Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Portents and Promise in Egypt’s Runoff Elections

by Isobel Coleman
June 13, 2012

A woman walks past election campaign posters of presidential candidates, Mohamed Mursi and Ahmed Shafiq, in Cairo June 4, 2012 (Amr Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). A woman walks past election campaign posters of presidential candidates, Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, in Cairo June 4, 2012 (Amr Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

On June 16 and 17, Egyptians are scheduled to vote in a runoff election between the two leading presidential candidates: Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force commander and civil aviation minister who also served briefly as Mubarak’s last prime minister. I say “scheduled” to vote because legal uncertainties about the legitimacy of Shafiq’s candidacy remain. A boycott campaign has also been gaining ground among the many voters who are disillusioned with these two polarizing candidates. Although almost 50 percent of Egyptians in the general election voted for more moderate contenders (some of who got almost as many votes as the front-runners), they now face the stark choice between voting for Morsi, and further entrenching the Muslim Brotherhood which already dominates parliament, or voting for Shafiq who is widely viewed as the military’s man. While the general election last month was an exciting contest between personalities and competing visions of Egypt’s future, the runoff  has become an increasingly bitter and partisan referendum between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Looming over the contest, the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) will soon rule on whether Shafiq should be disqualified because he served as a prime minister under the former regime. There is also the possibility that the SCC could find the country’s election laws unconstitutional and even dissolve parliament, putting the political transition back to square one. But assuming that the presidential elections go forward and the parliament remains intact, there is still the question of the new constitution and how authority and responsibility will be divided among the branches of government. The current parliament is tasked with choosing the members of the constituent assembly that will write Egypt’s new constitution, a task it completed once only to have a court dissolve the assembly because it was stacked with Islamists and lacked broad legitimacy. In ongoing, last minute negotiations, it seems that the parliament has reached a tentative second agreement on the one hundred members of the assembly. On Monday, it passed legislation outlining the assembly’s responsibilities.

Although the transition from military rule that started sixteen months ago has been poorly managed, seeing this convoluted political process through to the end remains Egypt’s best hope to empower the millions of citizens who are clamoring for their voices to be heard. Greater political clarity is also essential for securing critical financing from both the International Monetary Fund and donor countries in order to prop up Egypt’s flagging economy. While Saudi Arabia has moved recently to supply much need credit, direct budget support, and cooking gas to Egypt, other funding sources – whether from international donors, tourism revenues, or foreign direct investment – are necessary to cover Egypt’s estimated $11 billion balance of payment deficit for the next fiscal year starting July 1.

The outcome of the runoff election will undoubtedly come down to which side is best at mobilizing its base. In the general election, accusations flew that the Muslim Brotherhood had engaged in murky vote-getting practices, including handing out bags of sugar and flour labeled with Morsi’s picture. The military was accused of illegally giving cards to police and soldiers to vote. Another important factor will be whether the “missing middle” – the millions of Egyptians who voted for neither Morsi or Shafiq the first time around – show up at the polls and how they decide to vote. Turnout was a low 46 percent in the first round and is predicted to be even lower in this final round. While Shafiq will pull those most concerned about the consolidation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s power, those seeking change will more likely vote for Morsi. The popular moderate Islamist candidate Aboul Fotouh recently launched a campaign “No Return” to advocate against the re-entrenchment of Mubarak’s supporters to positions of power. He also just endorsed Morsi’s candidacy. Among expatriate Egyptian voters who have already cast their votes, Morsi won over Shafiq by a huge margin of almost 5 to 1. If Shafiq does win, the country should be braced for demonstrations from both the highly organized Muslim Brotherhood and the anti-military revolutionaries. The completion of the presidential election will mark just the end of the beginning of Egypt’s revolution.

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  • Posted by Martin Chibanda

    The displeasure of the Egyptian public over this election process shows that Egyptians are ready for change! On the one hand the nation desires a state separated from religion to avoid the curtailment of true freedom & promote cosmopolitanism, a hallmark of human progress. On the other hand nobody wants a leader who reminds them of the recent past, a past one is running away from regardless how reformed the candidate. Such a candidate throws doubt on whether true democracy will ensue. The process of election is flawed it it fails to deliver the needs of the people.

    To achieve the middle ground in this case would be to escape the ills of the middle east in having religously influenced regimes. It would also move democratization forward thereby escaping the ills of some African states whose democracies are lackluster. Hitting the “restart button” on this process may be a better option than choosing between these polarizers.

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