Egypt's Polarizing Presidential Election

Hours after the official results are announced in Egypt's first-ever competitive presidential election, Ihab Badawi, a 28-year-old lawyer, is standing amid a throng of protesters in Tahrir Square. He holds aloft a cardboard placard bearing the smiling faces of the top two candidates — Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik — crossed out with a pair thick black Xs. Traffic snarls around the crowd as he echoes chants rising above the cacophony of angry car horns.

"We do not accept this outcome," Badwai says. "We are here to send a clear message to the military council and the rest of the corrupt ruling regime: the Egyptian people will not be silent."

Less than two miles away, a group of protesters breaks into and vandalizes Shafik's campaign headquarters in the residential district of Dokki before setting it ablaze. Demonstrations erupt in other cities across the country, including Alexandria, Port Said, Ismailia and Suez.

In the wake of the first round of Egypt's landmark presidential election, the country is as polarized as ever, with two candidates sitting on opposite poles of a divide that has characterized Egyptian politics for decades.

Some 23 million Egyptians cast ballots in last week's poll, a turnout of 46 percent. Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, came in first out of thirteen candidates with 24.3 percent, followed closely by Shafik, Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister, with 23.3 percent. The two will face each other in a June 16–17 runoff to become the first democratically elected president in Egypt's history.

Yet neither man is considered a revolutionary candidate; one representing a decades-old conservative Islamist opposition group, the other with strong ties to Mubarak, who was ousted in a popular uprising fifteen months ago.

"A substantial number of people who are ‘pro-revolution' had hoped for an outcome that wouldn't be this binary choice that Hosni Mubarak had warned of for so long: if it's not him, it's the Muslim Brotherhood," says Issandr El Amrani, a Cairo-based political analyst. "A lot of people were hoping for a wider opening."

While the result may be a deeply divisive one, the bulk of the votes in the first round — nearly 40 percent — went to candidates considered to be in the spirit of the revolution. Hamdeen Sabahi, a Nasserist socialist, two-time member of parliament and longtime dissident who was jailed seventeen times under successive presidents, surprised many by coming in at third place with a dark horse candidacy that captured 20.4 percent of the votes. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a liberal Islamist and former Brotherhood member who ran a "big tent" campaign that garnered supporters ranging from secular liberals to ultraconservative Salafis, came in fourth, with 17.2 percent.

Amr Moussa, the former Arab League Secretary General and former foreign minister under Mubarak who was long considered the front-runner in the race, came in at a distant fifth place with 10.9 percent.

While the vote was considered the freest and most transparent in decades, serious allegations of fraud have been put forward. Sabahi and Aboul Fotouh both filed appeals to the presidential election commission claiming violations in the poll, including allegations of bribes for votes and that police and military conscripts illegally cast ballots. Shafik also filed an appeal saying that votes cast for him in one province were not included in the ballot count. All appeals were quickly rejected by the presidential elections commission with little explanation. The commission's decisions are immune from any challenge or appeal.

The Carter Center, one of three international organizations accredited to witness the election, said it was only able to conduct a "limited mission," with monitors receiving credentials less than a week before the vote. Monitors were also prevented access to the final aggregation of results. Yet the group said the vote was generally acceptable and that the irregularities wouldn't have an impact on the final results.

"We have had restraints placed on us as witnesses that have never been present before," says former US President Jimmy Carter, who led the mission. "There is no way we can certify that the entire process has been proper. But what we've observed, I would say, has been encouraging to me."

Shafik's controversial candidacy and second-place finish in the first round of the presidential race sent shockwaves through Egypt's body politic, which had dismissed him as too counter-revolutionary. A retired general who once commanded the country's air force, he is widely viewed as the favored candidate of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces that has ruled the country since Mubarak's ouster. He served as Mubarak's civil aviation minister for ten years — before being named prime minister on January 29, 2011, four days after the revolution began. The notorious "battle of the camel" — when regime thugs invaded Tahrir on horseback and camel — took place during his tenure, as did the widespread arrests of journalists and protesters. He was forced out of office three weeks after Mubarak's overthrow amid sweeping protests against him. Since then he has made several provocative statements praising Mubarak and expressing sorrow over the revolution.

In the race for the presidency, Shafik has campaigned on a law-and-order platform, vowing to use brutal force to restore security within a month and to act as a bulwark against the rise of Islamists in government.

"He speaks the language of Mubarak's regime," says Heba Morayef, the Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "What that means is the retention of broad discretionary powers given to the executive and security forces and a very strong role for security agency involvement to ensure stability and control over protests, which, as far as he is concerned, are the source of instability."

Shafik's tough talk appears to have resonated with a large segment of the electorate, yet experts believe his success in the election also relied on robust institutional backing.

"There still remain patronage networks that we didn't see at work in the parliamentary elections, where the old NDP — the former ruling party — networks, did not perform well," El Amrani says. "But they seem to have come back with a vengeance in this election."

Tags: arab spring, egypt, hosni mubarak, muslim brotherhood, sharif abdel kouddous, tahrir square

    • Sharif Abdel Kouddous
    • Sharif Abdel Kouddous is an independent journalist based in Cairo. For eight years he served as a senior producer, co-host, and correspondent for Democracy Now! and he remains a frequent contributor to the program. Originally from Cairo, he returned to Egypt in 2011 to cover the Egyptian revolution. He has written for The Natio...

    • Sharif Abdel Kouddous's full bio »