Egypt's Depressing Run-Off

Given the turbulent path of Egypt's post-revolutionary transition, it somehow seems only right that last week's first round of the Presidential election managed to produce the worst of all the possible run-off combinations: the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed al-Morsi vs. the SCAF's Ahmed Shafik.  It's fair to say that the sky appears to many people, once again, to be falling.  That tantalizing glimpse of a successful transition to a civilian President who could represent the revolution and challenge the SCAF seems to once again be dancing from view.  So, basically, the Presidential election has gone just about as well as every other part of Egypt's disastrous transition.  What now?

It's important to keep the results in perspective.   The results look less surprising once it's recognized that the two most powerful forces in Egypt won the first round.  Neither did especially well.  The Muslim Brotherhood won 25%, which is just about exactly where most experts have pegged their popular support for years and is significantly lower than in the Parliamentary elections.  Another quarter of the vote went to the SCAF's candidate, Shafik, likely reflecting the widespread reality of popular exhaustion with the revolution.  Neither of those results should be a surprise.  The real tragedy is that the center, just as many had warned, destroyed itself by failing to unite around a single candidate and dividing the remaining 50% of the vote among three candidates.  This too, alas, should not be a surprise.

The results are mainly surprising given popular ideas about the elections in advance.  Polling was indeed almost completely useless, radically exaggerating Amr Moussa's share of the vote and missing the appeal of the actual front-runners.   Shafik was likely underestimated because people (on all sides) assumed that Moussa was the real candidate of the SCAF and that the fix was in on his behalf.  Morsi was dismissed because many observers confused the individual with the movement;  in fact, helped by the relatively low turnout, the Brotherhood's electoral machine probably performed just as well for him as it would have for the disqualified Khairet el-Shater.  Democratic elections often fail to produce desirable results -- it's the nature of the beast.  

So what now?  It's hard to judge how the electorate will shake out -- and given how few people got the first round remotely right, it's probably best to take all such predictions with much salt. (Will any pollsters dare release pre-election polls?) But there's going to be a season of political jockeying, with tough coalition formation and endorsement challenges for both candidates.    The Muslim Brotherhood should be the natural beneficiary of the "pro-revolution" vote, but its political mistakes over the last months -- especially its decision to field a Presidential candidate after vowing to not do so -- have helped generate enormous mistrust and resentment among the political class.  This political resentment, combined with growing polarization around Islamism and fear of one party dominated both branches of government, has pushed at least some forces towards Shafik.  But his uncompromising stance makes him an exceedingly unlikely partner.   

Most activists seem understandably stunned by the outcome.  If only they had recognized the strategic logic of the election earlier and united around a single candidate, this might have been averted.  But neither Moussa, given his past, nor Abou el-Fotouh given his awkward coalition of salafis and revolutionaries, quite fit the bill. The late surge for Sabbahi likely reflected frustration with those two candidates. In the next round, voting for either the Brotherhood or the SCAF is anathema to them, and I wouldn't be surprised if many stay home.  For some activists, this should be just fine actually -- they were likely to continue street activism regardless of the outcome, so this will in their view simply strip away the masks.  Some activists might actually find more to like in this outcome than had one of their preferred candidates won the election, depriving them of reason to protest.

It's hard to see a real upside to either of these candidates winning -- that ship has sailed.  But the threat posed by either remaining candidate is probably exaggerated.  The odds of persistent instability (thought not likely another January 25 style mass uprising) would go up with Shafik, especially if the election is seen to have been rigged even more than in the first round and he seeks to govern with the iron fist he's promised.  But more likely he would end up as a weak President, with little popular legitimacy and commanding little respect from a SCAF which would remain empowered. His policies would likely resemble the transitional status quo, which has produced poor economic performance and pervasive instability.  

Morsi has a greater chance of being willing and able to use the Presidency to contest SCAF authority, but still frightens many outside of the Brotherhood's orbit (including many salafis who retain a deeply ingrained hostility to their Islamist rivals).  I doubt that Morsi would actually move to impose sharia law, should he win, however.  Despite erratic political behavior over the last few months, the Brotherhood remains a pragmatic organization, and all of the leaders with whom I've spoken over the last year have emphasized the urgent need to prioritize economic reform.  Forming meaningful coalitions in the next few weeks ahead of the election, and making firm guarantees on the constitution, would help.... though such promises are difficult to make credible.  

Don't believe the idea that Washington is pleased with the choice.  The odd idea of a convergence or alliance between the U.S. and the Muslim Brotherhood is radically exaggerated in some circles, while Shafik promises instability and an emboldened military which could resist meaningful reform. My personal hunch is that the U.S. was quietly rooting for Moussa, which shows how effectively it controls events in Cairo.  It's actually a very good sign that the U.S. was so irrelevant to the  election campaign -- a successful campaign based primarily on anti-American rhetoric, or overt American intervention in the election being two dogs which didn't bark in an important way. 

The first round of the elections really did produce the worst possible outcome, even if it in retrospect seems rather inevitable in light of earlier decisions, such as the MB's fielding a candidate and the political center failing to unite around a single candidate.  The second round really can't produce a President who will command wide legitimacy or a popular mandate. Sadly, I suppose that's about what we should have expected from this disastrous transition.  But despair isn't an option.  The focus must remain on seeing through the transition to civilian authority and the drafting of an acceptable constitution. 

(*) One additional point --- from what has thus far been reported, election day itself appeared to be reasonably fair despite the assorted complaints.  But the allegations of large numbers of additions to the voting rolls in the months before the election, and the even more worrying allegations that conscripts were allowed (and ordered) to vote, should have been thoroughly investigated.  There is no sign that they were.  In the context of deep, deserved suspicions about the neutrality of the state --- exacerbated by the repeated judicial interventions of the last few months, including the disqualifications of Shater, Abu Ismail and Sulaiman --- a cloud will hang over the legitimacy of the vote.  Which, once again, seems pretty much par for Egypt's transitional course. 


The Middle East Channel

MEC Editor’s Reader

Welcome to the second edition of the Middle East Channel Editor's Reader. Each week, I will present my personal selections of the books and articles to read about the Middle East. With Egyptians going to the polls for historic presidential elections, this week's readings primarily focus on Islamists and electoral politics. How are Islamist parties and movements adapting to their new political horizons? How have they done so in the past -- and does this offer any useful lessons for their future? 

My frequently repeated observation to journal publishers: it would be a lot easier and more effective for me to direct attention to your articles if you would liberate them from behind the paywall.

-- Marc Lynch, editor, Middle East Channel, May 23, 2012



When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Parties in Arab Politics, by Nathan Brown (Cornell University Press)

Six months ago, in the midst of the Egyptian Parliamentary elections, I joined my George Washington University colleague Nathan Brown for a long interview with Muslim Brotherhood Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat el-Shater. Brown began the conversation by pointing to the title of his new book on Islamist political parties in the Arab world: "When Victory is Not an Option." How would it change the Brotherhood, Brown asked, if it actually became possible for them to win elections and govern rather than simply take advantage of opportunities to campaign and win a limited number of seats? Shater, usually a decisive and confident presence in such conversations, had no real answers. Neither does anyone else.

Almost all of what we think we know about the political behavior, ideologies, and internal organization of Islamist movements in the Arab world derives from evidence rooted in (at best) semi-authoritarian political systems which limited their ability to act on their avowed convictions. Brown's new book offers one of the best works to date on a (perhaps) passing period of Islamist politics. Through close readings of Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and Palestine -- along with frequent reference to other cases such as Morocco -- Brown paints a persuasive picture of careful movements adapting to local conditions, hedging against uncertainty, and working within the boundaries presented to them. Brown treats Islamist political movements as political actors, not as ideological monoliths, and effectively dissects the sometimes awkward interaction of their strategy and their ideology. He also offers thought-provoking comparisons between Islamist political movements and European religious parties of the 19th century, with mixed conclusions about the possibility of replicating the latter's trajectory. When Victory is Not an Option is a masterful book, beautifully written and perfectly timed. Highly recommended.


"Islam: The Democracy Dilemma," by Olivier Roy, in The Islamists Are Coming, edited by Robin Wright.

This concise overview of the transforming Islamist landscape by French scholar Oliver Roy is one of the highlights of the excellent new volume edited by Robin Wright. Roy looks beyond electoral outcomes to the deeper social and cultural transformations which Islamists have shaped. Even as Islamists rise in political power, they face great challenges to adapt to changing circumstance. Read this in conjunction with Brown's book -- and all the essays in Wright's useful volume.

The Lesser of Two Evils: The Salafi Turn to Party Politics in Egypt, by William McCants.

Where Brown's book focuses on Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamist parties, McCants looks at the fascinating evolution of the Egyptian Salafi movement. Their turn to electoral politics is not as new or novel as many believe, McCants demonstrates, but takes on new significance in the current political environment. McCants does an outstanding job of presenting the key Salafi players and their internal ideological debates, and concludes that the United States and Egypt are likely better served by their being inside the political game than marginalized and alienated.

"America and the Regional Powers in a Transforming Middle East," by F. Gregory Gause III and Ian Lustick. Middle East Policy.

The Obama administration's approach to the Arab uprisings has predictably been criticized from all directions -- for not intervening aggressively enough, for being too quick to abandon allies such as Mubarak, for supporting counter-revolution, for empowering Islamists. In this new essay, Gregory Gause (University of Vermont) and Ian Lustick (University of Pennsylvania) argue that in fact the United States has proven more nimble and effective than the regional powers of the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran which remain locked in old paradigms. Its relative success, they argue, has come because "the flexibility and nuance of its reactions to the Arab upheavals of 2011 reflect a focus on changes in the region itself rather than calculations in a game with the Soviets or leftover ideological commitments to American hegemony." They view American policy as driven by a recognition that few truly vital American interests are actually at stake, which gives the administration the luxury to adopt agile, multilateral responses rather than overcommitting to self-defeating policies. This argument by two veteran political scientists is well worth a read, though it remains to be seen whether the analysis will survive the coming year's policy decisions in Syria and Iran.