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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. 

MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/GettyImages

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