Egypt's Polarizing Presidential Election

Serious questions also remain about the very eligibility of Shafik's candidacy. Last month, the Muslim Brotherhood–dominated parliament passed a law to ban former senior members of the Mubarak regime from running for president for ten years. The law initially targeted Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's former intelligence chief and his first and only vice president, but also applied to Shafik. However, the presidential election commission accepted an appeal by Shafik and allowed him to run, referring the case to the Supreme Constitutional Court, which is due to issue a ruling on June 11.

Voters who did not support either Shafik or Morsi in the first round now find themselves facing a painful dilemma in the runoff: forced to choose between a former stalwart of Mubarak's regime or a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that already controls the legislature and which is widely viewed as having abandoned the revolution over much of the transitional period in pursuit of its own agenda.

The Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated an unparalleled ability to mobilize its base through a vast grassroots network, organizational structure and discipline within its ranks, delivering 24 percent of the vote for Mosri, the president of its Freedom and Justice Party. Yet the election result represents a significant drop in support from the 47 percent the group captured in parliamentary elections last fall.

"The reason for that drop has been the perception, widespread among all of the revolutionary segments, that the Muslim Brotherhood has really just been looking out for its own interests," says Abdullah Al-Arian, an assistant professor at Wayne State University who was closely studied the group. "At certain times, when it suited the movement and its political wing, it has cooperated with the SCAF government at the expense of the revolutionaries."

In parliament, Brotherhood members have been criticized for not pushing a reform agenda. Its MPs have argued in favor of retaining criminal penalties of up to ten years for failing to obtain a permit to demonstrate, proposed a draft law on trade unions that is widely viewed as repressive, and helped pass critical amendments to the Code of Military Justice allowing the military to keep trying civilians in military courts — a practice that ranks among the top human rights violations in post-Mubarak Egypt. More broadly, in the wake of repeated crackdowns on protesters by security forces, "the Brotherhood did not appear interested in seeking accountability for excessive use of force used by the army and Ministry of Interior," says Morayef.

The Brotherhood has also engendered a deep mistrust among liberal political forces for reversing its earlier pledge not to field a presidential candidate and for going back on its promise to only contest 30 percent of seats in parliament. Most egregiously, the Brotherhood sought to dominate the formation of the Constituent Assembly in April by stacking the body with many of its own parliamentarians and other Islamists or their sympathizers. The move prompted a mass walkout by liberal parties, union representatives, constitutional judges, the Coptic Church and Al-Azhar, forcing the collapse of the body. Negotiations over the constituent assembly have remained deadlocked ever since.

"Had the Muslim Brotherhood been running against another revolutionary candidate — like Sabahi or Aboul Fotouh — I don't think they would stand much of a chance in the runoff," Al Arian says. "Their only hope right now is to convince the Egyptian people that they're actually the much better alternative to the idea of returning back to the Mubarak era, which is what Shafik effectively represents."

Both candidates are now looking to capture some of the 40 percent of the vote that went to Aboul Fotouh and Sabahi by alternatively offering concessions to outside political forces in the form of vice presidency posts, a coalition government and promises on the formation of the constituent assembly, but concrete deals have yet to be struck.

Casting a long shadow of ambiguity over the entire election process is the fact that voters in Egypt are electing a president without a clear idea of what authority he will actually have vis-à-vis the military, the parliament and the other branches of state. Few expect the military council to hand over full executive authority to the elected president on July 1 without retaining some powers in order to protect its political and economic interests. Some believe the military council will tailor amendments to the constitutional declaration depending on who wins the race.

"The constitutional and institutional and legal framework of the entire transition has been very flawed," says El Amrani. "I think the critique of someone like Mohamed El Baradei, who refused to run for the presidency precisely because he thought the framework wasn't sound, was valid."

As divisions deepen over whom to vote for in the runoff, activists have begun advocating a third alternative: a boycott. Pointing to real questions over the validity of the entire process as conducted under military rule and the widespread disenchantment over the lesser-of-two-evils choice between Shafik and Morsi, some segments of the revolutionary youth are actively calling for voters to boycott the runoff in order to depress the low first round turnout of 46 percent to such a degree so as to throw into question the popular legitimacy of the elected president.

"Elections are the graveyard of revolution," says Rasha Azab, a prominent activist and protester who boycotted the first round the presidential elections and is boycotting the runoff. "The regime still exists and is using all of its tools, the only thing that happened is, they will change from Mubarak to Shafik or Morsi."

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...

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