Two Faces of the Old Order

Adam Shatz

They called him the 'spare tyre', but he may become the next president of Egypt – the first president of the post-Mubarak order. Mohamed Morsi, the candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, is a charmless man, doctrinaire in disposition and impatient with the reform-minded currents in his party. He became its candidate only after its more appealing first choice, Khairat El-Shater, was disqualified from running by the Presidential Election Commission; hence the nickname. (The commission cited a Mubarak-era rule that those who have been in prison in the last six years are ineligible to run; El-Shater was released only in March 2011.) Yet Morsi had behind him the electoral machine of the Muslim Brotherhood, still the country's most significant political movement.

The Brotherhood initially said it wouldn't run a candidate for president, but soon changed its mind, just as it fielded candidates for two-thirds of the seats in parliament after saying it would only run for half. (These shifts have heightened the fears of secularists and Christians.) The Brotherhood – or rather Morsi – seems to have won around 26 per cent of the vote, two points ahead of the runner-up, Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force general and Mubarak's last prime minister: a man despised by many Egyptians as a 'feloul', or 'remnant' of the old regime. Shafiq, like Morsi, is a spare tyre: he became the old order's favourite after Omar Suleiman was disqualified from running. He had an unexpected surge in the last few weeks, in part thanks to Christian support; anxious over the rise in sectarian violence, and terrified of the Brotherhood, Copts voted as a bloc.

The biggest losers in the race were the former foreign minister Amr Moussa, once a relatively popular member of the old regime, and the former Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, who won the support of some progressives – and the abiding distrust of others – with his all-inclusive vision of a liberal Islamist order where everyone would get along. Moussa and Aboul-Fotouh conducted a spirited televised debate that millions of Egyptians watched, but sparring in public appears to have helped neither. Both of them trailed behind the poet Hamdeen Sabahi, a passionate Nasserist and socialist, who seems to have done exceptionally well among Egyptian expatriates and to have come in first in Alexandria, the base of the Muslim Brotherhood and supposedly an Islamist stronghold. These surprises were the best news of the race. For the first time in their history, Egyptians voted in elections where the results were not known in advance.

The results, however, are not encouraging to Egypt's revolutionaries. The run-off in June will be a highly polarised contest between the two faces of the old order, a Mubarak loyalist and a Muslim Brother, one promising a return to 'security' (if not Mubarakism) after 15 months of turbulence; the other preaching that Islam is the solution. (Shater had shelved such talk; Morsi restored it, partly in order to win the support of Salafist voters.) In an eloquent recent talk at New York University, the Cairene historian Khaled Fahmy argued that the Egyptian uprising aimed to overthrow not only the military order that came to power in 1952, but an older, more deeply embedded tradition of Egyptian patriarchy. For many of the revolutionaries – particularly progressive young people and the country's emboldened trade unionists – that is indeed the case. But centuries of paternalism do not crumble overnight. The consoling words of the Brothers and the old regime, both of which promise a return to something like normalcy after more than a year of volatile street politics, seem to resonate with many voters.

The playing field has opened considerably since the uprising, but it remains constricted by the continued dominance of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The SCAF considers itself the guarantor of Egypt's stability, and, strange though it may seem, of the revolution. As the International Crisis Group has shown in a superb report, Lost in Transition, the SCAF genuinely believes that the revolution's goal was to prevent the succession of Mubarak's son Gamal. It views those who criticise the army in the name of a more sweeping revolutionary transformation as a dangerous fifth-column – indeed, as counter-revolutionary conspirators. As the head of the SCAF, Field Commander Muhammed Hussein Tantawi, recently put it, 'we will cut the tongues of those who make false allegations against our troops and our men.' When it comes to dealing with the military, Morsi and Shafiq are men who know how to hold their tongues.


  • 26 May 2012 at 1:42pm
    Emmryss says:
    Almost makes you long for a Lenin, doesn't it? The paradox, it seems, is that those who made the revolution, which culminates in -- what? elections? -- are then outvoted by the far larger majority who are far from revolutionary themselves.

    • 26 May 2012 at 7:06pm
      DanJ says: @ Emmryss
      Why is that a paradox? It would be a paradox if you fought for democracy only to demand you could override election results because you 'made' the revolution. If you just want to get rid of the previous dictatorial regime to install another, a military coup is the preferred approach - problem is you cant guarantee your dictator will always stay benevolent. Long for a Lenin and you'll probably end up with a Stalin before long

  • 30 May 2012 at 1:10pm
    Mike Killingworth says:
    It's a rule. The revolution is made in the capital city, and unmade when the more populous surrounding countryside is asked what it thinks.

    • 31 May 2012 at 5:04am
      outofdate says: @ Mike Killingworth
      Or in this case the next street.