Wednesday, Egypt votes. After a revolution, a dictator’s flight and a year of debate, the people go to the polls. No-one really knows who is going to win, even though most indications point to Amr Moussa – his name recognition is hard to beat, his ‘vote for the candidate with experience’ piece is working, and most importantly, it does not seem as though the army will object to him.
But we’re at the point where a wider picture of Egyptian society –from its institutions to its religion to its politics --needs to be drawn. What are the most important variables in this election, and what does it mean for not just the winner, but also for the runner up?
The first variable: the army. Many Egyptian activists insist that support for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which leads the army, is waning, and already at a low point. They presume that the Egyptian public supports the army – not its leadership, the SCAF. Yet, all released Gallup data from the start of the revolution until now indicates quite the contrary – that nine out of ten Egyptians support the army and make no distinction between it and the SCAF. Moreover, the SCAF, an institution with wide reach all over Egypt is well aware of that support.
The SCAF also holds the power cards in Egypt – it is inconceivable that it would allow a president to come in that would pose a threat to its position in Egyptian politics.
What does that mean for the presidential candidates? Firstly, it means that the SCAF can (and has) intervene in the presidential race in ways that would ensure that no ‘objectionable’ candidate could win. Hence why Amr Moussa’s campaign has been very careful to avoid making an enemy of the military. This seasoned member of the Egyptian political establishment (he served as Mubarak’s foreign minister, and was the former regime’s nominee to the position of Secretary General of the Arab League) knows that it is the game. It is also why, increasingly, the moderate former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Abdul Moneim Abol Fotouh’s campaign is sending signals that it will not confront the military. It is also why Hamdeen Sabahy, the Nasserite who insists that the SCAF should not escape accountability for its performance in the tradition period, can likely not win.
The second variable is Islamism. Political analysts were taken by surprise when the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Nour Party of the Salafis, took a combined 70 percent of the parliamentary seats in recent elections. That raised fears that Islamism was gaining ground in a magnificent way in Egypt. It was always clear, in any event, that no presidential candidate could afford to alienate Egyptians by reducing the role of religion in public life – which is why all candidates accept the existence of Article 2 of the Constitution that stipulates that Islam is a source of law for the Egyptian polity. That’s true for Mohammed Morsi (the MB presidential candidate), as well as Amr Moussa (the closest thing to a secular candidate that Egypt has) and everyone in between.
But fears that Muslim Egyptians (who make up the overwhelming majority of Egyptians) are essentially Islamists, rather than simply Muslims, are unfounded. In July last year, 17 percent and 5 percent of Egyptians expressed support in the MB and the Salafis respectively – in February this year, that number had increased to 63 percent and 37 percent respectively, according to Gallup polls. Yet, within weeks of taking parliament, their support base dropped to 42 percent and 25 percent in April and it is likely dropping even more at present. Expectations for parliament to actually change the lives of ordinary Egyptians were high – and instead, parliament was known for shenanigans like trying to stack the constitutional assembly with Islamists. While 62 percent of Egyptians in February believed that the party that won the most seats in parliament should choose those who would write Egypt’s new constitution, that number dropped to 44 percent in April. That’s still a substantial number – but it shows that Egyptians do not consider their support to be anything comparable to unconditional.
Analysis of the motives of voters showed that this support base was not ideological, but political – left with little in the way of alternatives, many Egyptians chose to give these groups a chance. That goodwill has been squandered – while 62 percent of Egyptians in February thought that a parliament in which the MB held a strong, influential position was a good thing, only 36 percent said the same in April, according to the latest figures released by Gallup.
What does this mean for presidential candidates? While religion is important for the overwhelming majority of Egyptians (whether Muslim or Christian), Islamism does not enjoy unconditional support. Egyptians make a distinction between Islam and Islamism – despite the best efforts of the MB and the Salafi movements in Egypt. Islam to them is a religion that produced a civilization of more than a millennium – Islamism is a political attempt to change Egypt which only recently came out of the shadows in the last year. Moreover, it is an attempt that quickly showed itself to be as susceptible to the lure of politics as any non-religious one – which makes it perhaps even more absent of virtue. When a man who calls to God’s religion lies, then its even more sinful.
The final variable: the issues. No one knows who will win on election day. But that’s the wrong question to focus on. The next presidency is likely to be a failure – the expectations of the Egyptian public upon it are too immense for anyone to satisfy. What happens next? That is where the presidential candidates need to focus – both those who are already in the running this time round, and those who have yet to express their intention to run for the next presidential elections. The past year shows that Egyptians are not mindless automatons who will simply vote for a candidate that runs on empty slogans – he, or she, has to show that they can deliver on the key challenges facing Egypt. In that regard, no candidate has succeeded – but that also means that anyone could begin to address that for the future. Egyptians have given chances to unlikely political forces thus far – and they may indeed again.