x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Violence in Egypt is poor barometer of election trends

Egypt's election results, carefully studied, reveal some interesting lessons about the country's new era of electoral politics.

The official results of Egypt's presidential elections, released on Monday, returned a mix of emotion and some anger. Protesters sacked the offices of one candidate and others returned to Tahrir Square. But even before yesterday's tumult we already had a broad outline of how Egyptians had voted. It is tempting to take this wealth of data and dissect it for a map of Egypt's political landscape, hopefully much more accurate than polls that have swung wildly week to week. But in doing so, much caution is needed.

The first lesson should be drawn from the opinion polls in the weeks leading to the first-round voting, and the extent to which they predicted the results. The polls' biggest failure was to accurately predict Amr Moussa's dismal performance. The former secretary-general of the Arab League spent months as the frontrunner and benefited from the best name-recognition of any candidate, but ended with under 11 per cent.

Yet the polls had revealed a steady decline in Mr Moussa's appeal in recent weeks, as they did a decline in Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh's performance (he came in fourth) and the rise of Mohammed Morsi, Ahmed Shafiq - whose offices were razed on Monday - and Hamdeen Sabbahi (the top three contenders, in that order).

Despite the visceral reactions yesterday, most Egyptians' views are not set in one camp or another, and the results are merely a reflection of their choice in a particular context from a limited range of serious candidates. Ultimately, candidates with a strong message fared better than those, like Mr Moussa, who campaigned as the disappointment everyone could live with - which is another way of saying that most voters appear to have chosen with their hearts rather than strategically.

A corollary of this is that one should not rush to say that the Muslim Brotherhood has about a quarter of the vote, establishment and old regime forces about 35 per cent (Mr Shafik and Mr Moussa's votes combined) and the rest belongs to revolutionary forces ranging from Salafists to radical socialists.

In fact, the number of voters who chose to vote neither for the Muslim Brotherhood nor an establishment figure, about 40 to 45 per cent, is encouraging because it indicates there is wide room for a political alternative to two camps that see politics largely as a hierarchical, top-down affair best left to insiders and their patronage networks.

The performance of Hamdeen Sabbahi, a populist with a shoestring campaign, in particular illustrates the power of personality in a presidential race: Mr Sabbahi echoed some well-worn memes of Egyptian politics, from Nasserism to nationalism, and appealed directly to lower income classes more than most others (his campaign slogan was "one of us"). But he also benefitted from being the only non-Islamist, non-former regime major candidate - and thus the only choice for those reluctant to vote for even a moderate Islamist like Mr Aboul Fotouh or a relatively untainted former regime figure like Mr Moussa.

The most heartening news from this election, indeed, is that there is a substantial number of Egyptians - probably a majority - who do not see politics as a binary choice between a partial restoration of the old regime and the holistic (to some, totalitarian) societal project of the Brotherhood. This is in direct opposition to the reality of a Morsi-Shafiq runoff next month, but is nonetheless true - and both of these candidates are now seeking to appeal outside the constituencies that elected them.

The politicians who represent this new Egyptian trend might still be relatively lacklustre figures, which is the consequence of decades of marginalisation of political alternatives to the regime. The challenge for these potential leaders is to transform their popularity into a rooted movement: consider that Mr Aboul Fotouh and Mr Sabbahi, who account for just over 40 per cent of the vote, gathered supporters from disparate forces.

Finally, the results do suggest some other trends. One is that, as opinion polls showed in recent months, the Muslim Brotherhood's popularity and ability to get out the vote have dropped since the parliamentary elections that ended in January.

A direct comparison is difficult, because a presidential election is a national vote whereas parliamentary elections work on district levels. But it is not too speculative to suggest that the Brotherhood lost some votes because they were perceived as arrogant and duplicitous (largely deserved considering their behaviour over the formation of the constituent assembly and their preference for back-room deals).

Another trend is the return of politically conservative grass-roots networks, notably those of the former ruling party.

And perhaps most surprising is the comparatively low turnout (47 per cent, compared to 59 per cent in the People's Assembly elections), suggesting some election-weariness or disbelief in the process among some citizens. One can only guess that it points to the disappointment a deeply flawed, halting transition has engendered, as well as to relatively lacklustre candidates.

What the first round showed us is that Egypt's polity is still very much in gestation, with the limits to its growth set by the constraints of the post-Mubarak transition. The problem now is that the second round of these presidential elections is set to be a polarising moment and could result is a large-scale (although probably not majority) rejection of electoral politics. The fires that burned on Monday underscore this worry. And its result, of course, could further narrow the scope within which Egypt's new political forces will have to find root.

 

Issandr El Amrani is an independent journalist based in Cairo who blogs at www.arabist.net