A Country in Turmoil

Egypt’s Fractious Presidential Race Reflects a Country Deeply Divided

As the election nears and the acrimony mounts, Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring seem very far away, writes Lauren E. Bohn.

Tucked away in a shabby building 50 miles outside of Cairo in one of Egypt’s dusty drab hamlets, and up seven flights of dingy stairs, sits a rotund and slick Ahmed Fouad Baddar, surrounded by a ring of grimacing men. He calls them his soldiers.

“It’s three days before presidential run-offs and Egypt is at war,” he declares, his desk flooded with papers and his cell phone ringing every five minutes (“What do you need?” is his standard greeting). “But,” he smiles widely, “we’re winning.”

For the past three months, Baddar has been at the helm of presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq’s campaign in Sharqeyya, one of many governorates in the rural Nile Delta region that Shafiq surprisingly swept in the first round of Egypt’s presidential elections. For a campaign office, the accoutrements are surprisingly sparse: the two-room office is small and features a single desk, sans phones or computers. The walls are wallpapered with Shafiq’s campaign posters that his critics scoff could double as advertisements for country-clubs or chic designer clothes. “We don’t need fancy equipment in here,” Baddar laughs. “We’ve got it covered.”

And they just might—a prospect that scares as many Egyptians as it excites.

Eighteen months after the ouster of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s presidential run-off between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister and a former Air Force general, has morphed into a national identity crisis. It’s a contest of power between political Islam and remnants of the Mubarak regime. Shafiq’s seemingly out-of-nowhere success indicates exactly what revolutionaries have feared all along: a resurgence of the former ruling regime's political machine that never really went away. Such hunches seemed to be confirmed on Thursday when Egypt’s judiciary ruled to dissolve the democratically elected, Islamist-led Parliament, while also confirming the right of Shafiq to run for president, escalating an already heated battle for power between the remnants of the toppled regime and rising Islamists. The ruling essentially means that whoever emerges as the winner of the runoff scheduled for this weekend will take the helm in Egypt without a parliament, a constitution, or a definite framework for assembling one. That winner will most likely also control the election of a future Parliament.

Shafiq was tapped to be prime minister during Mubarak's final days in power, but was forced to step down by protesters shortly after Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011, after which he disappeared for months. Late last year he resurfaced and officially declared his candidacy for president. He’s since attempted to leverage his prime minister post as a heroic “call to duty” that he took up “at time when everyone told [him] it’d be political suicide.”

The polarizing run-off has stranded many Egyptians somewhere between two equally unappealing extremes—renewed authoritarianism or repressive theocracy—extremes that each side paints in the worst possible light. Nearly every day, for example, Shafiq insists that he’s the only option to prevent Islamist domination of society. "The revolution, which you triggered, has been hijacked,” he said. “I am obliged to bring its outcome back to your hands." Many Egyptians are boycotting the vote.

Though Baddar touts himself to be “a simple farmer and country man … never one for big city politics,” he’s no stranger to the game. He was the National Democratic Party’s secretary for the Nile Delta governorate under Mubarak. Baddar has been accused of the hallmark NDP corruption charges, as well as being dubbed a head of Egypt’s counter-revolution. Shafiq's strength is now rooted in the Nile Delta region, once thought to be a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold. From that base, Shafiq seems to have tapped into Egypt’s strong patronage network of businessmen and former politicians, who, like Baddar, were once connected to the Mubarak regime.

“Look, Shafiq has nothing to do with Mubarak,” Baddar explains, dismissing the label felool (“remnants of the regime”) that has become part of post-Mubarak Egyptian parlance. “But he has everything to do with getting this country back to where it was before all this mess.” The words mess and revolution are used interchangeably not only in his office, but around the country.

With many Egyptians worried by a gaping security and leadership vacuum since last year's uprising, Shafiq attracts voters who’ve become tired, if not angered, by Egypt’s revolutionaries. They see the military as the only institution that can prevent complete turmoil. In the villages that surround Shafiq’s Nile Delta offices, residents curse Tahrir Square, the epicenter of last year’s pro-democracy uprising. In a small village of Minia El Kamh, Heba Ahmed, says she’s nostalgic for the days before the revolution when “everything wasn’t so uncertain.” Shafiq has drawn support from people like Ahmed, state employees, and security forces and their families, as well as influential businessmen and members of the former ruling NDP party. Some Coptic Christians, who make up around 10 percent of Egyptian society, also voted for him as a bulwark against the rising power of Islamists.

“We must save this country from the dark forces like the Brotherhood before it’s too late,” said Baddar, echoing his boss’s battle cry. “We must save it before Egypt’s revolution falls into the path of Iran’s–Islamic and dark.”

Such has been Shafiq’s rhetoric for the past several weeks, even going so far as to place the blame for the deaths of protesters from the government he served last February onto the shoulders of the Muslim Brotherhood who took part in the demonstrations.

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Down the street from Shafiq’s headquarters in their own candidate’s hometown, Muslim Brotherhood campaigners say that the apt cautionary example for Egypt isn’t Iran but Romania. In 1989, the Romanian people rose up against the tyrant Ceausescu and the army refused to help the tyrant, instead siding with revolutionaries. He was tried and the revolutionaries executed him and his wife, but during the transitional period one of Ceausescu’s former aides, Ion Iliescu, came to power much to the chagrin of opponents who claimed he subverted the revolution.

“General Ahmed Shafiq is our Iliescu, protected by Mubarak’s military,” says Abdel Aleem, Morsi’s campaign manager. “And once again, like under Mubarak, the Brotherhood, alongside other revolutionaries, pose a threat to that order, so we’re demonized.” Aleem claims that old-NDP hats have bought the votes of poor villagers. Aleem and his team sift through a fresh batch of fliers, with Shafiq and Mubarak’s faces intertwined, vowing to save Egypt from a regime that hasn’t merely been resurrected, but never even lost power. In the face of the court’s ruling to dissolve a Parliament they once dominated, Aleem and his colleagues sit sullen, almost defeated. “We can now officially say Egypt is living under a military coup.”

It’s a ruling that’s confirmed the suspicions of many who’ve deemed the so-called revolution a coup d'etat within the Mubarak regime ever since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took power from Mubarak 18 days after the uprising. At the time, the revolutionaries cheered the council as the guardians of the revolution. Now, the shadowy group of generals who’ve been running the country are their biggest enemies. All three of Egypt's presidents since the republic was established in 1952 have been military men. The military is something of an American-funded economic behemoth with a vast empire that extends to civilian businesses dealing in everything from consumer goods to real estate. It’s a status quo that SCAF doesn’t want threatened. And as a military man, Shafiq assuages their fears.

“Nothing has changed,” grunts Aleem, sitting under jovial posters of presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi. “Shafiq, if he has his way, will throw us all back into jail.”

“There’s no doubt the NDP band is back together,” says Egyptian-American analyst Michael Hanna of the Century Foundation. “They’ve kept quiet and laid low through parliamentary elections last fall, but it wasn’t until they sensed that the political climate had shifted in their favor that they regained their confidence. They saw the revolutionaries lost popularity, maybe never even had popularity, and seized the opportunity.”

Popular Egyptian blogger and activist Mahmoud Salem concedes the revolutionaries failed to organize around a clear vision after Mubarak fell. “The revolutionaries f--ked up, we now know this. It will take time for us to coalesce, but the streets are no longer effective in seeing this revolution through,” he says. After hearing of today’s rulings he sighs, “I should be enraged but, really, I’m just too f--king exhausted.”

“This is basically the worst situation we could be in right now,” says Gigi Ibrahim, a self-proclaimed “revolutionary socialist” who quickly became something of a photogenic spokesperson of the revolution, featured frequently on almost every Western news network and in glossy magazine spreads. But her star has risen and fallen along with the tide of the revolution. She’s boycotting the presidential election, but has encouraged those voting to do so for the Brotherhood’s Morsi—a light endorsement that has spawned further fratricide among revolutionaries who deem the Brotherhood power-hungry opportunists who sold out to participate in the military’s farcical democratic process. Ibrahim says she still has faith in the power of the streets and plans to hit Tahrir if Shafiq wins, though she knows with a democratic mandate on Shafiq’s side, she and fellow revolutionaries will be dubbed sore losers and—in a bitter twist of irony—against the very democracy for which they fought for the past year and a half.

“We’re heading into deep s--t. Shafiq is the counter-revolution, it’s a setback for the whole entire Arab Spring,” she says. What’s more, on Wednesday, Egypt's justice ministry (part of government appointed by the ruling military council) extended the powers of military police and intelligence agents, allowing them to arrest civilians for a wide range of offenses. The timing of the decree is surely curious and is regarded as a once again politicized judicial move to crackdown on potential protests against Shafiq’s candidacy.

“Again and again, we see the system has managed to come back stronger than ever under a military dictatorship,” she says, her voice almost shaking. “It’s a slap in the face. We are now legally, constitutionally, and directly under military rule—the new Mubarak system, but even worse.”

Tarek Nour Communications, an advertising firm that has run most of Shafiq’s media campaign, has been tagged as part of that system. The ad firm was behind the blue billboards that mysteriously appeared across Cairo. At first, they simply said, “The President.” In the following months, they turned into ads for Shafiq. Tarek Nour also mounted a television ad campaign that touted Shafiq’s military experience and characterized him as a voice of “national reconciliation.” Last summer, while activists continued to protest in Tahrir Square against SCAF, the company contributed to an ad campaign encouraging Egyptians to stop protesting and to work instead. The ads were promptly torn down. The agency has come under fire for its work with the previous regime—a fact that Karim Nour, the son of the founder of the firm, doesn’t shy away from, but says they worked for the welfare of the state, not the political agenda of Mubarak.

“Anyone who was remotely successful under Mubarak’s rule is deemed felool. It’s ridiculous. And it’s yet another example of the short-sightedness and immaturity of the revolutionaries,” Nour says in his spacious Nile River-view office, where multiple awards line his desk. “These revolutionaries are so focused on the past, they fail to think about the future. They have no concept of what winning means, and they have no idea what they’re fighting for. The revolution never had a vision. Consequently, many of the revolutionaries are in the dust-bin of history.”

Abdel Moneim-Said, a former member of the now disbanded NDP and the director of the state-run Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, throws his weight behind Shafiq “simply because it’s pragmatic.” Though he concedes Mubarak wasn’t “as prompt as he should have been” to enact political reform, Moneim-Said promises history will judge Mubarak differently.

“Revolutionaries managed to destroy in 15 months what the regime built in 30,” he says, noting he believes the numbers of deaths reported during the uprising were exaggerated. “No matter what happens, they’ll find a way to keep complaining and stay in the square. Right now we need someone strong to set things back on track.”

Adam Mowafi, a young Internet entrepreneur, agrees. Despite daily “Twitter attacks from stupid revolutionaries who think they’re in an action movie,” he’s proudly voting for Shafiq, and says that by doing so, he’s taking his country back from “activist idiots” and “crazy Islamists.”

“Here’s the harsh truth about this so-called revolution,” he says, taking a deep breath and then going on. “So what, a few hundred thousand packed Tahrir Square? We’re a country of 80 million. More people have packed into soccer stadiums in Egypt than Tahrir Square. Don’t get me wrong, I was never for Mubarak, but the media got this story all wrong, never seeing that Tahrir wasn’t Egypt. Egypt isn’t ready for a true revolution, that’ll come decades from now.

Until then, when the enemy [The Muslim Brotherhood] is at the gate,” he says, “Elect a Caesar. And Shafiq is our Caesar.”

Back in the Nile Delta, the Brotherhood is anxiously trying to “win back voters” they say were lost to the same mischievous political machine that’s unabashedly suppressed them for decades. But the clock is ticking. The group is threatening to stage rallies if Shafiq wins—a victory that will undoubtedly bring charges of vote-rigging. Shafiq, when asked earlier what would be his reaction to masses rallied against him in Tahrir Square, dismissed the question. “Why do we always make a mountain of an ant hill?” he responded, suggesting that troops could clear the square instantly.

Following the judiciary’s ruling to keep Shafiq in the race, as well as to dissolve parliament, Shafiq held a press conference in Cairo, where he had to pause several times among exuberant cheers of “Our President!” Shafiq sang along to the Egypt’s National Anthem and delivered a speech critics say sounded more like a presidential acceptance speech, reminding Egyptians that as president he’d be a servant to the Egyptian people.

Fouad Abaza, a Shafiq campaigner in the Nile Delta, listened on the radio to the press conference in Cairo, cheering along. “They say he’s the devil, that we are the bullies—attacking the revolutionaries, attacking the Brotherhood, while all the posters outside our office are defaced. They draw horns on Shafiq and throw shoes at him. So tell me, who are the real bullies in Egypt?”

Baddar takes yet another call, one from a campaign volunteer who’s arranging the staff’s coordinates at various polling stations during the weekend’s highly anticipated presidential run-off.

One farmer from a nearby village shuffles into the office, wiping sweat from his brow. He extends his hand to Baddar, issuing an earnest “Congratulations, sir.” It rings premature and awkward at first, if not facetious, but Baddar smiles and nods his head confidently. “Thank you.”