It took no less than 59 years and 16 months for Egyptians to finally exercise the right to freely elect a national leader. In that regard, the popular uprising of 2011 has already delivered more than the Free Officers’ coup of 1952. But with the roles of the military and the presidency still undefined, Egyptians must still wait to see if their vote will in fact herald a new, democratic Egypt.
NEW LEAF: On June 24, 2012 the elections commission announced Egypt’s first freely elected president to be Mohamed Morsy, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) candidate and long-time member of the Muslim Brotherhood. For his supporters, Morsy’s defeat of Ahmed Shafiq, a retired air force general, was the reward for a decades-long struggle against Egypt’s military.
The presidency was contested by 23 candidates from across the political spectrum, but only 13 made the ballot for the first round of elections in late May 2012. Egypt’s first-ever televised presidential debate had been held just one week prior to the first round of voting, and featured the two presumptive front-runners – both moderates – former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and the former Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa.
However, once the ballots were tallied, Aboul Fotouh and Moussa finished in fourth and fifth places, respectively, behind Hamdin Sabahi, a Nasserist candidate arguably closest to the revolutionaries at heart. The winner, Morsy, had 24.8% of the vote, and Shafiq finished second with 23.7%. Combined, Sabahi, Aboul Fotouh, and Moussa secured 49.3% of the vote. The results highlighted the failure of secular progressives and moderate Islamists to unite behind a single candidate.
STAND-OFF: As a result, the final round, held on June 16 and 17, 2012, featured the two most polarising candidates: a representative of the secular military elite against a member of the Islamist forces that it had long suppressed. After a three-day delay to investigate voting irregularities, Egypt’s election regulators announced that Morsy had won the election with 51.7% to Shafiq’s 48.3%. The close results reflected a sharply divided electorate and highlighted the deep rifts within Egyptian society. In a sense, the revolutionary vote may have turned into a swing vote. Several liberals chose to boycott the election entirely or submit empty ballots, but anecdotal evidence points to many choosing Morsy over Shafiq, the last prime minister of the ousted regime.
Many analysts originally downplayed Morsy’s chances. The Muslim Brotherhood had originally said it would not field a presidential candidate, although this later changed. The Brotherhood’s grassroots organisation stands unmatched, however, and it managed to easily rally its broad base. The even bigger surprise was the strong performance of Shafiq, who ran on a law-and-order platform. Playing on the public’s fear of a crime wave that followed the early 2011 uprising, Shafiq had declared that he would restore order within a month of being elected president.
THE ROAD AHEAD: Morsy, the 60-year old American-educated engineer, is a relative newcomer to the Egyptian political stage. He was the Muslim Brotherhood’s second choice, nominated after the group’s first pick, Khairat Al Shater, was technically disqualified. Upon election, Morsy signalled moderation by resigning from the Brotherhood and vowing to uphold the peace accord between Egypt and Israel.
Indeed, Morsy faces a complex political environment. Two previous efforts to draft a constitution have failed, following Egypt’s highest court invalidating the assemblies charged with drafting the document. In the absence of a constitution, the powers of the presidency have yet to be defined. Once they are, however, they will likely be very limited. Even as the votes for president were being tallied, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt’s interim authority, issued a decree granting itself veto powers over the defence budget, foreign policy and matters of national security.
President Morsy will face resistance from more than just the military. Despite their numerous differences, most Egyptians are united in their opposition to strongman rule. The age of the pharaonic presidency is over.