The Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East hosted a discussion on May 29 of what the elections tell us about Egyptian politics with Egyptian Judge Yussef Auf and Georgetown University Assistant Professor of Arab Politics Samer Shehata. Hariri Center Director Michele Dunne moderated the conversation; she and Shehata added insights from recent trips to Egypt.


Egypt’s first round of presidential elections on May 23-24 saw a lower than expected voter turnout, more votes for secular than Islamist candidates, and a polarized result pitting the Muslim Brotherhood against old regime elements. A turbulent campaign period brought 11 presidential candidates to the fore, each jockeying to attract the Egyptian voter. Former foreign minister Amr Moussa and moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Abul Futouh were recognized as the frontrunners just a week or two before the voting, with Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi and old-regime figure Ahmed Shafik seen as second tier candidates. Nasserist leftist Mohammed al-Sabbahi, while a more serious contender than the rest, was not expected to gain more than a marginal percentage of the vote. The political field shifted in the last week or so, however, leading to Morsi and Shafik facing off in the final runoff election and Sabbahi coming in at third place.

Michele Dunne noted the differences between the presidential and parliamentary elections, including a significantly lower turnout for the presidential elections (46 percent, compared to 55 percent) and a higher percentage of votes going towards non-Islamist candidates (57 percent secular versus 43 percent Islamist votes, compared to 28 percent secular versus 72 percent Islamist in the parliamentary races). She also pointed out that Salafi forces, which showed surprising electoral strength in parliamentary elections, had little effect on presidential elections. By contrast, former regime networks thrown into disarray after the revolution that did poorly in parliamentary elections, seemed to have reorganized to support Shafik’s presidential bid. With two relatively uncharismatic figures winning the top two positions, voter preference appeared geared toward the organization the candidates represented: Morsi for the Muslim Brotherhood; Shafik for the military.

Yussef Auf expressed surprise at the relatively low voter turnout for the first round election, attributing the apathy to:

  • lack of confidence in the process under the supervision of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF),
  • public disapproval with the inability of the elected parliament to enact meaningful legislation,
  • failure of political forces to reach consensus on issues such as the formation of the constituent assembly.

Auf noted a severe drop in overall approval for Islamists. The phenomenon reveals the Muslim Brotherhood’s loyal base of support limited to approximately 5 million voters as reflected in Morsi’s final count. He viewed Shafik’s inclusion by the Elections Committee despite the “political isolation” law under review by the Supreme Constitutional Court as a positive outcome, given the potential threat to the legitimacy of the office of the president should the court rule the law unconstitutional. The election results also showed that revolutionary voters could have easily secured a place in the runoff had they rallied around a single candidate. Although Auf affirmed the SCAF’s authority to issue a constitutional supplement defining presidential powers, he viewed it as politically risky and legally unnecessary given the provisions of Article 54 of the March constitutional declaration outlining executive authority.

With Morsi and Shafik representing the two most polarizing figures in the presidential race, Samer Shehata described the outcome of the first round as disturbing but far from the worst possible outcome. No systematic fraud, no widespread administrative problems, and minimal election related violence all pointed to the positive integrity of the outcome. Although Morsi’s strength came as no surprise, Shehata observed that the general perception of increased insecurity and economic instability offered a considerable boost to Shafik’s support. He predicted Morsi to win the final vote in the next round based on the Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts to reach out to other political factions with concrete reassurances in exchange for their support against Shafik. If, however, Shafik did manage to win the presidency, Shehata warned of public rejection of the results and potential for widespread violence.

Regarding the impact on US-Egyptian relations, Auf suggested that under either a pro-Mubarak or a pragmatic Islamist presidency, foreign policy was unlikely to drastically change. Shehata remarked, however, that both Egyptian and US administrations would face difficulty as more populist views and opinions pressure the Egyptian leadership. Public stances such as Morsi’s refusal to visit Israel could complicate his relationship with the US. Dunne remarked on the need to restructure foreign assistance to Egypt, for example by removing the earmark for military assistance and expressing openness to discussing with the new Egyptian government how assistance should be allocated. Increasing economic opportunity through a free trade agreement would also put US-Egyptian relations on a more equal footing and help generate investor interest. All the speakers agreed on the need for the U.S. administration to voice more clearly its support for citizenship and basic rights.