The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

President Morsi?

Mohamed Morsi’s apparent win is the latest conventional-wisdom-defying turnabout in Egyptian post-uprising politics. Pronounced dead by some after the June 14 parliament-dissolving court verdict and the presumption that Shafiq would win the presidency, the transition has just got out of its sarcophagus for a few more lurches around the burial chamber.

In looking at what brought the victory and what it will produce, I going to assume that the most detailed figures I’ve seen — those released by the Morsi campaign — are substantially correct. That’s a big “if”, but there is some corroboration. Also, the numbers should soon be verifiable. Even if you don’t trust the elections commission, both international observers and candidates’ representatives were allowed much more access to the adding up of votes from different stations than in May, from what I understand.

First, the turnout. Morsi’s numbers say that a supposedly dispirited electorate actually went to the polls in numbers about 10 percent higher than in the first round. Maybe it’s because the choices are now clear, and fear is a more potent motivator than hope. But if you look where the turnout is highest, this suggests rural machine politics on both sides. Upper Egyptian governorates (aka Morsiut) seem to have produced vote counts up to around 130-140 percent of what they were in May. The Delta (aka Shafiqiya) was also up 10–30 percent. Cairo in contrast dropped a bit, as did Alexandria. Giza was up about 15 percent. (Numbers are approximate, as I am working from this excellent but unofficial spreadsheet for the first round -- it does not include spoiled ballots nor candidates other than the top five. If anyone can find the official total results by governorate and candidate online, I'd much appreciate.)

[Update:This vote breakdown by Ahram online gives similar numbers for most provinces but much lower ones for Cairo. I'm guessing this is because of incomplete returns, the Brothers possibly having quicker info because of their network of candidate agents.]

I have heard that both sides were busing in supporters to stations — presumably old NDP party organizers and Coptic groups for Shafiq, Islamists for Morsi. This probably involves improper influence on polling day and is technically an infraction but it’s understandable. A lot of voters live outside areas where they are registered and don’t have the resources to travel to vote on their own, so it’s a question of partisan busing or de facto disenfranchisement.

Morsi’s apparent win means more short-term uncertainty. I don’t think he’s capable of ushering in the Caliphate any more than Shafiq is capable of bringing back the Mubarak era (more on that below). The Islamist’s narrow victory, following the five-way split of the first round, means that his only popular mandate will be that he’s not Shafiq. He’ll be a president with only limited, temporary constitutional powers, facing off against a military who’s quite capable of vetoing whatever he does by means administrative, judicial, and now legislative. He will have very little of either moral or institutional power to shape the drafting of the constitution, and he will live under the Sword of Damocles of another court ruling.

I suspect that the Brothers will acquiesce to the creation of a constitution — any constitution — to give the electoral battles that they are capable of winning, but not using, some permanence.  SCAF now essentially controls the drafting process, with the Brothers at best given a spoiling role, so it’s quite possible now that we settle into a Turkey-ten-years-ago or Pakistan-now style of uneasy military-civil government coexistence.

One key indicator as to whether a Morsi presidency means bargaining or confrontation will be whether or not the Brothers will act on the implications of their statement that the dissolution of parliament is not valid. Will they meet somewhere else? Issue decrees? If so, that suggests a showdown. If not, that suggests that the declaration is just a bargaining chip.

As it’s still possible for Shafiq to pull out a last-minute surprise, or be handed the presidency by court order or SCAF decree, it’s worth addressing this outcome as well. I don’t think that would see a reversion to the Mubarak era, as many have suggested. January 25 means that the calculus of governing the country has changed, that no ruler can ever again take for granted the quiescence of the public. For example, we can probably forget reform of Interior Ministry — but I would also expect to see the message come down from the higher-ups that casual police brutality against ordinary “citizens” (as opposed to the “registered dangerous” criminal class or political activists) was now a massive liability. My guess is that the regime would keep the opposition out of office through dispensation of patronage, like PRI in Mexico prior to the mid-1990s, rather than by military trials and swamping polling stations on election day with Central Security troops. The 2011 uprising has also opened the barn door to mass politics in a way that cannot easily be closed. Part of the reason why Mubarak stayed in control for 30 years was that domestic politics was deeply un-engrossing. This is no longer the case.

But, any outcome that gave the presidency to Shafiq — even a count that was 100 percent on-the-level — would be a big blow to the legitimacy of elections and the fairness of the judges who administer them. To reiterate: the top level of counting is much more transparent than in the last round, so the opportunity for cheating is actually less. (By cheating I mean actual fraud that erases or invents votes, rather than the machine politics and infractions that are pretty commonplace.) But it wouldn’t be perceived that way. The June 14 SCC ruling dissolving parliament was widely denounced as a “soft coup,” and in Tahrir chants, judges have joined the long list of institutions that need to be purged. Only a year ago they were still one of the most respected groups in the country. 
This is pretty destabilizing — if there were a second mass uprising, as an economic or other crisis might easily produce under a Shafiq presidency, then the protesters aren’t likely to be satisfied with a resignation and a handover to a transition “process,” however chaotic it might be. They won’t trust any referees. They’ll want the final outcome decided in the streets. I don’t think an Algeria post–1991 situation would be likely under a Shafiq presidency, as some have suggested, but for the first time it would be a possibility.

Steve Negus3 Comments