Opinion
8:16 am
Thu May 3, 2012

Foreign Policy: Egypt's Presidential Reality Show

Originally published on Thu May 3, 2012 6:37 am

Dr. H. A. Hellyer is a geo-strategic expert on the MENA region, with experience at Gallup, the Brookings Institution & Warwick University.

"Who needs to watch sitcoms on TV anymore? We watch Egyptian news instead for entertainment."

That's the view of many Egyptians over the entries into and disqualifications from the presidential race. Now that the dust has cleared, and leading candidates Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail, Omar Suleiman and Khairat el-Shater gone, the race has lost some of its drama, but still remains fascinating. In the last 24 hours, yet another candidate might be a thing of the past — and there is still a month left to go.

The new front-runners are a less colorful lot, but barring another dizzying turn in Egypt's political transition, one of them likely will be Egypt's next president. There are three (perhaps four: see below) leading candidates left in the race: Amr Moussa, the former secretary general of the Arab League, and previously Hosni Mubarak's foreign minister (at a time when he was not quite as unpopular); Mohammed Morsi, the replacement candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood following Shater's disqualification; Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, a former reformist member of the Muslim Brotherhood; and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister. The latter may still be disqualified, as the Egyptian Parliament recently passed a law barring Mubarak allied politicians from running, if they served in the last decade. The military council just ratified it — which indicates Shafiq is probably also out.

Who will win? Are these elections just an elaborate bit of stage-dressing, rather than a genuine expression of Egyptian democratic will? Recent survey data from Gallup offers some sobering perspective.

The most important finding of Gallup's latest survey is that more than half of Egyptian voters remain undecided in this first, post-Mubarak presidential race. Amr Moussa enjoyed the largest support, but he still only had 17 percent. Less than two percent of voters indicated they would vote for any one of the other three contenders. These polls were conducted prior to March, so that may have changed somewhat by now. Nevertheless, that still means that the swing vote is very significant.

In Egypt's Parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the Salafi groups were the main beneficiaries of this swing vote. The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) of the MB saw their support go from 15 percent in July to 50 percent in December — and Hizb al-Nour of the Salafis went from five percent to 30 percent. One strand of thinking therefore argues that any presidential candidate who receives the backing of the MB or the Salafis stands to win by a landslide.

This is not necessarily the lesson to learn, however. What is clear is that in these first waves of elections after the ouster of Mubarak, the Egyptian voter remains mostly undecided until very shortly before election day. The MB and the Salafis saw their support numbers jump not due to ideological shifts from the electorate, but political decisions based on circumstance. It seems the electorate swung to them due to two main reasons: grassroots mobilization and name recognition. In both of these areas, the FJP and Hizb al-Nour had distinct advantages over their competitors.

But those advantages do not necessarily translate to the presidential election. Firstly, those swing voters are probably not all that impressed with the showing of the FJP or Hizb al-Nour, as parliament's record has been rather unimpressive. One cannot assess by how much, but it is entirely likely that some of those swing voters feel less confident about their choice. The grassroots networks are still active, for that core ideological base of perhaps 15 percent for the MB and five percent for the Salafis. But the MB will have a harder time presenting Morsi as the fresh alternative in the same way as they did in December 2011 for the parliamentary vote.

Secondly, while name recognition was certainly on their side in the parliamentary elections, partly due to a vacuum of other well known political parties in the public sphere, this is not the case in the presidential race: the most well known name is Amr Moussa, by far. Morsi should not automatically count on the swing voters that backed his party in the parliamentary elections to back him for the presidency.

The other Islamist in the race, former senior MB member and revolutionary activist Abou el-Fotouh, is not particularly faring well just yet. His grassroots campaign is increasing in width and breadth, and he arguably has the most pluralistic of teams in this race, as well as a genuinely revolutionary base. However, he does not have the time to mobilize enough of a grassroots network to compete with the MB's existing network, and his name recognition also does not compare with Moussa's. A substantial number of voters who were previously going to vote for Abu Ismail and Shater will likely shift toward him — but probably not enough. Gallup's polls a few months ago did not register him with even two percent of voters. That's going to be hard to change sufficiently in a short amount of time. But then again, stranger things have happened in Egypt, particularly lately.

Shafiq's grassroots network is also not particularly impressive, and his name is not so famous as to put him in the lead by any means. The Egyptian public has little or no reason to back him. If he is not disqualified as a result of the new law (which is unlikely) he might get a portion of the vote, but its probably going to be less than all of the rest in the top four — as long as the state remains neutral.

That leaves Amr Moussa. His grassroots mobilization just benefited from the disqualification of Omar Suleiman. A good chunk of Suleiman's supporters will now back anyone who is decisively notIslamist, and Moussa fits the bill. His background in Mubarak's regime, for those voters, is secondary to his non-Islamist background. He announced his intention to run for president very early on in the Egyptian revolution, and has been involved at a prolific level of political life for years. If this race comes down to familiarity with the name of the candidate, it is hard to see how anyone can compete with Amr Moussa. If, indeed.

A small minority amongst revolutionary activists argues that these elections are a farce, that the "SCAF supported candidate" was always going to win, regardless of public opinion. This deserves consideration. It is hard to imagine that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) would risk having a president that would be directly opposed to their interests, if they could do anything to avoid it. In post-Mubarak Egypt, the widespread rigging of votes is not as easy an option; but in democracies around the world, it has been shown that there are other ways to ensure that the most powerful institution in the country has its way in the end. If that is the scenario in Egypt, then who is that SCAF candidate? Has he been handed the presidency already; and is a boycott a viable option?

Abou el-Fotouh could not be that candidate: he is the most revolutionary of the four top candidates, and has had no ties to the previous regime. Shafiq might have been considered at one point, but his chances of winning over enough Egyptian voters are slim. The MB may have entered into an alliance of convenience based on mutual interest a number of times in the past year, but it is doubtful that the SCAF want an MB president. They may have initially pardoned Khairat el-Shater just so that he could run, be disqualified, and increase the feeling of instability among Egyptian voters.

The disqualifications themselves hint at something: they served to benefit Moussa. Disqualifying Omar Suleiman (Mubarak's spy-chief and vice president) mobilized a part of the electorate that is looking for a strongman, and another part that wants a non-Islamist candidate. Most of those votes will now go to Moussa, as the most likely non-Islamist to win. (This was almost definitely notSuleiman's idea, and he is probably feeling betrayed by the SCAF at present, who doubtlessly gave at least a signal to him that he could run). The disqualification of Hazem Abu Ismail (the populist Salafi candidate) and Khairat el-Shater (the MB preferred candidate) means that the Islamist leaning vote will likely be split between Morsi and Abou el-Fotouh; again, benefiting Moussa by weakening opposition to him.

Is Moussa the SCAF candidate? No one can know for sure, but he is quite non-confrontational with regard to the SCAF, and has benefited the most from recent political developments. In all likelihood, the SCAF probably views him as a safe pair of hands who will not do too much to upset the status quo in terms of the independence of the military from the rest of the state. Which, for them, was probably the point all along.

Nevertheless, with all that said, approximately nine out of 10 Egyptian voters said they were likely to vote, and expect the elections to be fair and honest, according to latest released Gallup polls. A boycott of the elections would be ineffective. Were the key presidential candidates themselves to boycott the election, it would send the political transition into further disarray with little benefit, unless several of the candidates (preferably Moussa, Morsi, and Abou el-Fotouh) united around political aims. That's not impossible, but hardly likely at present.

In any case, one thing is for sure. Egyptian politics has never been more entertaining.

"Pass the popcorn. The show ain't over yet."

Copyright 2012 Foreign Policy. To see more, visit http://www.foreignpolicy.com/.