My belated take on Egypt's elections

I have been incredibly busy in the last month, and then traveling and taking a break over the last week away from all the electoral folly, hence this blog has provided scant coverage of Egypt’s presidential election thus far. I hope to correct this in the next few days — and in any case there’s plenty of commentary elsewhere — and provide some opinion about the way this election might go.

But first, a few words about the big picture — what this election means and how to situate it in the post-Mubarak era. At a very simple level, this election is the beginning of the end of the transition period (if defined as return to civilian government). Its outcome will be a new president for Egypt, and — apart from the writing of a new constitution — the bizarre interregnum launched by the referendum on constitutional amendments that took place in March 2011, a little over a month after Mubarak stepped down. The electoral process is attracting a lot of media frenzy inside and outside Egypt, and a not inconsiderable (if often mixed) level of enthusiasm among Egyptians, since it is the first election in which the outcome is not obvious to all. No doubt turnout will be high, and hopefully the voting process itself not too flawed since one would think the military regime now in charge can’t afford to blatantly rig the poll. But, globally, we’ll see Egyptians excited about having a real choice before them rather than an obvious outcome, and a real sense of uncertainty about who might win.

That’s pretty much the only positive thing I have to say about the presidential elections, because everything else appears to have been rigged to put an end to a transformation of Egyptian politics that was the hope of the January 25 revolution. Like the parliamentary elections — readers will remember I thought last November they should be postponed because of the desultory preparation for them, among other things — these presidential elections are taking place amidst a process whose legitimacy is already undermined. Most significantly, Article 28 of the constitutional declaration currently in place makes it impossible to appeal the decisions of the Presidential Election Commission (PEC) running the poll. This practice — very unusual by global standards of free and fair electoral process — has already resulted in the elected parliamentary majority passing a law to exclude candidates tied to the former regime by law only to be overuled by the PEC. The “political exclusion law” would have applied to Ahmed Shafiq, who has experienced a late surge and now leads in many polls, the decision is important. Later too the PEC could make controversial decisions, notably about complaints of vote-rigging or other irregularities.

Then there is the political context. Parliament is being threatened with dissolution by a court ruling expected on June 6, which could have the electoral law used in the parliamentary elections declared unconstitutional. MPs rushed last week to prepare a law that would change the Supreme Constitutional Court’s regulations to make its opinions only binding on parliament with parliament’s approval, a move which provoked an outcry from judges (including the ones on the PEC), NGOs and SCAF. The SCAF is floating an addendum to the Constitutional Declaration currently in place, on the pretext that it needs to further define the powers of the president, although arguably its current powers should go to the president until a new constitution is written. It appears to be trying to insert the military as a fourth power with certain privileges in the system of government, which would be a bad precedent to set even if some informal privileges are expected to be kept. Most worryingly, clearly the SCAF sees its own existence as going beyond the transitional period, with its authority potentially clashing with that of the president. It has also been reported in the press that Tantawi expects to still be the head of the SCAF / Commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces , although the new president should have the prerogative of nominating a new defense minister and become the new Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

In other words, Egypt may have a new president by the end of June but there will be plenty of confusion about what powers he has, and who’s really in charge.

Charting the candidates' progress according to the al-Ahram poll, considered to be the most reliable

We talk about all these problems and the guessing game of who might make it to the second round in our latest podcast, but let me expand on some things here. As I see it, the likely outcomes are all a runoff (although a couple of weeks ago I might have said there is a small chance of Moussa getting over 50% in the first round). The above chart shows the latest polling available. At this point it's worth stepping back and consider that electoral choices are dependent on what's available. Here's a chart I made of where the various candidates stand on two axes: Islamist-secularist and establishment-revolutionary (click for larger version).

In the center of that (unscientific, guesstimated) chart you have a big hole where I would place Mohamed ElBaradei. Basically, if he had been there, he would have taken votes away from Aboul Fotouh and Hamdeen Sabahi's alleged late surge would have probably not happened. I think ElBaradei is largely correct in his critique of the electoral environment and legally nonsense that has characterized the transition, but one does wonder whether his decision not to run because of that critique was the right one. There clearly appears to be a desire for a non-felool, non-Islamist but Islamist-friendly, middle-of-the-road, elite but not establishment, candidate. 

Now to what might happen next. At the end of last week, according to the polls, the likely runoffs would have been:

  • Moussa v. Morsi (Moussa probably favored to win)
  • Moussa v. Shafik (Moussa wins big)
  • Shafik v. Morsi (Morsi favored but who knows, potential rigging and large-scale boycott)

Less likely are:

  • Morsi v. Aboul Fotouh (Aboul Fotouh wins in a landslide)
  • Moussa v. Aboul Fotouh (Aboul Fotouh wins, unless MB does unthinkable and strikes a deal with Moussa as some speculate)

But to be honest it’s quite hard to tell. As I write this post on the second day of voting, while some exit polls speak of a Morsi surge, perhaps a more surprising phenomenon is that neo-Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi is reportedly doing well, at least in the greater Cairo area. I suppose that’s the result of the hole left by Mohamed ElBaradei’s absence from the poll — Sabahi is the only non-Islamist non-felool candidate with decent name recognition left. I’m skeptical he’ll make it to the runoff, though, so his big impact is to take votes away from Aboul Fotouh and making the race about felool (Shafik), felool lite (Moussa), and MB (Morsi). Which won’t be to the liking of many revolutionary types: in the case of a Moussa-Shafik runoff or a Shafik-Morsi runoff (the nightmare scenario) you can expect more unrest and a delegitimization of the election.

Another interesting thing is that, according to the press, the candidates who are carrying out the most campaign violations (including vote-buying) are Morsi and Shafik, while both these and Aboul Fotouh have been cited by the Presidential Election Commission as having violating the electoral silence by holding press conferences (which means that, if one of them is elected, Egypt’s new president could theoretically face prison time!) The Morsi and Shafik supporters in particular seem to be engaged in vote-buying, and fights have erupted between them. That would hint at the intensity of the military vs. brotherhood standoff, and perhaps what we can expect if it ends up being those two in the second round.

Many observers reported lower than expected turnouts yesterday, which is odd as if anything there aren’t enough polling stations for the eligible voters. Today appears to have gone up a lot, and in any case the first day of voting was said to have shown a 25–35% turnout, which might lead us to expect a 50–70% final turnout for the first round. The government appears keen to ensure a high turnout, and even decided at the last minute to give civil servants the day off. Whatever disappointment prevails about these elections right now, I think it’s unlikely we’ll see a turnout substantially lower than 50%, though.

The vote-count starts tonight, probably around 10pm, and may last a long time as things are likely to be contested and closely scrutinized. It may take days for results to come out, although we’re likely to have leaks and some indications of the general direction. There’s going to be tensions in the next few days, and then more tension in the next few weeks before it’s all over. But I do get the feeling that Morsi is poised to dominate in the first round only to lose in most situations in the second. We’ll find out soon enough if I’m right.