off the cuff:

Egyptian elections

posted by The Editors

The protests in the Middle East and North Africa, and the ensuing political changes, were intended to transcend the old military-Islamist dichotomy, which in Egypt was a legacy of the army-led Egyptian Revolution almost exactly 60 years ago. Yet following a long and contentious electoral season, Egyptians were again left with a choice between Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, and Ahmed Shafik, a military man and the last Prime Minister under Hosni Mubarak. Nevertheless, despite the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ heavy-handed actions and subsequent protests by Brotherhood supporters and other advocates for a civil and democratic state, Egypt has, for the first time, a democratically elected president.

To what extent do current depictions of the Egyptian situation reproduce the simplistic narrative of the “Brotherhood” versus the “Army” as the only options worth discussing? How does this binary either illuminate Egypt’s cultural, political, and religious dynamics or obscure its more complex realities?

Our respondents are:

Margot Badran, Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Senior Fellow, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University

Thanassis Cambanis, Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, and Fellow, The Century Foundation

Mohammad Fadel, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Toronto

Charles Hirschkind, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Associate Professor of Political Science, Northwestern University

Atef Said, Attorney, Researcher, Ph.D. candidate in Sociology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Samuli Schielke, Research Fellow, Zentrum Moderner Orient

Jeremy F. Walton, Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow of Religious Studies, New York University

Jessica Winegar, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Northwestern University

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Margot Badran, Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Senior Fellow, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University

In the recent runoff presidential elections, Egyptians were forced to choose between an Islamist as head of state (with all the old fears stirred up and further stoked by some extreme statements emanating from some Islamists) on the one hand, and yet another president of military background-cum-felool, or remnant of the old regime, on the other. It seemed like a replay of the Mubarak broken record: it’s me the protector, the strong (military-pedigreed) man of the secular state or the tyranny of an Islamist takeover. Many “ordinary” people, rather unexpectedly, voiced strong anti-Islamist fears while pricey posters, many billboard-size, of fear-mongering Shafik suddenly became ubiquitous not just in Cairo and other big cities but in rural areas as I could see while driving in the eastern Nile Delta. Islamists, meanwhile, raised specter of the return of the felool on the apron-strings of the army while breathlessly pledging allegiance to a secular state and talking togetherness. Now, four days after the announcement of Morsi as president, discourse swivels. The polarized debates that ballooned during the campaign frenzy are deflating. The secular-Islamist binary which never made “real” sense is suddenly devalued political currency, although it seems to retain life in the international exchange. Inside Egypt, from where I write, the frame is Egyptian; the concerns are social justice, jobs, a secure life, and mutual respect or more simply getting along with each other, as people are prone to do when not whipped up. The rhetoric of the new president, of public figures, and of ordinary people is noticeably the inclusive rhetoric of the revolution. Citizens are hopeful but not naïve. One builds on hope, not gloom and doom. People I meet here say, “let us see if the words of the new president, speaking of and for the whole people, translate into reality.” For most here it is not a simple zero-sum game of secular or Islamic, win or loose—that kind of thinking that Mubarak had fostered and exploited and that found new life in the runoff. It is instead a slog with eyes wide open to gain a better life in a better Egypt. If the cudgels of polarization between “secularists” and “Islamists” (increasingly meaningless categories) are now being laid down in Egypt (pace disruptive diehards), it would be helpful for all if the world outside followed suit.

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Thanassis Cambanis, Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, and Fellow, The Century Foundation

In the utopian early days of Egypt’s uprising, the self-declared citizens in the “Republic of Tahrir Square” imagined a new politics that would transcend the tired binary of secular despot and Islamist dissent. What they lived briefly embodied a new coalition, which could unite Nasserists and Muslim Brothers, social democrats and revolutionary socialists, Salafis and labor organizers, under a common cause: the fall of the regime and bread, freedom, and social justice.

The year and a half since then unsurprisingly has featured a power struggle among the most entrenched and best organized forces in political life. A Muslim Brother faced a felool, or “remnant” of the old regime, in the presidential runoff primarily because the Brotherhood and the old ruling party are the only parties with money, cadres, and national organizations that can run campaigns and distribute patronage.

It has become fashionable to decry the failure of revolutionary forces, or secular liberals, to organize effectively. And they have, in fact, displayed an unfortunate proclivity for fractiousness and political dullness.

Viewed from a long-term institutional perspective, however, the presidential contest makes sense as a transitional vestige of the dying old order, rather than a harbinger of the new. A shoddy, rushed transition, (mis)engineered by an intrusive military junta bent on protecting its privileges, will naturally privilege status quo players.

Yet in the short historical period since Mubarak was shunted aside, alternative political forces have appeared and already have captured a broad swath of the electorate. Consensual, liberal, and relatively secular candidates captured 51 percent of the first round presidential voting. An analysis of the parliamentary and presidential balloting suggests that Salafis, Muslim Brothers and ex-regime felool will lose political shares to nationalists, secular liberals and socialists, and less doctrinaire Islamists. Furthermore, the new parties and candidates have proved dogged at building national networks that will allow them to better compete in future elections and importantly, to develop a tangible, alternative policy agenda.

For all the reasons to despair about the final choice in the presidential runoff—Mubarak’s old false binary of the repressive state or rigid Islamists—there is plenty of reason to believe that the dream of a new politics is coming true. We’ll just have to wait many years to see it take shape.

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Mohammad Fadel, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Toronto

Almost eighteen months after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed Morsi has been sworn in as Egypt’s first, democratically elected president. Few would have predicted that Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s inner circle, would ascend to this post, especially given the Brotherhood’s pronouncements at the time of Mubarak’s resignation that it was not interested in competing for the presidency. To make matters worse, the man Morsi defeated for Egypt’s top post was Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister who openly ran on anti-revolution, law-and-order platform. Predictably, this turn of events frustrated many outside observers, as well as many Egyptian revolutionaries themselves. Indeed, some commentators continue to insist that in fact nothing has really changed in Egypt and that despite five free elections in the eighteenth months since the January 25th Revolution, Egypt remains, essentially, a military dictatorship, albeit with the Muslim Brotherhood playing the role of junior partner. This analysis, however, is remarkably short-sighted. Egypt now has a dynamic and competitive public sphere with at least three major political groupings: Islamist revolutionaries; non-Islamist revolutionaries; and an old guard whose power is increasingly disappearing. The Islamist revolutionaries themselves are not a unitary group, nor are the non-Islamist revolutionaries. While the success of Ahmed Shafik indicates that the old guard might, in fact, be the most coherent political group in post-revolutionary Egypt, their failure to secure their man’s election in Egypt’s first competitive presidential elections proves that their monopoly on Egyptian politics has been shattered. Likewise, Morsi was only able to win because of his ability to secure votes outside of his Islamist base. The conciliatory tone Morsi has taken toward both old regime elements and non-Islamist revolutionaries, in his victory speech, speech in Tahrir Square and inaugural speech, is consistent with his (and by extension, the Muslim Brotherhood’s) recognition that Egyptian politics is inherently pluralistic. While it was always unrealistic to believe that Egyptians could wipe out a legacy of 60 years of military rule in eighteen months, they have already made great strides in destroying the superstructure of military dictatorship. Whatever control the military continues to enjoy, its influence is clearly on the wane. Likewise, while Islamist revolutionaries currently have the upper hand relative to non-Islamist revolutionaries, the gap between them is not so great that it threatens genuine pluralism.  In short, Egypt will continue to trod a path leading it to an era of ever increasing political pluralism and democratic politics. While some may be disappointed in that the first competitive presidential election in Egyptian history came down to a battle between symbols of the old regime’s political battles, one should not be surprised if, by decade’s end, Egypt’s political culture has undergone a radical makeover, and that its leading political figures then will be complete unknowns today.

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Charles Hirschkind, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley

According to some observers, the victory of Mohamed Morsi in the Egyptian presidential elections signals a return to the pre-revolutionary political order, one anchored in the tense but stable relation between military and Islamist forces. I think this a mistaken view. First, prior to the uprising, Islamist groups—most important among them, the Muslim Brotherhood—had not been exercising political power in Egypt, shaping state economic policies, drafting legislation, guiding Egypt in its relations with foreign nations. Rather, they were excluded from the decision-making apparatuses of the state, and were commonly targets of its repressive actions. However while the Egyptian military may continue to control and limit challenges to its power, Morsi’s election as president has to be seen as a direct result of the opening in Egypt’s political system produced through the forces of popular sovereignty mobilized on January 25th, 2011, and should be respected as such. Secondly, it’s wrong to interpret the electoral results as tantamount to the seizure of the state by the Muslim Brotherhood. By many indications, Morsi’s administration recognizes that it will have to build bridges to other political parties and constituencies if it is to have any chance of pushing back the military’s hold on power. Recent meetings between Brotherhood leaders and representatives from the campaigns of Abd al-Moneim Abul Futuh and Hamdeen Sabahi, as well as the group’s announcement that it would appoint a woman, a Copt, and a youth activist as vice-presidents all point toward such a recognition.

Such steps toward coalition building suggest a very different political terrain than the one that existed prior to the revolution, and hence of political possibilities whose outcome cannot be foreseen with any certainty. Yes, the entrenched power of the military remains an ongoing threat to any transformation. But the only other stable element in Egypt’s political life today is the knee-jerk refusal of some of the old leftist and liberal political movements to see beyond the politics of the “Islamist threat.”

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Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Associate Professor of Political Science, Northwestern University

In a recent piece in the Los Angeles Times Jeffrey Fleishman described the negotiation of a power-sharing arrangement in Egypt between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. “The maneuver,” Fleishman reported, “revealed the generals’ determination to prevent a new political force from tugging the country closer to an Islamic state while threatening the army’s stature and sprawling business interests.”

Here we go again. Even before democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi had assumed power, the American media proved itself incapable of resisting the temptation to trot out the Islamist bogeyman. The notion that the victory of an MB-affiliated candidate necessarily moves Egypt closer to an “Islamic state” was one among many Mubarak-era assumptions that the revolutionaries sought to consign to the dustbin. The idea of the revolution was to open up the political field and allow new voices to be heard, including but not limited to the MB. The idea was to restore politics to Egypt. That Fleishman reports the Mubarak establishment’s storyline as fact reflects the stubborn persistence of an outdated mindset in which authoritarianism and theocracy are seen as the only alternatives for governing Middle Eastern states. The Egyptian people have rejected these positions. As Juan Cole argued last week, the recent elections revealed a diverse and pluralistic Egyptian political landscape. Politics in Egypt is alive, if not entirely well.

It is not only Mubarak who needed to be overthrown to improve this situation. It is the domestic and international power structure that supported him and continues to support active remnants of the old regime. This includes the American foreign and military establishment. An example is the State Department’s recent use of a waiver to avoid congressionally mandated democracy conditions on U.S. military assistance. Egyptians are well aware of U.S. support for the old regime, understand American ties to the SCAF, and remain wary of official American influence in Egypt. And rightly so. Mubarak may be gone, but Fleishman’s piece reminds us that his powerful legacy lives on, not only in Cairo and Washington, but in our own minds. Egyptians with different political and religious views are challenging the generals not because they want to “tug the country closer to an Islamic state,” but because they want to live with dignity in a democratic Egypt.

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Atef Said, Attorney, Researcher, Ph.D. candidate in Sociology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

While the results of the presidential election in Egypt seem to be reproducing the dichotomy of military vs. Islamists, the reality is more complex and fluid than this. It is important to note that we miss a lot looking only at electoral politics—and even that has been puzzling. For example, almost all the top candidates in the first round have gained votes from the far left to the far right, except for Shafik, whose votes have to be explained by wide range of reasons. Looking outside the election box, it is important to look at two crucial issues. The first is that the military/Muslim Brotherhood relation is in itself contradictory and explosive in nature. The dichotomy exists superficially, but its problematic nature makes a lot of room for all parties in Egypt to maneuver. It is contradictory and problematic because it is a kind of competition over power but is a partnership at the same time. The military, for example, has used the Muslim Brotherhood after the revolution, and has used the parliament as a way to suppress protests.

The argument here was that once you have elected bodies, protests should stop, i.e. using electoral politics rather than street politics. But at the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood is a very ambitious and difficult partner. Both parties need one another; one can be described as a real power without a political party (the Supreme Council for Armed Forces, SCAF), and the other is a political party without real power (the Muslim Brotherhood, albeit now they have limited or unclear presidential power). Neither domestic nor international atmosphere will allow for an explicit military coup today. Hence, the army will continue to find a way to work with the MB, but at the same time, keeps the military and the security apparatus away from the MB. The Muslim Brotherhood has lost lots of its popularity before the presidential election when it distanced itself from the street. And it seems to be back to flirt with the street to gain political legitimacy battling with SCAF over power.

The second reason why this dichotomy is simplistic is that it ignores the power of street politics, or what may be described as the Tahrir “party.” I mean by this those youths who vary from liberal to the far left, those who have not been channeled into strong political parties yet. In other words, street politics and protests will not stop in the near future in Egypt, and those youths, despite not being very organized in one strong political party, have the power of monitoring and pressuring both SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood and its new president. One main source of this unorganized “party’s” strength is that it holds the spirit and demands of Tahrir and the revolution. While I am writing this today, the elected president Mohamed Morsi, MB, came to Tahrir Square and took his President oath informally. While he is seeking the street support vis-à-vis SCAF, this proves the power of the revolution and the street. This third “party” is also strong because neither SCAF nor MB has an alternative vision to solve real economic problems and the social and economic justice issues that were strong motivation for the revolution. Both SCAF and MB share a similar economic vision, which is neo-liberal. There will also be real problems posed by competition in the economic sphere.

At the time of writing this, two coalitions, each of them consisting of multiple political forces and political parties, have been announced. Both are against the military and Islamist dominations of post-revolutionary Egypt. Both coalitions are calling for a civilian democratic (not religious and not military) Egypt. It is important to note that neither the Army and its security apparatus, nor the Islamists or even the Tahrir “party” are homogenous entities. The situation in Egypt is very fluid and far from settled.

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Samuli Schielke, Research Fellow, Zentrum Moderner Orien

It is both in the interest of the Brotherhood and the Supreme Military Council to depict the struggle in Egypt as a bipolar one between the military and Islamists. This is good propaganda, but quite inaccurate. Since the constitutional referendum of March 19, 2011, there is an uncanny and uneasy alliance between the two power blocks. Morsi’s victory, aided by concessions from the Brotherhood towards the military, only makes this alliance official. The real revolutionary struggle takes place elsewhere.

The most important misconception about the Muslim Brotherhood (actively promoted by the Brotherhood itself) is that it is a revolutionary movement committed to democracy. The history of the Brotherhood has often been one of deals with the system and rarely one of a radical demand for change. As a political movement on the grass-roots level (nevermind their public discourse), the Brotherhood is authoritarian, opportunistic, and arrogant, lacking any genuine respect for its political competitors. The military, of course, is no better, determined as it is to guard its privileges at all cost. There is no reason to expect any genuine commitment to democracy, political freedom, labor rights, or gender justice by either of the two – unless they are forced to do so by a strong opposition.

The revolution failed to overthrow the state of the Free Officers (Morsi’s victory marks only an adjustment or reform of it), but it has been successful in establishing a large and vocal democratic opposition that has become a powerful political voice in large cities of northern Egypt; less so in southern Egypt and in rural areas. Although too weak and heterogeneous (and, perhaps, too principled) to gain power at the moment, they are the third power block to reckon with, and the only one committed to changing the system towards social justice and freedom.

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Jeremy F. Walton, Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow of Religious Studies, New York University

In the wake of the Egyptian Revolution, I have frequently encountered a rather predictable set of questions: What will happen in the Middle East if the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power? Will Egypt become “more Islamic”? (and my own favorite) Is secularism in danger? My kneejerk response to these queries is to plead relative ignorance—although my scholarship concerns the myriad relationships between the practices of Islam and those of liberal democracy in Turkey, I cannot claim to have any specific expertise on Egypt. Nevertheless, friends and acquaintances have continued to solicit me, evincing a near-fetishistic anxiety over the empowerment of a Muslim political movement in Egypt. How might a scholar of Islam, secularism, and contemporary governance address these anxieties without slipping into the Manichean language of religion vs. secularism, liberal autonomy vs. authoritarian coercion, of Islam vs. the West? Many commentators have suggested the recent history of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey offers a potential model for Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. While the center-right AKP does draw its electoral strength from a similar demographic constituency as the bedrock supporters Muslim Brotherhood—the conservative, urban petite bourgeoisie—I have already argued against making such broad-stroke comparisons that hinge only on the common religious orientation of otherwise distinct organizations and actors. Indeed, a more nuanced comparison to current condition of the Muslim Brotherhood might well be found in the post-Communist trajectory of Poland’s Solidarity Movement or the period of democratization following Franco’s rule in Spain. Like Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood at the current moment, both post-Communist Poland and post-fascist Spain witnessed the transformation of anti-establishment, counter-hegemonic political movements into legitimate, newly hegemonic, democratic actors. Unfortunately, such comparisons between the Muslim Brotherhood and non-Muslim political actors and contexts are both rare and difficult to put forward. I suspect that the reason for this difficulty has to do with the immense power of the adjectives “Muslim” and “Islamic” in Euro-American political discourse. Within this discourse, “Muslim” as a political adjective connotes a single, problematic relationship to both the systems of democratic governance and a democratic ethos. As long as such an essentialist political connotation of the term “Muslim” perseveres, a multifaceted analysis of the relationship between Islam and any political context, Egyptian or otherwise, remains immensely difficult to achieve.

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Jessica Winegar, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Northwestern University

As the election commission waded through the votes to decide who had won the Egyptian presidential election, the leftist Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi from the previous round was on the `umra pilgrimage to Mecca. Perhaps it was bad timing on Sabbahi’s part to be away from the country at a time of negotiations among revolutionary forces. Yet his surprising success in the polls (capturing 21.5% of the vote) and his religious trip are but one indicator among many that the secular army/religious divide presented by the U.S. media does not fully capture the complexity of Egyptians’ relationships to the military, religion, and politics. The results of the first round of elections, with the general’s candidate and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) candidate on top, certainly reflect Nasser’s creation of a militarized state and suppression of the MB. At the same time, the candidate most faithful to the Nasserist tradition openly criticized the army, left the country at a crucial moment for religious reasons, and sent members of his party to meet with both Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s new president, and Abd al-Moneim Abul Futuh, the centrist Islamist and former MB member who captured 19% of the vote.

Although many self-described secularists and Islamists in Egypt join US media pundits in presenting a binary view of Egypt’s political choices, the situation on the ground is much more complex and constantly changing. In the first round, the majority of voters (taken as a collective) chose candidates other than the army man Ahmed Shafik and the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Morsi. Divisions within the MB (and within Islamist groups in general) that are marked by geography, gender, and generation belie any attempt to generalize; divisions within the army are also revealing themselves in the process. Furthermore, perhaps the most serious issue obscured by the binary is that the MB and the army are arguably not that different in terms of their approach to economic policy and in their urban, often upper middle class biases towards social betterment. To reproduce the binary is indeed to fall into a trap set long ago, perfected by the Mubarak regime, and, time may tell, continued by collusion (intended or not) between the army and the new president. One hopes that the complexity and diversity of Egyptian political life after Mubarak will open new possibilities for overcoming these divides.

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