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Egypt's Presidential Election: A Victory for Uncertainty?

Both presidential candidates campaigned on a platform of stability, but results place Egypt on course for a volatile future.
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Egyptians voting in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections. Photograph by Jonathan Rashad.

In the chaos of downtown Cairo, four teenage boys began beating against the windows of an upmarket cafe, laughing and making crude and threatening gestures at the women inside. “Is this what our revolution was?” One woman asked in disgust. “Did our martyrs die so that the kids would believe they could get away with anything? Did we get rid of Mubarak so that we wouldn’t feel safe on the streets any more?”

Further north in Alexandria, hotel clerk Ahmed seemed to agree. “Since the revolution, the police have lost their power – security forces are afraid of us now! If we want to cross the road, we cross the road; if we want to take their guns, we take their guns!” One policeman who I spoke to insisted he was afraid to continue doing his job, and planned to leave the country. “There is no respect for the law any more.”

While last weekend’s presidential elections were polarised between democracy and military rule, religion and secularism, the biggest issue for many Egyptians has been a return to law and order. After over a year of post-uprising turmoil, for many the question is not who will provide democracy, but who will provide stability. And for many others, the question is who will protect them from the economic impact of ongoing insecurity.

While both candidates in the presidential runoffs cited security as a top priority, Ahmed Shafiq, former president Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister and the candidate with closest ties to the ruling military council, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), has been most successful in promoting himself as the candidate for stability. In an interview, his campaign manager stated that Shafiq’s aim is to “get this country back to where it was before all this mess", hinting at a return to the authoritarianism of Mubarak’s days. Shafiq himself has underlined that “unrest is not democracy” - possibly a threat to revolutionaries but a relief to a number of Egyptians who are exhausted by the regular clashes between army and protestors.

“I voted for Shafiq because he is the army’s candidate,” an Egyptian man told Think Africa Press. “The army saved Egypt – they prevented the revolution from turning into Libya or Syria. Here in Egypt we are not religious fanatics, we are businessmen. We need stability so we can get back to work.”

But if, as the results suggest, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Mursi is the new president, it would seem that Egypt has chosen change over stability. Voters will be well aware that he is caught between a hostile military apparatus and a restive population. While he may be far from a revolutionary candidate, a vote for Mursi is still a step into the dark – especially when results are perilously close. It guarantees a period of conflict, or at least a volatile alliance, between Egypt’s two strongest political forces, the Muslim Brotherhood and the army.

Economic peace

But for some, the security which is craved is not peaceful streets, but financial security. The Muslim Brotherhood’s network of NGOs has won them widespread support among poorer Egyptians who seek economic stability. Unconfirmed reports are spreading of charity workers in villages handing out food along with election material supporting Mursi; the majority of rural areas, with the exception of the Delta and the Red Sea coast, have shown clear support for the Brotherhood. One NGO worker reported that the majority in the Cairo district where she works, where many are facing loss of their homes in slum clearance plans, have given their votes to Mursi.

Whichever candidate wins, two other victors have emerged from the tumultuous weekend. The first is the force of disdain for both candidates: turnout was as low as 30% in some areas including much of Cairo, and overall only half of the country’s registered voters turned up to the polling booths. Both the Mursi and Shafiq campaigns put the low turnout down to hot weather, but a strong campaign to boycott the elections may have discouraged many. Either way, it reflects a lack of enthusiasm for both candidates. The second victor is the military, who have gained significant constitutional power over the president and undermined the constituent assembly in a smooth judicial coup while the voting took place.

Ultimately, the events of the weekend seem likely to have set Egypt on a course towards further instability. It seems the legacy of Tahrir is not democracy, but the emergence of the conflicts besetting Egyptian politics into the open. A breakdown of authority, a political polarisation of society, and the consolidation of two poles of power – one secular authoritarian and one Islamist – have set the scene for the next phase of Egyptian politics as a tumultuous one. The election, fought by both sides under a banner of future stability, may be about to provide just the opposite.

Even as the Muslim Brotherhood celebrate victory in Tahrir Square, SCAF’s advisory council is telling Al Jazeera that the new president may only last a few months – and there are already fresh calls for renewed protests later this week. Even if President Mursi lasts, governing the new Egypt will provide countless challenges.

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