays are hard days to get things done in a religious Islamic country, especially during the summer. But the numbers on Thursday were high and the results, as a good democratic election should be, surprising.

Of no surprise is that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammad Moursi came in first with over 25 percent of the vote, according to Al-Ahram’s live coverage. Abd al-Fatouh and  dark horse candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi both placed respectably, though Amr Mousa (Silly Party) seems to have dropped the ball, but number two with over 23 percent is Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last Prime Minister. We’ve previously discussed how Shafiq narrowly avoided being thrown out of the running by the election commission. When someone like Shafiq, who most Egyptians outside of the military hate, not only manages to mysteriously sort out his candidacy issues and to place second in a general election, my first instinct is to cry foul. But then there are those international monitors saying everything’s on the level to deal with.

If Shafiq and the SCAF really have let the elections go as planned, then we have to ask some hard questions. Why do over 20 percent of Egyptians want Ahmed Shafiq, an old guard holdover from the overthrown regime, to be President? The common line in the media these days is that he represents stability and security. That is something that Egypt’s lacked for the last year plus. Can it be that Egyptians are growing nostalgic? Perhaps the liberal left, out foxed from the revolution they helped to start, prefer Shafiq to the Brotherhood running the show? They do smart from the Brotherhood having promised not to field a candidate for President, but to work for a consensus government. But surely such liberals would have preferred Mousa or even Sabbahi to Shafiq.

What’s clear is that there’s more going on here than fits into the narrative as offered so far. Also clear is that now is the moment for the liberals to get together and deal, if they want to have any say in the next government. They could either vote for Shafiq as a hedge against the Brothers, or they could use the opportunity to cut a solid deal with Mousa, to assure his victory in return for a key ministry or two. But this requires the liberals to coalesce into a single bloc, and as yet, they are far too fractured. Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center has suggested an alternate possibility: that a large portion of the electorate will boycott the second round in protest. Maybe.

One thing that’s certain, according to Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven Cook, is that the fundamental rules of the game have changed, that whoever wins the election will be held accountable to the will of the people and be unable to bribe or beat his way out of things.The people are tired of business as usual and having tasted freedom, will not return to the status quo ante.

Although a new president will likely want to hold onto as much power in the political system as possible, he will likely confront a challenge from the parliament, the military, and average Egyptians who are no longer willing to endure the injustices associated with a rigged political system.

If Shafiq is truly their choice of how to go forward, I’m not so sure.

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Been meaning to share this one for a while. My thanks to AS for passing this along. Ever wonder what they mean when they point out that the Egyptian military has huge economic interests and privileges? This post by Zeinab Abul-Magd on Foreign Policy does a fairly good job of articulating what those interests and privileges are.

Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group has an interesting blog entry on the New York Review of Books (thanks to my friend A_ for passing this along). His main thesis is that the sectarian aspect of the conflict in Bahrain is a recent invention of the regime to win the PR battle:

Part of what makes the current situation in Bahrain so disturbing is that the regime has succeeded in replacing the narrative of a peaceful movement for reform with an altogether different one: that the country’s majority Shia are intent on driving the Sunnis off the island and handing the country over to Iran. Although last year’s protests were led by predominantly Shia opposition groups, Bahrain’s urban populations have long been mixed and the uprising also drew Sunnis dissatisfied with how the country was run. But now, by mobilizing Sunnis against Shia protesters on the claim the latter are manipulated by a predatory Iran, the regime has made Shia-Sunni hostility the conflict’s overriding theme.

….

In fact, this overtly sectarian discourse has far less to do with longstanding communal differences than with the regime’s attempt to deflect attention from its own record of mismanagement and corruption…. By whipping up sectarian sentiments, the government hopes to change the perception of the conflict from one that pits a popular pro-democracy movement against an authoritarian regime to one of a sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shia, with the strong government needed to maintain order.

While I think Hiltermann makes a good point about the complicated social fabric of Bahraini society, I fear he severely underplays the extent of sectarian politics. He seems to suggest this is a recent phenomenon mainly in response to the recent protests, but the regime has for a very long time had a practice of importing Sunnis from other states and granting them citizenship if they participate in the security forces. The sectarianism involved is not just about the regime deflecting attention away from its own record of mismanagement and corruption; it is a bullying attempt at ethnic cleansing turned violent and bloody.

Hiltermann has a couple of real gems, however, like his analysis of the inner workings of the royal powerbrokers:

So where are these allegations coming from? One explanation is that there has been a marked shift in the power center of the regime itself, with those who want to seek accommodation with the opposition increasingly sidelined by hard-liners. When the opposition movement began last year, the moderate Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and his allies were considered a leading force for reform within the government. But his failure, in March 2011, to persuade Al-Wefaq and other opposition societies to agree to a dialogue with the government on reform fatally undermined his position.

And his conclusion that “in seeking to escape Iranian interference, the Al Khalifas are rushing headlong into a Saudi embrace” is spot on.