Sans Parliament, Egypt Picks a President

Protests are just a memory as Egyptians head to the polls, writes Dan Ephron.

Khaled Desouki, AFP / Getty Images

Brass or beard?

Egyptians are choosing their president this weekend in a runoff election that pits a military stalwart and standard bearer for the old regime, Ahmed Shafik, against the leader of an increasingly assertive Islamic movement, Mohammed Morsi.

The good news, 16 months after Egyptians ousted Hosni Mubarak in a two-and-a-half-week uprising, is that the choice is stark. Shafik, an ex Air Force chief, makes no secret of the fact that he admires Mubarak and wants to restore the secular, quasi-military state that the ex-dictator ran for nearly 30 years, albeit with an electoral frame.

Morsi is more complicated. A leader of the long-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, he’s promised to bring more religion and more democracy to Egyptian public life, without necessarily explaining how the two will coexist.

But regardless of the outcome, events over the past few months have made clear that the state machinery of the former regime–the military, the internal security agencies and the judiciary that Mubarak stacked with his own people for years–will continue to exert huge influence over the country for years to come.

Already, those institutions are largely responsible for the fact that despite the revolution’s lofty goals, Egyptians find themselves on the eve of the election with no Parliament, no constitution, and a recent reinstating of some draconian “emergency” laws.

“Nearly all of the structures of the old regime remain intact, more or less unchanged,” says Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a frequent commentator on Egypt. “A revolution requires a reordering of political structures, an uprooting of the old institutions. In the technical sense, there was no revolution in Egypt.”

That tenacity of the old institutions—what academics call the “deep state”—could pose risks for both candidates.

Shafik will benefit from their support, but the alliance is likely to undermine his democratic legitimacy and could eventually trigger another revolution. Already, many Egyptians suspect the military council that has governed Egypt for the past 16 months known as SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) of conspiring with Shafik to rig the elections.

For Morsi, the danger is more tangible. The more he tries to curtail the influence of the institutions as president, especially the military, the more likely he is to face a coup.

The military in Egypt has long been a fiefdom unto itself, with secret budgets, its own business ventures and a large say in defense and foreign policy. Preserving those powers appears to be its priority in the new order.

The latest evidence of the deep state’s ability to roil democratic advances came in the form of a court’s decision this week to dissolve Egypt’s Parliament. The judges cited a technicality for the move but most analysts attributed it to the fact that the Parliament was dominated by Islamists—a situation that the SCAF found uncomfortable.

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Egyptians elected both chambers of Parliament months after last year’s revolution, in one of the few high notes since Mubarak’s ouster. The ruling also effectively dispersed the committee that was to draft Egypt’s new constitution, leaving complicated legal questions unresolved about the power of the presidency and the division of authority between the different branches of government.

Marc Lynch, a sharp observer of Egyptian politics and a professor at George Washington University, described the court’s decision as absurd and destructive. He said it essentially “voids Egypt's last year of politics of [any] meaning.” Writing in Foreign Policy, Lynch said the ruling proves Egypt’s judiciary “has become a bad joke, with any pretense of political independence from the military shattered beyond repair.”

It also cast a pall over the presidential balloting, which got underway just 48 hours after the court’s decision. Oddsmakers scrambled to assess how the ruling would affect the results, with an advantage seen for Morsi. The voting runs through Sunday, with results expected thereafter.

But many Egyptians are now saying the whole process has left them disillusioned, and some are vowing to boycott the election. In the first round of voting last month, when more candidates were on the ballot, only 46 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. With just two candidates competing in this round—and many Egyptians feeling they have no one to vote for—the turnout could be even lower.