Who Represents Egypt?

Photo: Ahmed Abd El-fatah (Flickr)

The Muslim Brotherhood recently suffered its most decisive blow yet. Egypt’s State Litigation Authority decided on October 8 to forego any challenge to the September court ruling that bans “the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood organization and its non-governmental organization and all the activities that it participates in and any organization derived from it.” This comes as no surprise given the military-backed interim government’s tenacious campaign to eradicate the Brotherhood from public life, as demonstrated by its recent loss of NGO status. The state’s message to the Brotherhood (and pro-Morsi protesters) is clear: you messed up, and you will pay for it. Yet, as the interim government roadmap marches unwaveringly forward towards a constitutional referendum, parliamentary, and presidential elections, Egyptians will once again ask themselves: who represents us?

If the past two and a half years have taught us anything about Egypt’s electoral politics, it’s that Egyptian attitudes can change quickly. Despite Mohammed Morsi’s presidential victory by only a slight margin (less than 52 percent) in the second round of elections against a representative of the former regime in mid 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood managed to seize nearly half the seats (47 percent) in the People’s Assembly, Egypt’s lower house of parliament, in early 2012. Salafis grabbed much of what remained, resulting in more than 70 percent of the legislature under Islamist control. But how quickly fortunes can change. Tahrir Trends, Gallup, Baseera, and other surveys showed a steady slide in Morsi’s popularity over his short-lived one year tenure.

As frustration mounted and polarization divided the masses, the Tamarod campaign emerged to give voice to dissatisfaction with the Brotherhood-led government. At its height just prior to June 30, the group claims it had amassed 22 million supporters, approximately a quarter of the population (though an unknown portion of the electorate). It then mobilized large numbers in four days of protests that ended with Morsi’s ouster. Most true liberals and revolutionaries felt a terrible unease that day, foreshadowing the troubles to come, but the vast majority of ordinary Egyptians—after enduring a year of one of Egypt’s worst governance failures—championed the military takeover. The media began its love affair with Defense Minister General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, quickly building a cult of personality around the nation’s supposedly Nasser-like savior. Swarms of adoring fans beg and plead for him to shoulder the official mantle by running for President. So far he has not unequivocally said no.

In the wake of the subsequent military and police dispersal of pro-Morsi supporters from Raba’ al-‘Adawiya and Nasr City squares on August 14, the state embarked on its “war on terror,” systematically arresting, killing, or driving nearly all the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership into hiding. What remained of the Brotherhood stubbornly continued to mobilize street protests, but with significantly diminished capacity as communication broke down with those at the top of the hierarchy. Not without strong reservations, the Salafi Nour Party remained the only meaningful Islamist game in town. The Nour party, offering a degree of legitimacy to the military-backed roadmap (and understanding its own worth), initially blocked liberal progressives Mohamed ElBaradei and Ziad Baha el-Din from the post of prime minister. Even as it tries to appease the Islamists, the constituent assembly remains polarized on topics of identity, religion and state relations.

So where do Egyptian loyalties lie? Does the liberal vs. leftist vs. Islamist paradigm still hold? Indeed, did it ever? In a survey conducted by Tahrir Trends just before Morsi’s overthrow in June 2013, a random sampling of Egyptians showed how far public opinion had evolved. One immediate difference one might notice includes the shift in support for the two top presidential candidates of the May 2012 presidential race. When asked for whom they would vote if the presidential race were rerun, Egyptians placed the top two candidates from 2012—Ahmed Shafiq and Mohamed Morsi—back on the list as the chosen front-runners. Unsurprisingly, this time 25 percent preferred Shafiq over Morsi’s 18 percent. Hamdeen Sabbahi, the leftist candidate, took third place at 9 percent, suggesting the leftist movement’s continued weakness in comparison to the nationalist and Islamist political machines. Despite a lack of data since July 3, one would expect the hyper-nationalist environment to push the numbers further in Shafiq’s direction.

The picture changes somewhat when we look at parliamentary elections. Of those that said they would vote, Shafiq’s Egyptian Patriotic Movement only received a fraction of support for parliamentary elections (3 percent) relative to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (the FJP; 15 percent and the highest support for a specific party expressed in the survey). The Salafi Nour party and the centrist Wafd party had small bases with 6 and 5 percent each. With all other parties within the margin for error of one another, the FJP remained the strongest electoral network despite the dissatisfaction with Morsi’s presidency. However, as the state edges toward a possible ban of the FJP as an organization (pending an investigation by the state prosecutor’s office) and the security apparatus increases its pressure on Brotherhood patronage networks (replacing them to some degree with their own), one could expect a significant increase in support for Shafiq’s party if the Mubarak-era National Democratic Party (NDP) politicians choose it as their new home. The NDP electoral networks–divided and disoriented in the wake of January 25, 2011–could easily reincarnate and revive pre-Morsi ties.

The Tahrir Trends data also shows an interesting pattern reflecting Egyptians’ faith in the political system as a means to be heard, and lack of loyalty to a particular political force. At the time of the survey, only 7 percent said they would not vote in presidential elections, indicating the significance many still place on the office of the president. Given the concentration of executive power under the 2012 constitution, this number suggests that Egyptians fully understand the president’s direct impact on their lives. As more information slowly emerges on the latest draft of the constitution, it appears unlikely that the structure and concentration of power will change under the revised constitutional order, thereby maintaining a high degree of public interest in choosing their head of state. By comparison, 22 percent said they would not participate in the parliamentary elections—but of the 73 percent who said they would, 48 percent remained undecided with regard to specific candidates. These numbers suggest a lesser degree of importance tied to their representatives in the legislature: but for those who do, the candidates still matter. In the current climate one can reasonably expect both participatory numbers to fall if the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies decide to boycott elections. One could also attribute a potential fall in these numbers to the growing assumption that the military and security services will revert to the Mubarak days of carefully controlling elections—and their outcome.

The Tahrir Trends data, extrapolated into the new hyper-nationalistic environment, suggests a strong reliance on the cult of personality that has defined Egypt’s electoral politics over the last three years. As Morsi quickly fell out of public favor, so did the Muslim Brotherhood, only to be replaced with renewed faith in the army and security services, which are maximizing the opportunity to reclaim their lost status after January 25. Liberals who once touted political plurality and openness appear to have either sacrificed those values at the altar of nationalist sentiment, or left the political scene altogether—as in the case of Mohamed El-Baradei and former National Salvation Front spokesperson Khaled Dawoud. Although it remains far too early to predict the outcome of future elections, the trend towards a strong advocate for security and stability at Egypt’s helm and for legislative representatives who can satisfy local needs seems clear. Any future leaders of Egypt, however, will do well to remember lessons of the past. Their constituents still need bread, freedom, and human dignity. Anything less is inherently unstable: as we’ve seen, Egyptians can change their minds pretty quickly.

Tarek Radwan is the associate director for research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, and the editor of its MENASource blog. 

This was first published on TahrirSquared