Ordering Egypt's Chaos

by Joshua Stacher | published June 29, 2012

For more on the Egyptian election, listen to Joshua Stacher and Mona El-Ghobashy interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio.

To the left of a makeshift stage in a Cairo five-star hotel, the waiting continued. Ahmad Shafiq, the last prime minister of the deposed Husni Mubarak and one of two remaining candidates in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential race, was three hours late. Fewer than 60 hours were left until voting was to start in the June 16-17 runoff. But the atmosphere, beside the burgundy backdrop with its decorative maple leafs flanking the podium, felt more like a garden-variety junket than a last-minute campaign stop. It was not clear why Shafiq would choose on this of all days to address the Egyptian-Canadian Business Council.

Not even Mubarak took such liberties with time, attendees grumbled. Apparatchiks of the former ruling party tried to warm up the crowd. Ex-First Lady Jihan al-Sadat stressed the importance of a “civil state,” which in these circles is an antonym for a state run by the Muslim Brothers. Mona Abdel Nasser, reminiscing about her father, likewise warned of the dangers of mixing religion with politics. Would-be intellectual Mustafa al-Fiqi sat near the front and loudly proclaimed that Shafiq was the man for the president’s job. Ismail Osman, heir to the Arab Contractors, which built its construction empire on state contracts under Anwar al-Sadat, nodded in agreement. Mubarak’s ousted education and higher education ministers whispered back and forth. An Egyptian journalist smiled, “Looks like the gang is back together again.”

Finally, Shafiq entered, thanking the audience and feigning surprise at the warmth of his reception. He evinced scarce interest as a colleague stumped on his behalf, then rose to answer a series of softball questions. Shafiq delivered some loosely strung-together comments on the Nile Valley, lakes, oceans and fish, before tersely concluding that hosting more foreign industry would connect Egypt better to the global economy. “Indonesia did it. And it’s a group of islands,” he offered. “Egypt can do it, too.”

Every Vote Counts

The nonchalance on display that day carried over into the conduct of Shafiq’s runoff campaign against Muhammad Mursi, the Muslim Brother who, after several tense days of uncertainty, was at last declared the winner on June 24. According to the final tally, Mursi took 13,230,131 votes (51.3 percent) to Shafiq’s 12,347,380 (48.27 percent). Official turnout was close to 52 percent. In an election that close, every vote counted, even in precincts where Shafiq was the heavy favorite.

In the Delta province of Gharbiyya on June 14, Shafiq campaign head Muhammad Salah could barely contain his excitement. The Supreme Constitutional Court had just ruled against the law passed by Parliament in April to bar Mubarak-era figures from high politics. As Salah exulted in his man’s judicial reprieve, his phone rang again. The Court had dissolved Parliament. The Muslim Brothers, who commanded 47 percent of the assembly elected over the winter, were out. To avoid a vacuum, the Court had transferred legislative powers to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), the 19 generals who have ruled Egypt since Mubarak’s fall. In Cairo, particularly among the “revolutionary forces” that emerged from Tahrir Square in 2011, these developments affirmed the widespread judgment that the runoff was fixed. Some decided to “hold their noses” and vote for Mursi to deny victory to Shafiq. Others planned to boycott. Still others resolved to scrawl “Down with military rule!” across their ballots, thereby invalidating them. For Salah, however, the verdicts were extra advantages. He was not even worried that he did not have the province’s voter rolls. Shafiq’s campaign was based on ‘asabiyya (group solidarity), he said. “We have reintegrated the big families of Gharbiyya,” he explained, rattling off the names of 11 clans that urged a vote for Shafiq. At that moment, a Zahran (one of those families) called to share his happiness over the court rulings.

Nowhere, however, were the Shafiq backers more coolly confident than Minufiyya, the province to Gharbiyya’s immediate south and home of Shafiq’s patron and fellow air force general Mubarak, as well as several of the ex-president’s top cronies. In Minufiyya’s first round, Shafiq had routed the other candidates, amassing 586,345 votes to second-place Mursi’s 203,503. [1] But even here, the Muslim Brothers hotly contested each locale. As one Mursi campaigner said, “We are here to close the gap, not to win.”

Sadat School in the Minufiyya town of Talla offered a tiny, but illustrative example. As the polls closed on June 17, a female judge sequestered all the cell phones in the room as her five poll workers began to sort and count the ballots. Soldiers were stationed outside, and a brigadier general ordered, “If there are any troublemakers, shoot them.” The only noise outside the school came from a crowd that had gathered to chant, “The people and the army are one hand.” Two campaign representatives, one loyal to Shafiq and one to Mursi, watched like hawks as the workers placed counted ballots in stacks of 50. It was not close. Of the 2,341 votes, Shafiq had taken 1,725 (73.1 percent) while Mursi won 583. But as the judge finalized her paperwork, Mursi’s representative protested. There was a problem with the numbers. One ballot was missing. The previous day, a woman had entered with a pre-completed ballot -- for Shafiq or Mursi, it was unclear -- and was discovered when she tried to take another empty ballot. She was arrested, but there was an irregularity in the count.

Two recounts later, Mursi’s representative remained unwilling to certify the results. The brigadier general on duty exploded. “I don’t want any noise from you. Shut up! Sign the papers!” He ordered a police officer to confiscate the Brother’s phone, which, at that moment, began to trill. The brigadier shook his head contemptuously. The Mursi representative said, “You should not have done that. Now, the group will be outside wondering what happened to me.” The brigadier erupted, “So help me God, if that group comes here and causes a problem, I will arrest everyone.” The outnumbered representative did not flinch. “Sir, I don’t understand why you have to speak to me in such a disgusting way.” Exasperated, the army officer ordered the judge to submit the results without the Brother’s signature. Instead, the missing vote was invalidated, and the brigadier left the room mumbling, “All this trouble over one vote.”

All the district-level votes were tallied before Talla sent results to the governorate office in Shibin al-Kom. The heavily guarded aggregation center was quiet. Inside, several Mursi campaigners watched the updates from Cairo. They showed Mursi ahead nationwide, but his lead was not insurmountable. Bent on keeping the state’s vote counters honest, Mursi’s team in Minufiyya had done their own aggregation. One of them waved a copy of what the Talla results should look like -- 78,702 votes for Shafiq to 33,731 for Mursi. When the official count was announced over a shoddy PA system, Shafiq had 78,701 votes while Mursi had scored 33,731. The Brothers rejoiced at their accurate numbers. They did not seem to mind that Shafiq was missing a vote.

Finishing Off February 11

Thus far the SCAF has departed from the rigged elections of the Mubarak era, when a key objective was to depress the vote. Now the generals need buy-in from the electorate to offset the ongoing popular mobilization in streets and workplaces, so they seek to drive up turnout in elections that appear clean.

The typical Minufiyya polling station in June 2012, usually located in a school, was a tightly controlled space. The voter rolls were checked, voter privacy was respected, redundant voting was forbidden and fingers were duly inked. There were idiosyncrasies but they were minor. The army officers who guarded many polling stations had free range of movement and interacted with the monitoring judges, but did not interfere, except to serve as arbiters when the judge could not resolve a dispute. At other sites, plainclothes National Security officers (really, personnel of the old, rebranded State Security) maintained operational control, but deferred to the military brass if there was a problem. In some spots in Talla, these agents asked questions of citizens that were intended to intimidate. In a tiny minority of cases, such as the Kamal al-Shazli School in al-Baghour, security was lax.

But plenty of dubious activity probably happened away from polling stations. In all nine of Minufiyya’s electoral centers, the Muslim Brothers told the same story, lamenting the amount of money that had filtered into the local towns and villages. Many of the people allegedly distributing cash were local council representatives from the former ruling party. The Shafiq campaign also lodged complaints against the Brothers, but they were less convincing, such as the claim that a Brother had thrown a Molotov cocktail at a shopkeeper. At any rate, along with the high stakes, the aggressive campaign tactics on both sides are one reason why the runoff’s turnout eclipsed that of the first round (46 percent).

As the sun rose on June 18, the Mursi camp was elated and the Shafiq base dejected. (Shafiq himself is rumored to have flown to Abu Dhabi into self-imposed exile when the result was finally confirmed.) But, to the celebrating Brothers, as to many other Egyptians, the hard-fought contest was beginning to seem like a sham.

The SCAF had issued a unilateral constitutional declaration in the moments after the polls closed the preceding evening. The declaration disallows the president from declaring war without the SCAF’s approval. It authorizes the army to intervene to quell any domestic “instability” that may arise. It gives the SCAF the power to form its own constituent assembly in the event that “obstacles” emerge in the drafting of a new Egyptian constitution, and provides the generals with a veto over the existing assembly’s work. The president retains the right to appoint heads of ministries, but it is assumed that the SCAF will exert great influence over the “sovereign ministries” (Defense, Interior, Justice, Finance and Foreign Affairs). Many Egyptians, including Muslim Brother Muhammad al-Baltagi, had already described the Court’s decision to dissolve Parliament as a “military coup,” but the constitutional declaration sealed the deal.

The day after the election, the Brothers’ headquarters in Minufiyya was buzzing. Muhsin Yusuf, the provincial party secretary, was both reflective and defiant. He had realized that Mursi would lose but not so badly. “It’s a real puzzle. We are going to conduct a study to better understand why we performed so poorly.” One of the Brothers’ largest charitable hospitals is in Shibin al-Kom, where they also maintain a number of officially registered schools and other services for the poor. Yusuf’s counterpart, Ahmad Raya‘, chimed in, “We’ve been working in this society for 25 years and have done well in parliamentary elections in Minufiyya since 1987.” They agreed that anti-Brother rumors, money, the security services and police, and the strength of the old ruling party had factored into the result. Yusuf added that many army privates are recruited from Minufiyya.

With regard to the national picture, the charismatic spokesman was downright cocky. Of the ongoing delays in announcing the winner, he said, “They are playing with fire.” The Brothers would descend upon Tahrir Square until all of the 2011 uprising’s goals were met. Mursi, unable to be sworn in before the dissolved legislature, would take his oath in the iconic plaza. “We don’t care if the SCAF is happy,” he deadpanned.

As Yusuf explained, “They have to have parliamentary elections someday. We are ready now. And don’t forget the local council elections. We will run in these also. The local councils in this country are nests of the old system, with corruption up to their knees. It’s time to cleanse these sites because this is where the day-to-day interactions with the people happen.” The Brothers’ saving grace, indeed, is that they are an electoral juggernaut. As long as elections in Egypt remain about nationwide mobilization, the Brothers will be competitive for the simple reason that no other political force can match their organization on the ground.

Spectacles with Consequences

Yet, despite the winner-take-all appearance, Egypt is severely divided. During the first round of the presidential election, commentators began to note the emergence of a three-way split in the Egyptian body politic: backers of the old order, derided by Egyptians as fuloul, or “dregs”; Islamists of various stripes, chiefly the Brothers; and the liberals, leftists, Nasserists and others who are usually identified as the revolutionary forces. [2] Some observers, looking at the combined first-round tally for liberal Islamist ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Abu al-Futouh and Nasserist Hamdin Sabbahi, have rightly noted that the third collection of forces could wield more electoral clout than the other two if they could unify somehow. [3] This tripartite division appears to be directing the next phase of Egyptian politics into more messy instability. Yet there is a definite order to the seeming chaos.

The three separate entities are not coequal in power. As the presumed champions of the old order, the SCAF remains a leviathan with national support despite its deep unpopularity among activist networks. The SCAF miscalculates all the time but never in ways that endanger its tightening grip over the Brothers and the third forces.

The Brothers are the lesser partners in ongoing negotiations with the SCAF over the levers of governance. When push comes to shove, the Brothers will likely fall prey to the SCAF’s ultimatums, as they clearly are not up to the task of wresting power from the military. There are already numerous signs that Mursi’s presidency will exhibit more continuity than change -- be it in the realm of key ministerial appointments or the troubled security sector, which he has promised to leave largely untouched. [4] Even in those ministries that he will control, Mursi is likely to encounter resistance from within the bureaucracy. The most likely scenario is that Mursi will be trapped between the SCAF generals and re-energized revolutionaries clamoring for greater change. If Mursi moves to favor the street, the generals could mobilize the state and anti-Brother discourse in the media to paralyze his presidency. Should Mursi instead cut a deal with the SCAF, he will enrage the protest movement, parts of which were involved in swinging the election his way. And, given the constitutional declaration, Mursi’s presidency has an asterisk beside it before it even begins. [5]

The protesters are the wild card, but they appear weakened, if for no other reason than that, for the time being, they will have to channel their energies into defeating single items on the SCAF and Muslim Brother agendas as opposed to trying to dislodge an incumbent. This task will keep them relevant, but the question remains whether the protesters can mature into a more reliable and cohesive political actor.

Egypt’s formal transition away from the rule of Husni Mubarak is scheduled to end when Mursi takes his oath of office on June 30. It has produced some dizzyingly impressive drama -- from the sight of Mubarak in a jail cell to scenes of Mursi touring the presidential palace -- but to date it has been more autocratic reconfiguration than political transition. Headed by the SCAF, the military has become more powerful politically and economically than at any time since the days of Nasser, to the extent that comparisons with the mighty Pakistani army are not misplaced. [6] And, for all its appearance of bumbling and shows of bowing to the people’s will, the SCAF’s greatest accomplishment may be that it has accrued all this authority at the ballot box or, more precisely, while Egyptian citizens were at the ballot box.

Since Mubarak’s ouster in Feburary 2011, the SCAF has called the Egyptian people to the polls five times. Three occasions have been particularly momentous: the March 2011 constitutional referendum, the wintertime parliamentary contests and now the presidential runoff. In each of these three instances, the generals have pulled a bait and switch, gutting the voting of meaning after it was over. Ten days after the referendum, which received 77 percent of the vote, the SCAF unilaterally decreed an additional 54 amendments that the public had never seen. Then the parliamentary elections helped to construct an elite arena that excluded the revolutionary forces from negotiations over a pacted transition. [7] The elections thus produced two parallel universes: one of the transition and one of revolution. [8] Key political forces, including the Brothers, kept the country stable while the SCAF reestablished the state’s control over the street. Finally, minutes after the presidential polls closed, the SCAF mooted the last exercise with its second constitutional annex.

Prior to the uprisings of 2011, elections in the Arab world were said to cement patron-client networks; demonstrate state power to the overmatched population; win material benefits for districts willing to be bought; polish the image of dictators in the eyes of the West; and bring other rewards to unrepentant autocrats. Certainly, fixed elections perform many, if not all, of these tasks. Yet what happens when an electoral exercise does not yield a predetermined result or an absurdly large margin of victory for the incumbent? Is it unequivocally about voter choice? Does it cease to be a spectacle? The experience of post-Mubarak Egypt to date suggests that choice and spectacle are not mutually exclusive. The outcomes have not been preordained; in the presidential race, the rulers’ preferred candidate lost. Yet the hubbub surrounding the elections has assisted in ingraining a supra-constitutional force into the political system while promoting an image of Egypt as polarized between two, and only two, views: the fuloul and the Brothers. In the medium term, at least, the SCAF will aim to play these poles off one another in monarchical fashion while simultaneously tamping down the politics of the street. This deleterious outcome -- rather than democratic empowerment -- is likely to be the legacy of Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential election.

Endnotes

[1] Al-Ahram Online, May 25, 2012.
[2] Ellis Goldberg, “The Missing Ikhwan and An Electorate Split in Three,” Nisr al-Nasr, June 3, 2012: http://nisralnasr.blogspot.com/2012/06/presidential-elections-case-of-mi....
[3] Joel Beinin, “In Search of a New Political Language,” Egypt Independent, June 27, 2012.
[4] Egypt Independent, June 26, 2012.
[5] Jason Brownlee, “President Asterisk,” The Monkey Cage, June 25, 2012: http://themonkeycage.org/blog/2012/06/25/2012-egyptian-presidential-post...
[6] See Ayesha Siddiqa, Military, Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy (London: Pluto Press, 2007).
[7] Hesham Sallam, “Elections in the Midst of Revolution,” Jadaliyya, November 28, 2011.
[8] Hesham Sallam, “Post-Elections Egypt: Revolution or Pact?” Jadaliyya, February 10, 2012.

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