Kelly Stephens The Middle East and North Africa

Egypt’s Landmark Elections: Brotherhood or Bust

The results of the first round of Egypt’s historic presidential elections were released last Monday. With no clear winner, a run-off election has been scheduled for mid-June between the top two candidates, Mohmammed Morsi—the so-called “spare-tire” candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood—and Ahmad Shafiq, who once served as Prime Minister during Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

The results have come as a shock to many both within and outside of Egypt. Some analysts have gone as far as labelling the results as a worst-case scenario run-off pairing. Neither of the front-runners had been predicted by pollsters in the run up to the election. Most surprising is the second place victory of Shafiq, hated by many because of his ties to Mubarak and the old regime.  The success of these two very different candidates highlights the polarization of the Egyptian public—not a good situation to be entering into when trying to rebuild a country.

A Vote Against the Revolution?

Does the fact that almost 25% of voters casted their ballots in favour of an autocratic, pro-status quo candidate mean that Egyptians voted against the revolution? Not necessarily. In fact, 65% of those who voted did so for one of the three main pro-revolutionary candidates, but their failure to concentrate support around a single candidate meant that the vote was split and none of the candidates that represented at least one segment of the revolution ended up in the run-off elections.

Chaos returned to Tahrir Square after the vote when assailants stormed Ahmad Shafiq’s election headquarters, setting it on fire. Although Morsi is currently the favourite to win, Last Monday’s events should be a sign of what will come, should Shafiq win the final round of elections. For many, a victory for Shafiq would mean the failure of the revolution and a return to a Mubarak-era style of autocratic governance within the Middle East’s most populous nation. However, there are clearly many within the country that have grown tired of unrest and would prefer a return to stability over continuing the revolution at any cost.

Protesters set fire to Ahmad Shafiq's campaign headquarters.

Currently, a victory for Shafiq looks unlikely, though analysts now seem weary of making predictions due to last week’s surprising results. Although the top defeated candidates have refused to endorse either of the two front-runners, it is hard to imagine that the 65% who voted for pro-revolutionary candidates will switch their support to Shafiq, although the Muslim Brotherhood coming into power is hardly a better alternative for many. The fear is that a presidential victory would concentrate power too tightly in the Brotherhood’s hands given the organization’s control of parliament and its previous tutelage over the now disbanded constitution drafting committee.

All Eyes on Egypt

The question now to ask is what will a Muslim Brotherhood victory mean for Egypt both internally and externally? How would it affect the country’s regional and international relations? Even just the word “Islamist” can be enough to conjure fear and anxiety for certain Egyptians and those in the international community. But it is important to remember that the Muslim Brotherhood has come a long way from its radical roots, and is very much a practical, pragmatic organization with years of experience of providing social services in the absence of a capable and willing state.

If Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are successful in the June run-offs, they will have their work cut out for them. The Egyptian economy is in serious trouble, and could be facing a potentially devastating balance of payments and currency devaluation problem.  Analysts have rightly noted that the success of Morsi and the Brotherhood will depend as much on what they want do as on what those around them do—being able to push through reforms and rebuild the country will depend significantly on whether or not their opponents will try and block them at every step of the way. There are a plethora of issues that must be resolved, including choosing a new constitutional committee. Morsi—if elected—would also be wise to appoint a non-Islamist prime minister; sharing the political space with opponents would hopefully go a long way in helping reduce the fear that a president from the Muslim Brotherhood would mean total domination of politics for their organization.

Mohammad Morsi

Don’t Fear the Islamists

In order for any of the goals of those that fought in the revolution to be realized, some semblance of order and stability needs to be restored in Egypt. Although many were just as unhappy with Morsi’s victory as Shafiq’s, if Shafiq were to win the presidency it is almost guaranteed that the revolution would continue. A victory for Morsi on the other hand, if he and his organization play their cards right, and its opponents don’t try to block every move they make, could be less disastrous. The Muslim Brotherhood has decades of experience under its belt—albeit not as a political party—which it could use to steer Egypt on the right path.

Many wonder what an Islamist victory will mean for Egypt’s relations with its neighbours—Israel especially—and the United States. Some observers have commented that the US should be delighted with Shafiq coming in second place, hoping for a return to the status-quo. This should be the opposite of what the US wishes for, as a victory for Shafiq could very well mean a revolution 2.0, with continued anti-American sentiment  likely to follow. The Muslim Brotherhood is a pragmatic organization, more occupied with democratic and economic reforms and a return to the rule-of-law than imposing strict Islamic code and reigniting problems with its Jewish neighbour. After last week’s shocking results, it has become clear that nothing is a given in this election. All we can do now is hope that the June run-off will mark the beginning of an entirely new chapter in Egypt’s history and not a continuation of chaos, violence and economic stagnation that has so-far characterized the country’s post-revolution era.

Kelly Stephens
Kelly Stephens is a Security Analyst at the Atlantic Council of Canada. She holds a BAH from McGill University in International Development Studies and Political Science. She also spent a summer studying abroad at the American University in Cairo. Kelly focuses on the Middle East and Africa and her interests include the political economy of oil, Islamic movements and the politics of aid.