Wednesday March 2nd, 2011 was an historic night for Egyptian media in the midst of an historic period in Egyptian political life. Less than one month after Hosni Mubarak had stepped down from his thrity-year reign as President of Egypt, Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq went on Egyptian news channel ON TV to debate noted author and liberal columnist, Alaa al-Aswany. In the days before the 2011 revolution, media engagements by government figures were done with pre-scripted questions and were tightly controlled. This program would have a different format.
As the above clip shows, the debate descended into chaos. At one point, hours into the program, al-Aswany told Shafiq that his main priority should be providing security to Egyptians, asked his opinion about the snipers who had fired on protestors, and asked him if he saw the video of the car running over and killing the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square. Shafiq lost his temper and yelled at al-Aswany “Stop putting on the face of a patriot! I’m more of a patriot than you are. I fought in the war and I killed and got killed, and I did everything.”
Shafiq’s rationale was that he deserved to lead because he had served in the military. It was the same tired logic Egyptians had heard from their leaders for years, and they weren’t buying it anymore. The next day, Shafiq stepped down as Prime Minister.
So how did the former Prime Minister of Hosni Mubarak, accused of killing protestors who rose up in the Egyptian revolution of the past 18 months, end up becoming a serious candidate in Egypt’s democratic elections?
How Shafiq Got into the Elections
As I wrote in an earlier post, the three “traditional” political institutions that have been guiding the democratic transition in Egypt are the Army, the Parliament, and the Judiciary. The story of how Ahmad Shafiq was allowed to run is a fascinating case-study in the dynamics of the interactions between these institutions.
On March 23, 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued the initial Constitutional Declaration of post-revolutionary Egypt. Articles 27 and 28 govern the presidential elections. According to Article 27, parliament is to pass laws regarding the electoral process. Article 28 requires that this law is submitted to the “Supreme Constitutional Court” to review its constitutionality before it goes into effect. This establishes a right to prior review for the Supreme Court of Egypt. (This is distinct from the system in the U.S., for example, where the Court reviews cases subsequent to the passage of legislation.) Furthermore, Article 28 establishes a “Presidential Elections Commission” (PEC), comprised of 5 senior judges from various Egyptian courts, with the final say in all decisions on the constitutionality of election laws.
According to the PEC schedule, the first list of 23 candidates who met the qualifications to run as President–including the independent Shafiq–was released on April 9, 2012. (These candidates would be voted by popular referendum, and if none managed to gain 51% of the popular vote in the initial round, the top two were to compete head-to-head in a “run-off” election in June.)
On April 12, Parliament passed a law disqualifying 11 of the candidates from running for reasons ranging from having parents with American citizenship to holding high offices in the former regime. By April 15, the PEC had reviewed the law and disqualified a number of high-profile candidates. But 10 of the 11 disqualified candidates were barred because of technicalities in the nomination process; Shafiq was the only victim of the “political isolation” that was part of the April 12th legislation.
On April 24th, the SCAF ratified the April 12th legislation, including the political isolation law, and officially disqualified Shafiq. The next day, Shafiq filed an appeal asking that the decision be taken up by the Supreme Court, and the PEC accepted his appeal and allowed him to re-enter the race as one of the now 13 candidates in the first round of elections. The decision as to whether Shafiq is legally-allowed to be in the race has now been referred to the Supreme Constitutional Court, and there is a great deal of controversy over when this decision will be carried out and what it will be. (Remember, these elections are next week.)
How Shafiq got into the Run-Off
Initially, it seemed as if the independent Shafiq had very little chance of winning. The top two candidates in the final months leading up to the first round seemed to be Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Abu el-Fotouh. Looking to capitalize on the political discussion gripping the Egyptian news audience, TV channel CBC set up a private debate between just these two candidates, out of the entire field of 13. The publicity stunt back-fired on Moussa and Abu el-Fotouh, and both lost credibility.
Stepping into Moussa’s shoes as a figure with political experience, Shafiq surged ahead in opinion polls late in the game. Shafiq has legitimately assembled a constituency of voters from the Coptic Christian communities in Egypt, along with a great deal of “silent majority”-type Egyptian voters who are tired and fearful of the constant protests in their country. (In the “run-off” phase, Shafiq has now gathered many voters who are simply against the Muslim Brotherhood.) But many in Tahrir square accuse Shafiq of “Tazweer” or fraud. I want to take up each of these possible reasons for Shafiq’s victory in turn.
First let’s look at the Coptic vote, which has evolved into a more general “anti-Muslim Brotherhood” vote in the run-offs which pit Shafiq against the Brotherhood candidate Muhammad Mursi. Coptic Christians compose a substantial minority in Egypt, approximately 10%.
In my conversations with a freelance reporter whose bylines have been included in the New York Times and The New Republic, I heard about Christian voters in Zeitoun, a suburb of Cairo. According to this source, Christians in Zeitoun supported Shafiq because, in the wake of the parliamentary elections which saw 75% of the votes going to the Brotherhood and the Salafis, they were worried about a president who was also a strong supporter of Islamic influence in the law.
But Christians did not want to be open about their support of Shafiq. The reporter said that Brotherhood activists openly made fun of Christians in Zeitoun, accusing them of supporting “falool” or remnants of the old regime. So the community kept their mouths shut about who they supported, in fear of a backlash against the candidate by Muslims.
The reporter also included a story about a young woman who worked at the campaign of the secular-revolutionary candidate Khaled Ali, in the initial day of voting on May 23d. She despaired the prospect of a Shafiq and Mursi run-off, saying “it would be no choice at all.” She insisted that even if it came down to a relatively liberal Islamic candidate, like Abu el-Fotouh, and Shafiq, she would vote for Shafiq because she feared the prospect of an Islamic state. (She made specific reference to “el-Hadood,” or the cutting off of hands of serial thieves in radical interpretations of Islamic law.)
In the days since the announcement of the final two candidates, I have met many taxi drivers who are much more vehemently anti-Brotherhood than pro-Shafiq. Egypt is a massive country with a majority of the population that is basically secular. The prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood controlling the Parliament and the Presidency at a time when the government will be trusted to write Egypt’s new constitution is understandably frightening for these secularists or religious Christians.
Second, I want to examine the “law-and-order” vote. One interesting poll published by al-Shorouq newspaper on May 19–the week before the intial round of voting–showed Shafiq surprisingly surging to the lead ahead of Moussa and Abu el-Fotouh. A full 1/3 of the respondents said that “security” was their most important issue, with the “economic crisis” as the third issue behind “other.” (Juan Cole provides excellent analysis on this poll.)
One important thing to take into account in understanding this issue is the massive size of Egypt. If a million demonstrators take to the streets of Cairo, that leaves about 15 million Cairenes sitting at home watching these events unfold on TV. And there are similar proportions in Egypt’s other large cities and provincial towns that are seeing demonstrations. Liberal revolutionaries mockingly refer to those who don’t take to the street and watch from home as “the couch party.” But in a democratic system, the political leader must have a wide appeal. I have spoken with many older, wealthy Egyptians who tell me they pray Shafiq will get elected and put a stop to the demonstrations that they think are seriously damaging their country.
Finally, I want to look at the issue of fraud or “tazweer.” Many revolutionaries claim this is how Shafiq managed to get into the run-offs. In March of 2012, parliament passed a law banning NGOs with any foreign funding from playing a role in monitoring the elections. The only organization allowed to monitor was the Carter Center (CC), founded by former U.S.-President Jimmy Carter, which has monitored 81 elections in 33 countries as part of its broader mission of advancing human rights.
I was fortunate enough to see President Carter give a speech about the how the CC monitored the Egyptian elections. He explained that normally his people go into the country months before the elections to get a sense of the campaign process. But in Egypt, they did not obtain credentials until a week before. The CC was denied access to the local voting stations, but were allowed to observe the counting process at the local stations. The CC was, however, excluded from the final counting process, when the individual local counts were tabulated into a final count. Still, Carter said this was “not a fatal blow to the integrity of the elections,” and that he had “very good feelings overall” about the elections, “that portion of it which we were able to observe.”
Since the first round of elections, allegations have surfaced that 900,000 national IDs were faked for recruits to the Egyptian military-who are legally banned from voting in the presidential elections–to vote fraudulently in the first round. These allegations have not been proven and are currently under review by the PEC. But the accusations of “tazweer” ring out loudly in Tahrir Square, and is the only possible explanation some can seem to supply for a member of the deposed regime to be successful in democratic elections.
As I have tried to show, I think Shafiq does have a legitimate democratic constituency, even if it is a bit reactionary in character. Egyptian revolutionaries would do well to engage with Shafiq politically and try to sway his constituency, rather than writing it off completely.
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