Column

You Say You Want a Revolution?

It may have been democratic, but it certainly wasn't revolutionary. As the results of round one of Egypt's first free and fair presidential election in its modern history trickle in, it seems clear that Egyptians opted for the two most establishment candidates in the field. A formal announcement will be made on Tuesday by the Election Commission, but the outcome is no longer in any real doubt. Mohamed Morsi, the profoundly uncharismatic and second-choice candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood, will square off in the second round against Ahmad Shafik, the last prime minister in deposed president Hosni Mubarak’s government.

Egyptians are turning to the most familiar and long-standing institutions in the country—the Brotherhood as the primary traditional opposition movement, and the man most closely associated with the former regime and the military. Clearly, personality and charisma had nothing whatsoever to do with the outcome. Neither man possesses much of either. These are "safe" votes for known-quantity institutions rather than individuals; they are more conservative and cautious than revolutionary or experimental.

Candidates with Western-style individual personal appeal, who were expected to do well by many, this author included, proved surprisingly feeble. Former Foreign Minister and Arab League chief Amr Moussa, the closest thing to a Western-style politician in Egypt today and an accomplished demagogue, performed well below expectations. So did the maverick former Muslim Brotherhood self-styled “liberal Islamist,” Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh.

Only a few weeks ago, Egypt's first presidential debate featured those two men only, on the grounds that they were the front-runners. They were campaigning on their personal qualities and policies, rather than as formal representatives of institutions. Many associated Moussa with the former regime, of which he had been a member, and Aboul Fotouh made no bones about being an Islamist and former Muslim Brother. But both tried to distance themselves from these institutions. Their TV debate degenerated into endless accusations by each that the other did, in fact, continue to represent his former associates, answered by passionate and angry disavowals by both.

Apparently Egyptians didn't care whether or not either of these men were sincere in their professions of having moved on. Instead, they voted for candidates who campaigned not as individuals but rather precisely and openly as representatives of the former established government and traditional opposition forces. The runoff will be between Shafik, a former high-ranking officer who represents not only the old regime, but also the interests of the military—which has been serving as interim president since the overthrow of Mubarak—and the official candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi.

It's noteworthy that Morsi and the Brotherhood tacked quite strongly towards the religious right in the campaign’s final stages, emphasizing sharia as a major, or even the main, source of legislation and not just an "inspiration." He also appeared to condone female genital mutilation. For his part, Shafik focused his campaign on claims that he alone represented hope for stability, and the possibility of rescuing Egypt from the “dark forces” of Islamist rule. So the contrast for round two, as it now stands, is a fairly stark one.

The Muslim Brothers have again proven the strength of their party discipline: they apparently prevented any significant breaking of ranks by those might have been tempted to vote for Aboul Fotouh. Their organizational strength will be a huge asset in the second round runoff. On the other hand, in this first round, the anti-Islamist vote was split between four candidates, and all these forces can now rally behind Shafik, even if liberals and many others have to do so holding their noses. So neither candidate can be confident of victory, and both have a real shot at winning.

The question now facing Egyptians is whether they really want to hand democratically-elected power over entirely to the Muslim Brotherhood, or whether they would prefer to have a divided government that can lead to a rational power-sharing agreement. This could include de facto or de jure military control of national security and defense matters; a president with foreign policy and general oversight responsibilities who acts more as head of state rather than head of government; and a parliament with largely domestic powers and the right to appoint a prime minister.

Egypt currently has no mechanism in place for redrafting the constitution and or ensuring post-dictatorship stability.

But if the Muslim Brotherhood controls both the presidency and the Parliament, they will see the need for a finely crafted power-sharing agreement as much less urgent, The military will probably take a very different view and a power-struggle that could develop into a crisis is an entirely plausible consequence of a Morsi second-round victory.

The Brotherhood in power would still have to deal with other national institutions. Not only the military, but the Ministry of the Interior and its secret police remain in place, holdovers from the Mubarak era. But the Brotherhood would be able to claim, plausibly, that the Egyptian people have willingly entrusted them with their future, at least for now.

The best that can be said about these elections, at this stage at least, is that Egyptians are finally free to make their own blunders. By reflexively falling back on the two most familiar and established national institutions—the former government and traditional opposition—they have probably done just that. It may be democratic, but it's hardly revolutionary.