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Riveting runoff

Published : Jun 29, 2012 00:00 IST

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Mohamed Morsy, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, and (below) Ahmed Shafiq, the last Prime Minister of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, will lock horns in the presidential election.-AP

Mohamed Morsy, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, and (below) Ahmed Shafiq, the last Prime Minister of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, will lock horns in the presidential election.-AP

Egypt: Fear of counter-revolution grips the country as a Mubarak-era veteran emerges as a serious candidate in a divided presidential race.

Within hours of the announcement of the first round results of Egypt's crucial presidential election, violence, which had been lurking in the shadows, erupted once again in Cairo.

The supporters of the January 2011 uprising that toppled the autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak felt cheated when the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission (SPEC) announced that Ahmed Shafiq, a Mubarak-era veteran, was in the fray. He would lock horns with Mohamed Morsy, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who had topped the list of presidential aspirants by polling 24.7 per cent of the vote. With none of the 13 candidates in the contest securing 50 per cent of the vote, the mandatory requirement to secure a first round win, the stage was set for a face-off between Morsy and Shafiq during a two-horse runoff slated for June 16-17. Soon after the SPEC's announcement, angry crowds descended on Shafiq's campaign headquarters and within minutes set ablaze the annex of the villa.

The fury of the attack, ironically, masked the fear among the arsonists of the return of the feloul a derogatory reference in local parlance to the remnants of the Mubarak regime. Indeed, Shafiq was Mubarak's last Prime Minister and a deep insider of the former regime who had also once served as the country's air force chief. The prospect of the return of the feloul, as the vanguard of a counter-revolution, was too much to digest for those who shared vivid memories of the heady 18-day uprising, in which 846 people were killed and 6,000 wounded before a sweeping mass upsurge finally forced Mubarak to quit. As the fire destroyed campaign literature and other publicity material, protesters shouted slogans against the return of the feloul. Before they left, they wrote slogans such as No to Shafiq on the walls.

A day after the violence, Morsy, well aware of the spontaneous and angry rejection of Shafiq by pro-revolution groups, put up a skilful performance to woo those outside the Islamist fold, to which he belongs, in his bid to become Egypt's first elected President. The rejection of Shafiq, however, did not mean that Egypt's pro-revolution constituency had swung massively in his favour after the first-round results. On the contrary, soon after the outcome of the vote became known, angry crowds gathered at Cairo's Tahrir Square, the venue of the Egyptian uprising, to denounce the results, which had pitted an Islamist, of whom they did not approve, against a perceived Mubarak vintage autocrat. At best Morsy was seen as the lesser of two evils, but in no way was he the knight in shining armour who could successfully lead Egypt into a new age of democracy.

It is, therefore, not surprising that Morsy, in an address from a Cairo hotel, chose to speak emphatically about an inclusive civil state under his watch that would be respectful of secular liberties as well as women's rights and pledged not to impose a stifling dress code.

In a message meant to impress the revolutionary youth, drawn from a liberal and leftist ideological matrix, Morsy said that he was committed to the establishment of a democratic, civil, and modern state that guaranteed the freedom of religion and right to peaceful protest. Trying to reassure a large section of women, who fear a surge of religious conservatism and an attack on gender rights, Morsy declared there would be no dress code and women would have a right to freely choose the attire that suits them. Morsy also promised the formation of a broad coalition government, where the Prime Minister could be an outsider. The vice-presidency could go to the Coptic Christian community. Our Christian brothers, they are partners in the nation. They will have full rights that are equal to those enjoyed by Muslims, he said. This was a significant signal to allay the fears of Egypt's Coptic Christians, who have been apprehending a violent assertion of resurgent Islam.

Despite his pledge of inclusivity and collective governance, Morsy will, nevertheless, have to work hard to gather the critical mass that will take him through to the presidency. The problem lies not so much with Morsy the candidate, and his rather uncharismatic personality, but with the organisation to which he belongs. Over the past few months, the Muslim Brotherhood has taken a series of steps that have undermined its credibility. Critics point out that it is the annoying and persistent gap between its words and deeds that has lowered the Muslim Brotherhood's credibility outside its core Islamist constituency.

These observations may not be entirely misplaced. For instance, the Muslim Brotherhood had announced that it would not field a candidate for the presidency. But it backtracked from its pledge by first fielding Khairat el-Shater to the post, and after he was disqualified it fielded Morsy. Had it abstained from putting up a candidate and not divided the Islamist vote, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the moderate Islamist, might have emerged the winner. Alternatively, the Brotherhood could have endorsed a non-Islamist candidate, such as Hamdeen Sabbahi, the neo-Nasserite, who, with 20.7 per cent of the vote, stood third in the first-round contest, ahead of Fotouh, who got around 18 per cent. In that case, the Muslim Brotherhood would have earned enormous goodwill, from the young revolutionaries and leftists, who form the nucleus of the widening net of Sabbahi's supporters, which it could have capitalised later.

Good news for Morsy

But by fielding Morsy, the Muslim Brotherhood has allowed Shafiq to emerge as a serious contender, despite his share of ballots falling well short of the collective vote that the pro-revolution candidates secured. Statistics speak for themselves: when pooled together, the votes of Fotouh, Sabbahi and Morsy add up to a formidable 65 per cent. The message is, therefore, clear; the Egyptian vote was overwhelmingly for the revolution and not for the return of the feloul.

It was only by riding on the support mainly of the insecure minorities, such as Coptic Christians, who were traumatised by a string of attacks on their community, and Egypt's class of big business, which had once rallied behind Mubarak and was looking for an alternative, that Shafiq managed to emerge as a serious candidate in a deeply divided presidential race. Morsy's task is now cut out, if he is to quickly acquire pole position ahead of the riveting runoff. He has to move rapidly to assure possible supporters outside the Islamist camp that the commitments he made after the first round were not made lightly. There is already some good news for Morsy. The April 6 Youth Movement one of the pioneers of the anti-Mubarak revolt has called for the formation of a coalition against the counter-revolution, which it is convinced had been methodically plotted for returning remnants of the Mubarak regime. Its leader, Ahmed Maher, has asserted that dissent to consensus and the coalition will harm the entire country.

However, he warned the Muslim Brotherhood that it should not miss a great opportunity to forge an inclusive partnership, by playing tactical partisan politics.

Morsy has also held a promising meeting with Fotouh a former senior Brotherhood member who had been expelled from the party after his unilateral declaration that he was standing for the election. The daily Egypt Independent has reported on its website that during the meeting Fotouh spelled out certain tough but extremely valuable conditions for his support. Fotouh has demanded that Morsy must change the composition of the Constituent Assembly that will draft Egypt's post-Mubarak Constitution. He insisted that in order to make the Assembly sufficiently representative, it should represent all segments of society, include a reasonable number of jurists and should be headed by a respectable public figure. All its decision must be passed by two-thirds of its members, so that no particular group can bulldoze a provision, merely on the basis of its majority status in the Assembly. Betraying mistrust of the Brotherhood in honouring its commitments, Fotouh has insisted that changes to the Constituent Assembly must be announced not later but before the runoff. Among his other demands, the soft-Islamist has asked for the formation of a coalition government, comprising technocrats unaffiliated to any political party. The government should be headed by a public figure who should not belong to the majority party. Fotouh's advocacy for a broad coalition government addresses the fear that the Muslim Brotherhood is driven by an agenda of monopolising power.

Verdict on Mubarak

Already, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) heads a strong majority in Parliament, following parliamentary elections held earlier this year. Its stranglehold on power will be complete if Morsy becomes President without subscribing to the conditions set by others in the pro-revolution camp. The constellation of circumstances also seems to favour Morsy. As the countdown for the runoff began, the Egyptian judiciary pronounced its much anticipated verdict on Mubarak. Though Mubarak and his Interior Minister of the day, Habib el-Adly, were served life sentences for their complicity in the killings of protesters who had brought down the former dictator, the verdict massively infuriated those who had participated in or supported the revolution. The acquittal by the court of Alaa and Gamal Mubarak's two sons on a set of corruption charges went down badly with the pro-revolution supporters.

Anger soon turned into fury when the court also acquitted six top police officers who were in charge during the Mubarak regime's attempt to suppress the 18-day revolt. Feeding into the rage was the perception that Mubarak might be freed or awarded a lighter sentence by an appeals court. His lawyers reinforced the view that their client was likely to be acquitted following an appeal. AFP quoted Yasser Bahr, a senior member of Mubarak's team, as saying: We will appeal. The ruling is full of legal flaws from every angle.

One of the unintended consequences of the judgment was that it galvanised the pro-revolution camp and firmly injected new life into those who seemed to be falling apart in their quest for democracy. By the afternoon on the day of the verdict, Tahrir Square came alive. The fear of a counter-revolution also generated a similar outpouring in Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city, and in the port city of Suez. The consolidation of the pro-revolution forces had an instant impact on the impending vote. After days of hesitation, former presidential candidate Ayman Nour announced that he would now vote for Morsy. Morsy now faces a serious challenge of drawing support from Sabbahi, a charismatic figure who seems to have confounded most pundits with his extraordinarily strong performance in the first round.

While retaining the most progressive elements of the legacy of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser, including his focus on Arab nationalism, Sabbahi has not been a politician in the classical Nasserite mould. In fact, he came into his own only after running battles with the Nasserites' elderly coterie that culminated in the formation of the Karama party, which he headed. Sabbahi a poet-turned-politician, is a consistent campaigner for democracy who ran into trouble first with Anwar Sadat, the former President who succeeded Nasser, and later with Mubarak. Sabbahi has been in and out of prison on numerous occasions a fact that has earned him the reputation of being a principled public figure.

Hailing from a peasant family, Sabbahi has focussed on a programme to counter poverty in a manner that will benefit the fellahin, or small farmers, as well as Egypt's unhappy industrial working class. Yet, the neo-Nasserite has shown a rare flexibility in adapting to the new situation without abandoning his core political values. Thus, Sabbahi has combined support for secularism without undermining religion. He has supported socialism but has accepted that the system needs to function within the ambit of a market framework.

Sabbahi is yet to declare his stand on the upcoming runoff. Instead of focussing on the next round of elections, he seems to be readying himself for the long haul by concentrating on turning his campaign into a movement that gives organised expression to the aspirations of the liberals and young activists who wish to anchor their revolution irreversibly. Sabbahi has declared that his Egyptian Dream movement will be premised on the formation of a revolutionary bloc that will advance the cause of the unfinished revolution. Notwithstanding his long-term goals, it is extremely unlikely that Sabbahi will choose not to support Morsy in the aftermath of the controversial Mubarak verdict and the uproar that it has caused.

Shafiq's salvo

Fully aware that he is unlikely to win only on the basis of his self-projection as a strongman capable of liberating Egypt from the post-uprising chaos, Shafiq, too, is offering inducements to others outside his camp. He has already taken the first step to erase his not ill-founded image of being a Mubarak-era reactionary. Unsurprisingly, he has appealed to the youth to recognise him as a pro-revolution leader who can deliver on his promises. I promise all Egyptians we will start a new era. There will be no return. We do not want to reproduce the old regime. The past is dead, he said at a press conference after the first-round results were announced. We have had a glorious revolution. I pay tribute to this glorious revolution and pledge to be faithful to its call for justice and freedom.

To sharpen his message, Shafiq paid tribute to Egypt's youth, especially to the April 6 Youth Movement and the Ultras [hard-core football fans who have formed the front line of the protests], who want decent youth centres. He added: The revolution has been stolen out of your hands. I promise to return to you its fruits. As the Egyptian presidential election enters its final phase, its heavy regional footprint is evident as its outcome is being keenly followed by all, including activists in Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain and Syria. Apart from its obvious larger impact on the future course of the Arab Spring, the fallout of its messy but seemingly successful democratic transition may not escape Iran, where it is unlikely that forces for greater democratic expression, although within the Islamic Republic's constitutional framework, have been extinguished just yet. Though foreign policy was never high on the agenda, Egypt's presidential election is likely to open a new paradigm that will define the country's external relations. No longer an American puppet, Egypt is, nevertheless, expected to maintain cordial relations with the United States, more so if Shafiq triumphs in the election. However, its ties with Turkey, riding on the promising relationship between Egypt's emerging class of entrepreneurs and their counterparts in the Asiatic part of Turkey, could improve markedly if Morsy wins.

Over the years, Egypt's emerging bourgeoisie, now on the lookout for greater political space under the Islamist umbrella, has cultivated and established a close relationship with Turkey's flourishing Anatolian Tigers, the title given to an energetic set of grass-roots businessmen who have emerged from the backwaters in the country's Anatolian belt. A recalibration of the relations with Israel may also be on the cards, but a drastic revision is unlikely for a souring of relations with Tel Aviv will have a negative impact on Cairo's ties with Washington, a complexity that a fledgling post-Mubarak administration may best wish to avoid at this stage. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership has, in private conversations, expressed its keenness to open up a new relationship with the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa grouping. Under an elected Muslim Brotherhood presidency, supported by other pro-revolution groups, Egypt may, therefore, hold the promise of spawning a resurgence in Indo-Egyptian ties, echoing, with some nostalgia, the special ties that prevailed between the two countries during the Nehru-Nasser era.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 29, 2012.)

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