Egyptian Election Results Reflect a Precarious Democratic Transition

Instead of lifting spirits, the recent elections in Egypt reflected the depressed mood amongst a people demoralized by their current situation. However, the elections were not a complete loss. Egyptian liberals still have an opportunity to bring much needed change to their country.

The old political cliché says that a day is a long time in politics. In no other place this week can that statement be shown to be truer than in Egypt. Today, Cairo is tense and justifiably so. Last week’s presidential election was meant to be a joyous affair. Egyptians were getting the chance to exercise their right to vote for the first time in a free election. A year after the celebrations in Tahrir Square and Egyptians are feeling bleak. Unsurprisingly given their situation: a parliament stuck in paralysis, an economy faltering further, and a security vacuum worsening by the day.

Given this despondent atmosphere, it was expected that an element of political apathy would surface on election day. Voter turnout was a miserable 46 percent, significantly lower than the parliamentary elections. What was truly surprising and notably worrying was the result, rather than the turnout. Yesterday, it was announced that next month’s run-off will pit Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, against Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister. Shockwaves are still filtering across the twitter-sphere, whilst fires are being put out in Cairo and Alexandria as protestors react to what commentators are referring to as a nightmare scenario.

Exit polls before the election indicated that a moderate candidate such as Amr Moussa or Abdel Fotouh would be in the run-off for June. Both candidates represented a more moderate stance on domestic and foreign policy issues. Instead last week’s election entrenched polarization rather then moderation. Shafiq, of the old regime or Morsi, of the conservative Brotherhood. Shafiq promises to bring stability to Egypt; but his association with the Mubarak regime means that if he wins there could be an eruption of violence across the country. The arson attack on his campaign headquarters last night is indicative of a brewing political storm. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood’s candidate, Morsi, is a precarious prospect for many Coptic Christians and secularists weary of the imposition of a stringent sharia state. These were not the candidates that the youthful revolutionaries wanted, nor what political observers anticipated. Nevertheless there are a few lessons that can be learnt from this calamitous result.

Firstly, Egyptian liberals need to stop bickering amongst themselves and boycotting the political arena. Politics will not stop still just because they feel that ‘their’ revolution has been hijacked. Instead they need to start organizing themselves better and provide Egyptians with a truly alternative candidate instead of handing the Brotherhood or the old regime the power to rule without contestation. If the revolution is to transpose itself into genuine change for the Egyptian populace the loose coalition of protestors need to play the political game.

The second lesson that can be learnt is that not all is lost. If anything the results indicates some positive points. Neither Morsi, nor Shafiq won an overwhelming majority of the vote. If we calculate the votes of Fotouh and the leftist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi together, they got roughly 40 percent of the vote. The revolutionaries may not have won the election but they can still be an influential voice in Egypt. Only yesterday the Brotherhood extended an olive branch to Fotouh and Sabbahi, calling for a meeting with them in the hope of making a national partnership deal. The Brotherhood is trying to ease fears amongst their doubters. This is a wise decision. If they do not reach out beyond their base, they risk losing the election to Shafiq. This will bring violence back on to the streets of Cairo and pit the Brotherhood controlled parliament against the remnants of the old regime in the presidency. The revolution is in danger of being rolled back entirely if this happens in the run-off in June. A compromising Brotherhood and pragmatic revolutionary candidates would be shrewd to put aside their differences to prevent this scenario.

A transition to democracy was the dream that inspired Egyptians last year as they united to end Mubarak’s authoritarian rule. Now it is time to get down to business and deal with the realities of playing the political game, otherwise dreams can quickly turn into nightmares.