Egyptian Elections – a Choice Between Islamic Dictatorship and Military Authoritarianism

Egyptian voter
Africans fear a more Aggressive Islamic Egypt

For the next and final round of presidential elections, Egyptians are being asked to choose between an Islamic or military dictatorship both claiming legitimacy through the ballot box.

Egypt may be following one set of democratic procedures, but it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a transition to democracy, irrespective of who becomes the next President. Elections are only one element of democracy, and to reduce democratic practice to what happens at the polling station is highly problematic. We need to ask ourselves what the conditions are that have influenced people’s choices? And to what extent did these restrictive conditions influence their choices? Have they been offered money or in-kind goods for their vote? Have they been given misinformation that amounts to deception about the different candidates? To what extent are people being mobilized along religious lines? Are you on God’s side or not?

How did Egypt end up with such a polarized scenario, caught between an old decadent rock and a very hard place? What went wrong? For the revolutionaries, the fact that Egyptians voted in such large numbers for Shafik (a former senior commander in the Air Force) is an insult to the revolution, and conspiracy theories of outside intervention have been rampant. However, let us not deceive ourselves, these are citizen voices – they are not all fullol, devotees of the old order, many were originally very sympathetic to the 25th of January revolution and went down to the squares to express their hatred of the Mubarak regime. Their vote for Shafik is not an indication of their yearning for the Mubarak regime, but for something else.

Talking to citizens on the streets, it is clear that there are now two pressing issues: security and economic well being. Since the 25th of January Uprisings, the police have staged a vendetta against the Egyptian people. Consequently, many Egyptians talk of infelat amny, a sense of security letdown, where gangs and thugs rule supreme, where police stations turn a blind eye to crime and where there are daily rumours of kidnappings of men, women and children. This sense of fear for one’s safety and that of one’s family is shared across all classes.

In socially deprived areas, men no longer feel that it is safe for women to walk in the streets alone after dusk. Women who have been accustomed to visiting family and doing errands alone now find themselves asking for their husbands’ accompaniment. Children who used to go to school on their own or in groups are now being taken and picked up by their parents. Crime has risen tremendously. The keys to dealing with this infelat amny lie in the hands of the ruling military – after all, during the days of parliamentary and presidential voting when SCAF willed that there be no threats to human security, few occurred. People on the street now talk about the need for a strong leader who can put the security situation and resume law and order.

The second factor that has driven many citizens to vote for Shafik is desperation for economic well-being. The economic situation prior to the 25th of January uprising was admittedly dire, however, during the last 18 months things have got worse. Many Egyptians have either lost their jobs, experienced a drop in their wages or found themselves working hugely increased hours just to be able to put food on the table. Factories have closed down, tourism has come to a halt and prices have skyrocketed. In Shafik they hope to find a resumption of ‘the production wheel’.

Whether Shafik will be able to deliver is unknown, but if he does, space for democratic engagement will be severely curbed. He will use the general public’s increasing antagonism towards protestors as disruptive of their daily lives to mount his own restrictive form of governance. It is also likely that Shafik, being a general, will be inclined to allow the military immunity from accountability to parliament vis-a-vis its budget and its internal governance. In short, it is likely we would end up with an authoritarian regime with a democratic facade (running parliament, elections, and free media and a highly contained civil society arena).

Egyptian voters
Islamists line up to vote

The other option is an Islamic dictatorship, also with a democratic façade. For some young revolutionaries, any option – including the Islamists – is better than going back to the old ways. But for others – many women, non-Muslims and liberal political forces – the Islamic option is even grimmer than that of the old military rule, largely because their influence is already being experienced on the ground. If the Brotherhood is Islam, and Islam is the Brotherhood (as many of its members would have us believe) then extracting them from office in four years time will be no easy measure.

The counter-argument is that people are not so easily deceived – after all, the low performance of the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohammed Morsi is a reflection of the rejection, by a significant proportion of Egyptians, of the Islamist option. As one woman from Fayoum – a governorate where the Brotherhood have historically enjoyed a dominant presence – recounted, many people in Fayoum had voted for the Freedom and Justice party during the parliamentary elections because they distributed generous hand outs, were very amicable with the people and willing to help. However, after they gained a majority in parliament, and in the period in the lead up to this election, they became preoccupied with the presidency. Instead of helping people, they became more aloof, and instead of attending to their needs, they were too preoccupied putting up flyers, posters and other campaign material for their candidate. “So much for the Godly people”, she sighed, adding that many citizens felt they had begun to act exactly like the former ruling party, the NDP. In fact, many analysts argue that those who chose Hamdeen Sabahy did so not necessarily because he is popular, nor his party platform particularly appealing, but to express their opposition to the Islamist and fullol options.

For many women, across the classes, the dominance of the Islamists on the streets of Egypt has meant a diminution of their rights. Many laws that granted women a modicum of equality with men are at risk of being revoked. This includes the khul law, which gave women the right to divorce arbitrarily on condition they forgo some of their financial rights. There is talk on the streets of the Islamists pushing women back home – both as a means of solving the unemployment problem and enforcing gender roles. What is most tangibly felt is the exposure to verbal and physical harassment at the hands of the Islamists for not adhering to their code of modesty. Women, Muslim and Christian, who do not cover their hair or who wear mid-sleaved clothing are in some areas met with insults, spat at and even subjected to physical abuse. A Coptic Christian woman said to me “we and our Muslim friends who do not cover our hair get yelled at by men passing by telling us ‘just you wait, those who will cover you up and make you stay at home are coming, and then there will no more of this lewdness”. It is, she said, as if they are gloating over the fact that we are being pushed off the streets.

For Egypt’s Christian minority (roughly 12 percent of the total population), their vote has gravitated between Shafik, Sabahy and Moussa. Sabahy was a favourite among the Coptic youth, while Shafik did better among the older generation. Despite assurances from the Islamists that Copts would enjoy full citizenship rights under Islamic rule, and that they would be governed by their own religious code, opposition to supporting any Islamist candidate was intense. This is partly ideological, Islamist identity being seen as anathema to Egyptian identity, and partly as a consequence of the backlash against equal citizenship for Copts experienced during the recent rise of Islamists. On the ground, more subtle changes have been happening, as a consequence of the increasing powers of the Islamists in society and politics.

For example, in some of the schools in the poor urban shanty town of Mouassasset al Zakat, Christian and Muslim children have been separated into two classes, and incidents of heightened discrimination against non-Muslim pupils were reported. According to the Coptic citizens living in Mouasasset el Zakat, the rhetoric of kuffar (unbelievers) is becoming increasingly diffuse in daily interactions – and those deploying it are the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. For many Copts who supported the revolution, what they desperately yearn for now is a leader who can bring the Islamists back into check, which they believe will, by default, reduce the level of animosity towards them in society.

It is a combination of poor governance on the part of the SCAF, coupled with the Islamists’ hegemonic monopolization and abuse of power, that has led to the choice of military or Islamic dictatorship. While each option offers its fair share of oppression, should the Muslim Brotherhood win they would be particularly difficult to displace in future due to the insidious controls they exercise in society through the Brotherhood movement, and in politics through the Freedom and Justice Party.

The Freedom and Justice party promised in the wake of the revolution that there would be a complete separation between the Brotherhood and the party, this has not materialized. In fact, the legal status of the Muslim Brotherhood is in question – it is neither a non-governmental organization nor a party. The MB’s political thought and practice cannot be disentangled from the Freedom and Justice Party’s activity – its mosques and welfare still being used as platforms for community outreach to advance the party.

The foundations for a full and comprehensive hold on power are consequently in place. The Brotherhood is now seeking to mobilize support as the guardians of the revolution. Yet it is hard to forget that it was their informal entente with SCAF that led to the capture of the revolution by the military. The sad truth is that if the Muslim Brotherhood win, they are not going to be the last bastion in defence of the revolution, they will reproduce their own new strand of totalitarian rule – upheld in the name of God – and they seem to assume a monopoly in representing God.

Mariz Tadros is a fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and author of The Muslim Brotherhood in Contemporary Egypt: Democracy redefined or confined?