5-30-2012By Neil Hicks
International Policy Advisor
The first round of Egypt’s presidential election that took place last week resulted in continuing uncertainty over Egypt’s transition. No candidate emerged with a majority and there will now be a runoff in mid-June between the two most polarizing candidates in the field: the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi and the former Mubarak-era Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafik.
Many human rights and democracy activists have observed that they are now faced with an invidious choice between a former regime figure who is an unashamed apologist for the Mubarak dictatorship and has promised to use “executions and brutal force” to restore order, and a hardline Muslim Brotherhood figure who has claimed to be the candidate uniquely qualified to rule in the name of Islam. If Morsi wins, the Muslim Brotherhood would be in control of both the parliament and the presidency.
The turnout, at 46%, was much lower than in the parliamentary elections at the end of last year, when over 54% of the electorate took part. Many factors may have contributed to this, including growing public weariness with the protracted transition and a sense that Egypt needs to get back to normal and deal with the many challenges facing the country. But it is also fair to conclude that no candidate captured the imagination of the electorate as the representative of the revolution that overthrew President Mubarak.
While the results reveal a major fault line between the powers of the military establishment and the popular appeal and unparalleled national organization of the Brotherhood, it does not define the entirety of Egyptian society. In fact, most voters chose other candidates, and the overwhelming majority, including those who did not vote, did not identify with either Shafik or Morsi. Consider this: about 75% of the voters did not vote for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, when given the chance. The Brotherhood should take this as a reminder that their strong showing in the parliamentary elections does not translate into a mandate to impose their agenda on an undecided population. The four leading candidates—Morsi, Shafik, Hamdeen Sabahi and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fatouh—each received between 4.7 million and 5.8 million votes, indicating a split electorate. Whoever emerges as the victor in June will be a default choice lacking a strong popular mandate.
The lack of a mandate may be a blessing in disguise in that it will focus attention on the need to build institutions that can check executive power and develop the primacy of the rule of law. A focus on process, rather than on personalities or political parties, may over time help Egypt establish a system of government that upholds the rights of all Egyptians. It should certainly temper the claims of any candidate or party that wishes to impose its will on the country. If there is a message from this divided electorate, it is that the eventual winner must be prepared to compromise with other political forces that enjoy considerable support within the society.
The confusion and uncertainty that have characterized Egypt’s transition for many months seem likely to continue indefinitely. This is doubtless frustrating for many Egyptians, but it is perhaps the inevitable outcome of a fractured electorate and of the denial of political rights for decades.
The goals of those who wish to see a free, democratic Egypt remain the same, whoever is the president. The rights of all Egyptians should be protected and guaranteed by law. There should be transparency and accountability for government officials and public institutions, including the military. Egypt’s experiment with democracy must continue so that representative leaders can be chosen at all levels of government.
As June 16 –17 approaches, the dates for the runoff vote, the two candidates should make clear their commitment to a new, democratic Egypt that upholds the rule of law and protects the rights of all Egyptians. They should be pressed to be as specific as possible about how they would uphold the rule of law, implement effective safeguards for basic freedoms of assembly, association and expression, and protect the rights of women and religious minorities.
Once one of them assumes office, people in Egypt and governments around the world must ensure that the new Egyptian government meets its international human rights obligations.