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Dark Truths Behind Egypt's Polarising Presidential Elections

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There is no going back on democracy in Egypt, USA Secretary of State Hilary Clinton declared Thursday about the Egyptian two-day presidential runoff elections taking place this weekend.

After a year and half of military rule, Egyptians have been choosing their first president since the ousting of dictator Hosni Mubarak, from two candidates: the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi and Mubarak's last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq.

Following 18 months of bloody street battles, fledgling political alliances and revolutionary initiatives, the people face, what liberal analysts have widely dubbed, the worse-case electoral scenario: a reactionary Islamist versus a former regime figure many believe to be the military junta's man.

The polarising candidates have split the nation.

"People are voting 'negatively' rather than 'positively'," says Khalid Fahmy, History Professor the American University in Cairo. In both rounds, speaking to voters in the polling stations, it is clear many are opting for the candidate who would best counteract the contender they do not want.

Despite the newfound confidence and political lexicon the country has discovered post January 25 Revolution, the politics of fear, Fahmy explains, is something Egypt has been unable to shrug off.

Particularly, Fahmy added, in terms of the role of religion in politics and the position of the Islamists.

"We're terrified of an Islamic state if Mursi wins, religion should never be inside politics - we want a civil country, we simply will not be free if the Brotherhood take power," said Irene, 50, a Christian house wife, outside a Munira district polling station. Her whole family, and the local Christian community, is voting for the former regime figure.

"We know Shafiq is the army's man, which is why we are voting for him," her daughter, Sara, 29 added, "He will have the power and the backing of the military, to control the country."

"We have a dual nationality - if Mursi wins we're leaving the country," says the father, Ishaq, 52, a secretary at a local church.

Others are voting reactively to different fears, particularly following last week's key political developments.

"We've just witnessed a military coup," said Ahmed Aziz, 49, assistant manager of a telecommunications company, outside a downtown Cairo polling station after voting for the Brotherhood's candidate. "So I'm praying that the votes will count, and people will cast their ballots against the military candidate, Shafiq. If they count the ballots right, it will be a clean win for Mursi."

Aziz was referring to events last week, which saw the Egyptian military effectively take power of the whole country.

It started with a Thursday verdict by the High Constitutional Court (HCC) that ruled parliamentary electoral law and the Political Disenfranchisement Law, which would see former regime members like Shafiq banned from running for political office, unconstitutional.

The Disenfranchisement Law, which many liberal and revolutionary groups, fearing a former-regime figure taking the presidency, had pinned their hopes on, was dismissed. Ahmed Shafiq was allowed to run.

Parliament, which was elected in November and heralded by the international community as a sure sign Egypt was on the path to democratic enlightenment, was subsequently dissolved by the military on Friday. Without a parliament, the constitution building assembly, is expected to be dismantled as well.

According to the March 2011 military-authored Constitutional Declaration, the only document currently determining the political structure of Egypt since the 1971 Constitution was thrown out, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) are representatives of the president and parliament until their elections.

So, the SCAF automatically assumed all the authorities of the parliament once it ceased to exist.

The next day, the SCAF said that they will announce their own criteria for electing the assembly's members, thereby giving them control over the constitution.

In addition the SCAF will release a second amended constitutional document outlining the new president's authorities next week.

This means the military, in a startlingly brilliant move, have assumed full legislative and executive powers of the county, which they are exercising, moments before the civilian president is due to be elected. Just when it is too late for liberal groups to do anything about it.

Some revolutionaries are banking on the electoral system to save the day and so are voting for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate to dilute the state as personified in Shafiq.

"Shafiq equals more than Mubarak whereas the Brotherhood have been opposition figures for decades - Mursi will do as much as he can to take him out," said art teacher Mowtaz Abdel-Fattah, 39, outside a Sayeda Zeinab polling station. He admitted he has been forced to cast his vote without thinking too much about Brotherhood policies, as he does not believe in the Islamist group.

"Given the presidency, Shafiq will come back with revenge. Imagine what we did to him, the protesters ousted him as prime minister in March last year - even when he was voting in the first round, people hit him with their shoes," Mowtaz said.

The Muslim Brotherhood have made a lot of mistakes, Mowtaz added, but it is not comparable to Shafiq: their hands are clean of blood.

Hossam Magdy, 20, radio producer, who was also waiting outside the polling station, vehemently disagreed.

"Shafiq, as prime minister during the bloody Battle of the Camel, killed my friends in the revolution and the Brotherhood, in betraying us by negotiating with the military and abandoning us during clashes like November on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, supported our deaths."

Neither candidates are fit to be the president, Hossam added. Consequently, Hossam is spoiling his vote "so that no one can use my ballot."

This is a very real concern for voters.

"I saw my dead grandmother's name on the electoral lists, God knows what candidate the regime will put her name by," said Hossam speaking of one of the key electoral violations noted by observers. Mowtaz confirmed he spotted his deceased neighbour on the lists as well.

Monitoring groups also registered pre-marked ballot papers, members of the military voting even though it is banned and vote buying. Reports of a shipment of invisible ink pens, prompted the electoral commission to ban personal writing implements in polling stations.
The Lawyers Syndicate announced Saturday that only 15% of eligible voters hit the ballot boxes.

The low voter turnout during day one of the runoffs was telling that something is rotten in the state of Egypt.

Mohamed Waked, political writer and member of the National Front for Citizens and Democracy, said how the lack of voters had been reported in "feloul" (remnants of the old regime) media, was key.

"For some reason, the message of the day from old-regime media was lamenting the low turnout which is in stark contrast to the first round of voting a few weeks ago where they focused on big democratic festivities," Waked said. "Television presenters reported that the next president will have a minority rule, that he won't have the support of Egyptians and that he is effectively losing before he starts."

As of Saturday, the pro-regime line has been to discredit the elections story.

There was even interest in the boycott movement.

Waked, whose political group had embargoed the electoral process from the November parliamentary elections, said he and other key figures spoiling their ballots, were invited to speak about boycotting on a pro-Shafiq channel, which had never approached him before.

"This made us worried."

The only explanation, Waked could garner, is that the military regime are conversely gunning for the Brotherhood's candidate Mursi.

"It appears they are getting ready for Mursi and preparing to discredit him. Why? So the military can pass the constitution they want."

Waked explained that with Shafiq in power, no groups will join the constitutional committee. It would be all too clear that the military, with control of the parliament and their man Shafiq in office, held total power.

The upcoming president, he added, is unlikely to have any real powers.

"From state leaks over the last month, we can ascertain that the SCAF's expected mandate will not allow the president to appoint certain key ministries such as Defence, Interior, Foreign Affairs, Media/Communication and Justice ministries," he said.

These same sources had already correctly predicted that the military would be announcing its own amended constitutional document.

Indications of how this amended document will go can be gathered from looking at the current military-authored Constitutional Declaration. According to Articles 25 and 56, the president will not have the power to author legislation or public policy.

The rest of the sub-articles in Article 56 omit key presidential powers that were previously enshrined in the 1971 Constitution. For example, it is, as of yet, unclear who will be able to appoint the key positions of the prosecutor-general, the head of the Constitutional Court and the National Council for Justice Judges who control the judiciary.

The military declaration does say that the president will enjoy all presidential authorities as outlined in Egyptian law. However most of the powers of the Egyptian president were listed in the 1971 Constitution not in legislative form, so this does not mean much.

"The constitutional documents are also notoriously vague, meaning the new president will have to go to the Constitutional Court every day to find out what the articles actually mean in practice," Waked explained.

Therefore, he concluded, it does not matter to the SCAF if Shafiq or Mursi win.

This is also indicated in the timing of the release of this new amended constitutional document. It would have made more sense, Waked says, for them to have issued it weeks ago to "make the political situation in Egypt look more sane."

Announcing the presidential mandate post-elections, when the president is chosen and nothing can be done about it, implies that the document will be "insulting."

Previous SCAF statements also back up these predictions. The military council's November "El-Selmy communiqué" outlined key supra-constitutional principles, which included giving the military the right to object to (read: author) constitutional articles, whilst keeping their own mandate out of reach of the president.

The only confirmed powers the next president will enjoy include social security, like petrol and food subsidies and the economy - a poisoned chalice when Egypt is in such dire financial position.

Waked spoke of approximately 3million civil servant jobs that faced the axe. Who better to take on these unpleasant duties than the increasingly unpopular Brotherhood?

Nevertheless, this is all speculation - it is impossible to truly know.

This lack of information is the real problem revolutionary forces face in Egypt due to the opacity of the ruling military council (we do not even have a confirmed list of its members). Without a full constitution in place, there is also no discernable rulebook. Waked argues that the revolutionary tactic to vote strategically in the elections has been misleading.

"People thought they could fight the SCAF with the parliament - since it has been dissolved by the military it clearly didn't work," Waked explained, "so now people want to do it with the president? At least with the parliament there was some equal representation, as multiple parties were involved, but the president he is one guy, one party, how can he unite everyone?"

Meanwhile, back at the polling stations, however disaffected with the electoral process, people were still hoping and voting.

"No one has any idea about what is really going happen," says Mowtaz, looking at his inked finger, "after so many months' struggle, it can't be for nothing."

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