How on earth did the Muslim Brotherhood’s unprepossessing candidate manage to scoop the edge during the presidential election? That has to be the question on many Egyptian liberals’ lips these days. The organisation’s charismatic first choice Khairat Shater was disqualified by the electoral committee leaving the majority of voters fairly certain that the Brotherhood was out of the race. How wrong they were!
I spoke to numerous Cairenes and Alexandrians last week — from taxi drivers and waiters to policemen, doctors, lawyers and even a few judges — to gain the nation’s pulse. Not a single one mentioned the name Mohammad Mursi; as far as they were concerned, he was dead in the water.
There also appeared to be consensus that the Brotherhood parliamentarians dominating the Lower House had been exposed as lacking experience and less focused on getting the country back on its feet than legislating on social issues.
An elderly wealthy gentleman explained to me that he had cast his ballot in favour of the Brotherhood during the parliamentary elections but had since been disappointed. “The Muslim Brotherhood is more efficient than [Hosni] Mubarak,” he told me. “It took thirty years for people to hate Mubarak; the Brotherhood managed to be disliked in just three months.”
Less than a week ago, it looked like the ultimate face-off would be between former Arab League chief Amr Mousa, a well-known and respected diplomat, and the independent Islamist politician-activist Abdul Moneim Abu Al Fotouh, who ran an exceptionally vigorous campaign. The one surprise was the rapid rise of the Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi who emerged from nowhere.
Two days of voting that began on May 23 have resulted in an upset. The two frontrunners were booted out of the race while late entrant Sabahi came in third. With less than 100,000 votes between them, Mohammad Mursi and former Mubarak-appointed prime minister Ahmad Shafiq will be battling for the presidency on June 16-17.
For many of those who literally battled security forces in and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square for democracy and freedom, this news has been a bitter pill; not in their wildest dreams did they imagine that their fate — at least for the next four years — would be in the hands of either a staunch Islamist or someone associated with the old regime. Bolstered by his newfound popularity, Sabahi is appealing against the result, citing evidence of violations, and demanding a partial recount.
So where did it all go so wrong? The Brotherhood is, indeed, out of favour with many and the head of its Freedom and Justice Party, Mursi, who until recently shied away from the spotlight, famously lacks oratorical skills and personal magnetism. The idea that such an uninspiring individual could hold Egypt in his hands within a few weeks seems almost incredible until one peeks beneath the surface.
The fact is that the Brotherhood’s party is the only one in Egypt that has a proper organisational structure and a loyal core support base. When its leadership tells the group’s following to come out of their homes and vote, that’s exactly what they do.
Moreover, the Brotherhood has been aiding the poorest for decades in numerous ways from providing low-cost food to medical care and education. When Shater was barred from running, they simply threw their weight unquestioningly behind Mursi. Some of those who voted for him didn’t know his name or anything about him; all they did was to tick a box next to the Brotherhood’s ballot symbol — the scales of justice.
On the other hand, the moderates were in disarray. The Tahrir Square crowd are either moaning about their failed revolution or in the throes of planning another. But why was it that none of them put themselves forward? They inevitably maintain they’re activists, not politicians, when surely a good politician should also be an activist.
Most importantly, the liberal candidates Mousa, Shafiq and Sabahi should have pooled their interests if they wanted to fend off Islamist control. Two of them, any two, should have bowed out gracefully and directed their supporters to the remaining one. Between them, they received substantially more votes than Morsi.
Moderates, liberals, modernists and Copts have little more than two weeks to get their act together. They cannot afford to sit at home or in cafes watching queues lengthen outside polling stations. They must quit complaining and vote with their feet. Mousa and Sabahi should rally their respective bases to bless Shafiq; that’s if they’re willing to put their country and its people above personal rivalry and ambition.
As much as I fear that Egypt will fall to the Brotherhood I must also be fair. If the Brotherhood wins, they deserve it. They’ve been united; they’ve put in the work and they’ve been disciplined. If they’ve any sense at all, the centrists and the leftists would do well to take a leaf out of the Brotherhood’s book way before the repeat performance in 2016.
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org Some of the comments may be considered for publication.