The country’s new president, whoever he is, will face political and economic challenges aplenty
AS TELEVISED debates go the performance was lame. Two elderly men in dark suits and ties scrapped like shopkeepers, seeming keener to discredit each others’ goods than to plug their own. Yet the sheer ordinariness of the five-hour marathon was historic. For the first time an Arab audience revelled in the spectacle of a live contest for the highest office in the land.
Just as significantly, the sparring candidates in Egypt’s presidential race represented not simply opposing views, but broadly reflected perhaps the most crucial fault line in regional politics. The television drama on May 10th confronted Egypt’s 52m voters with a choice: do they want a republic chiefly guided by timeless Islamic teachings, or one where the changing demands of the people set the rules?
No clear winner emerged in the debate, mirroring a wider political scene where, just now, religious and secular trends seem fairly evenly matched. Yet on television, at least, here was proof that the Arab spring has released the kind of open, healthy discussion that decades of dictatorship stifled. “I didn’t care what they said,” commented the owner of a cigarette kiosk near Tahrir Square in Egypt’s capital, Cairo. “I was just happy to see them talking, instead of shouting or shooting.”
The euphoric toppling of Hosni Mubarak last year has given way to a vexed, often violent and needlessly prolonged transition. Egypt’s 82m people are exhausted. Their feeble economy is stricken. Their government remains a shambles. Until a new president is installed, following a first round of elections on May 23rd and a final round on June 16th and 17th, the army high command remains controversially in charge. The country still awaits a new constitution. The Islamist parliamentary majority that swept to electoral triumph in January failed last month to form an acceptably representative constituent assembly to write one, which means it will be some time before Egypt’s next head of state even knows what powers he wields. Yet in its awkward, bumbling way, the most populous and influential Arab country is moving forward.
The pioneer television debaters were not the starkest representatives of Egypt’s polarised politics. Amr Moussa, a polished, energetic 75-year-old former foreign minister and Arab League chief, stands at the conservative end of the liberal spectrum. Like all Egyptian politicians he bows to the encroachment of religion in public life. He shies away from being labelled a secularist and accepts that Islamic principles should underpin legislation. Many liberals reject Mr Moussa because they say he embodies the old establishment, even though Mr Mubarak clashed with him and fired him. Yet many pro-Islamists respect Mr Moussa as a man of experience, even if he does not brandish his faith on his sleeve.
In a mirror image his opponent, Abdel Moneim Abolfotoh, occupies the liberal end of Islamism. The grizzled 60-year-old doctor won fame as a fearless student activist in the 1970s and spent 30 years as a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, five of them in prison during one of Mr Mubarak’s periodic crackdowns. But Mr Abolfotoh shifted ideologically away from the group’s dominant conservative strand, before being expelled from the Brotherhood last year for daring to break ranks and run for president on his own. He has won the backing of arch-conservative Islamists, including the main bloc of Salafists, but also of prominent secularists who see him as a bridging figure with strong revolutionary credentials. The Brotherhood itself disdains him as a renegade, yet some liberal Egyptians fear him as a stalking horse for the Islamists. “We’re not religious enough for Islamists or secular enough for liberals,” laments one campaign aide.
With Messrs Moussa and Abolfotoh vying for Egypt’s political centre, the 11 other candidates attract less complex constituencies. The Muslim Brotherhood’s own contender, Muhammad Morsi, a California-educated engineer and experienced parliamentarian, enjoys the deep pockets and organising clout of Egypt’s strongest party. The Brothers have campaigned with a mix of worldly promises and hardline religious rhetoric, reckoning that their resounding success in parliamentary polls accurately reflects the power of their slogan, “Islam is the Solution”.
Yet the bearded and bespectacled Mr Morsi lacks charisma. He was not even the Brotherhood’s first choice. The group’s paymaster and strongman, Khairat al-Shater, was disqualified from running by an army-appointed electoral commission. Mr Morsi must bear the brunt of jokes about being the Brotherhood’s spare. Hecklers animate his rallies by hoisting old tyres. Worse for him, his party’s popularity has dwindled since it took 46% of the parliamentary vote. Part of this is the result of the Islamist-led parliament’s perceived failure to achieve much, in the face of foot-dragging by the cabinet, also appointed by the army. But more importantly the Brothers, known during decades of opposition for stubborn integrity, have in power looked alternately bullying and shifty.
Last year they said they would only contest a third of parliamentary seats, only to grab nearly half. They promised not to field a presidential candidate, then registered two. The Brothers annoyed other parties by appearing to court the army, even as revolutionaries battled soldiers in the street to block the army’s choice of a caretaker cabinet. Then they changed tack. Demanding the cabinet’s resignation last month, the Brothers abruptly suspended parliament without consulting anyone, literally stranding fellow MPs in a darkened chamber. Other parties, already peeved by the Brothers’ attempt to pack the proposed constituent assembly with their own stalwarts, fumed. As the cabinet also refused to resign and the army hinted at dissolving the legislature, the Brothers accepted a humiliating climb-down and reopened it.
Their high-handedness has alienated not only voters, but their natural Islamist allies, the less uniform but more fundamentalist Salafists who control nearly a quarter of parliamentary seats. Instead of falling in behind the Brothers’ presidential choice, the Salafists’ main party, Nour, has endorsed Mr Abolfotoh. This appears to reflect a pragmatic calculation that they can win more influence and prestige through association with an independent president, even a relative liberal, than via a loyal Muslim Brother.
It also reflected a widespread sentiment that it would be foolish to hand the secretive Brotherhood control of the presidency, buttressing its hold on parliament and influence over courts, trade unions and schools. Opinion polls, which were banned before the revolution and have yet to gain full credence, suggest that even among Egyptians who voted for the Brotherhood in December, more would prefer Mr Abolfotoh to the loyalist Mr Morsi. A good chunk of the Brothers’ parliamentary constituency says it would even vote for a non-Islamist candidate, a sign that bread and butter matter more than piety.
Eenie, meenie, miney, mo
They have plenty of choice. Those nostalgic for the old regime, or wearied by the interregnum of insecurity, could opt for Ahmed Shafiq, like Mr Mubarak an ex-air force chief, who served as the fallen dictator’s short-lived last prime minister. The tough, avuncular general has surged in the polls, bolstered by rural voters, the quiet backing of Egypt’s “deep state”, and Coptic Christians whose fear of Islamists outweighs their desire for change. But Mr Shafiq is also dogged by unproven charges of corruption, as well as many Egyptians’ gut rejection of anything associated with Mr Mubarak.
A half-dozen candidates trail the lacklustre front-runners. Yet despite the lookalike fuzziness of many of the contestants’ programmes, and the lack of a clear presidential job description, the race is intriguing. Few expect an outright winner in the first round. A remote possibility is that it could propel two secularists into the run-off, a scenario that would infuriate Islamists. Yet the numerous non-Islamist contenders are more likely to weaken each other, perhaps leaving two Muslim Brothers, former and current, to face off in the final. At the moment, though, most bets are that a secularist and Islamist—probably the television debaters, Messrs Moussa and Abolfotoh—will survive into the second round.
Voters may well treat the presidential race very differently from the parliamentary contest. Many of the two-thirds of Egypt’s voters who plumped for Islamists in December did so not for ideological or religious reasons, but because the Brotherhood and the Nour party were better organised, untainted by past corruption, and often faced a weak and divided secular camp, especially in rural areas. The Brotherhood’s half-million committed members still have an unmatched capacity to mobilise more voters. But presidential preferences may be guided as much by fears and aspirations as by free meals, bus rides to polling stations or promises of better local services.
It is significant, for instance, that although Mr Abolfotoh was reckoned to have performed more ably in the debate than Mr Moussa, his poll numbers dropped. This, perhaps, reflected the effectiveness of the diplomat’s barbs aimed at casting the former Muslim Brother as two-faced: are you a uniting figure, he asked rhetorically, or do you say one thing to your Salafist friends and another to liberals?
Where to start?
Whoever captures Egypt’s presidency will face a daunting task. The 15 months since Mr Mubarak’s fall have seen foreign-exchange reserves haemorrhage by two-thirds, the official unemployment rate rise by a quarter to nearly 13%, and the government budget deficit surge to 10% of GDP, financed by borrowing at inexorably rising rates that now nudge 17%. The budget shortfall could be resolved at a stroke by scrapping energy subsidies, but in a country where 40% of people live in poverty, this is a sizzling political potato.
Tricky constitutional questions also loom. One concerns how to frame relations between religion and the state: should sharia remain, as before, a guiding principle for legislation, or should its specific rulings be binding? Another is what to do with the army, whose tentacles reach everywhere. Even more daunting is the task of dismantling the shadowy matrix of security agencies and operatives whose unaccountable powers accumulated over 60 years and permeate laws, institutions and the 6m-strong bureaucracy. “The religious-secular divide is largely artificial,“ reckons Hossam Bahgat, a prominent human-rights lawyer. “The real, dangerous struggle is between civil society and the deep state.”
The lack of trust between Egypt’s polarised centres of power, combined with the shakiness of key institutions such as the courts and the parliament, suggests the road ahead will be rocky. Yet optimists also make a good case. On a surprising number of issues there is consensus. All the main contenders agree that Egypt needs a market economy with a commitment to social justice. All concur that education and health need sweeping reform. Despite much rhetorical bashing of Israel, no one seriously calls for abandoning Egypt’s treaty obligations. Civilians, both Islamist and liberal, are generally convinced that the army must return to the barracks, but remain free of overweening control by the new civilian authorities.
Even the sometimes ugly scrapping inside parliament, in Egypt’s creaking, corrupt courts and between the army and civilian politicians is taken by some as evidence of the emergence of a healthier balance of powers than existed under the previous regime. Neither the army nor the Islamist-controlled parliament has been able fully to impose its will, and this may be a good thing. There is no doubt that Egypt’s stolid old pyramid of state, capped by a pharaonic president, will be reshaped into something else. But just what shape that may be, no one yet knows.
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