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Egypt presidential elections dogged by turmoil, uncertainty

In lead-up to this month's presidential runoff vote, Egypt's political scene is thrown into further confusion by controversial Mubarak trial verdicts and ensuing protests

Nada El-Kouny , Tuesday 5 Jun 2012
Protesters in Tahrir chant against Ahmed Shafiq, 25 May (Photo: Reuters/ Suhaib Salem)

Since last year’s Tahrir Square uprising, the political scene in Egypt has been in constant flux. Less than two weeks before Egypt’s presidential runoff, demonstrations and a sit-in are currently taking place in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest Saturday’s controversial Mubarak trial verdict.

Mubarak and long-time interior minister Habib El-Adly were both slapped with life sentences for ordering the killing of unarmed protesters during last year’s uprising; six police chiefs, meanwhile, were acquitted of charges of carrying out those orders. In a second ruling, Mubarak, his two sons, and Egyptian business tycoon Hussein Salem were all found not guilty of corruption charges.

Egypt’s 'trial of the century' comes against the backdrop of an electric political situation, in which rapidly unfolding developments could end up tipping the balance towards or away from either presidential candidate in a hotly-contested runoff vote set for 16 and 17 June.

A hard choice for some

Hala Mostafa, a political analyst at the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, believes the trial verdict will impact voter turnout in the upcoming runoff vote.

"A large segment of society was outraged by the unjust verdict," she said. "Many voters will probably boycott the elections in a large-scale expression of anger."

Many liberal and leftist voters, meanwhile, say they plan to boycott the runoff, since they find the two options – Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi and last Mubarak-era PM Ahmed Shafiq – untenable.

This outrage will likely translate into an advantage for the Brotherhood's Morsi, said Mostafa, who is considered by many liberals and leftists to be the "lesser of two evils."

If the current protests escalate, however, or in the event that things turn violent, she added, "Shafiq will win the vote of those hoping to see a restoration of order and security."

In the first-round vote on 27 May, Morsi came in first with 25.30 per cent of the vote, while Shafiq came in a close second with 23.74 per cent.

Public discourse has recently revolved around the notion of Shafiq as the "security and stability" candidate, sworn to restore domestic order, while Morsi represents the pro-revolution candidate.

"The issue is no longer about electing a Brotherhood figure, but rather about continuing Egypt's revolutionary path by preventing a return of the former regime via Shafiq," said Muslim Brotherhood lawyer Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maqsoud.

Several initiatives have been launched by various political groups to demand written guarantees from the two presidential finalists in exchange for support in the upcoming runoff.

Rabab El-Mahdi, political science professor at the American University in Cairo who served as advisor to the Abul-Fotouh campaign, believes the current situation is largely tied to how the Brotherhood reacts in the days leading up to the runoff.

"If they work on building a national consensus among different political forces, their support base will increase," she said. "But if they give up on Tahrir Square and fail to answer protesters' demands, this will hinder their chances of winning."

Nasserist columnist Gamal Fahmy, for his part, believes that Morsi's chances will remain the same regardless.

He pointed to the group's performance in recent months, especially in parliament. Fahmy believes that, if elected, the Brotherhood will dominate all branches of government, monopolising Egypt's post-revolution political scene as did Mubarak's now-defunct National Democratic Party.

Postponing poll?

Hassan Abu-Taleb, political analyst and editor-in-chief of Ahram's Al-Taqreer Al-Strategy, believes that the current wave of protests is "reactionary" in nature. He downplayed protesters' demands to delay the presidential elections and apply a recently ratified Political Disenfranchisement Law, which would bar Shafiq from contesting the race.

"Once public outrage subsides – after a couple days at most –revolutionary forces will have to ask themselves whether they want a civil or religious state," said Abu-Taleb. He stressed the need to carry the electoral process through to the end, without any attempt to postpone the vote.

Fahmy, for his part, believes that the current round of demonstrations has more to do with the elections than with the unpopular Mubarak trial verdicts.

"Most of the chants now heard in Tahrir Square aren't necessarily about the trial itself, but rather about the need to hold free and fair elections, eliminate Shafiq from the race, and set up a presidential council," he said.

The only solution to the current impasse, Fahmi added, is to hold fresh elections from scratch. He voiced the belief that, in the event that the current protests escalate, the runoff vote could be delayed at the very least.

El-Mahdi, however, dismissed the possibility of such a scenario, asserting that it was in the interest of Egypt's two most formidable political forces – the Brotherhood and supporters of the former regime – to hold elections on schedule.

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© 2010 Ahram Online.