The Presidential run-off in Egypt presents a new high point for danger in the Egyptian revolution.
After struggles over who could run in the general election, and a plethora of candidates being disqualified, the two candidates left standing are in many ways the most unlikely. The election pits Mohammed Morsi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who promised not to run a candidate for president, against Ahmed Shafiq, former military officer and the last Prime Minister of the Mubarak regime, whose party was banned and dissolved and many believed that no holdover from the regime could credibly stand for office.
Thus, the election pits representatives of the two most bitterly opposed organizations in Egypt, who have been mortal enemies for decades.
The outcome is both unexpected and suspicious. Both won their positions in the run-off by winning a narrow plurality in a very low turnout (46%) election; each had in fact the votes of only about ten percent (!) of the eligible voters. It is hard to believe an election between two such candidates will be widely seen as legitimate. Already, widespread protests claim that the majority of voters (a majority voted for candidates other than the two leaders) is being cast aside in the planned run-off.
For both sides, the election is all or nothing – if Morsi wins, the Muslim Brotherhood will control both the presidency and the Parliament, giving them the ability to dictate to the military and run the government. If Shafiq wins, he may neutralize the Parliament and thus marginalize the Brotherhood, largely nullifying the victory they won in the Parliamentary elections and that they had been seeking for thirty years.
It thus seems to me inconceivable that either side will graciously concede a loss and peacefully accept the victory of their opponent. I fear a military coup, as in Algeria, if the Islamists seem poised to win. I fear a popular day of rage in the streets, organized by the Brotherhood and its allies, if Shafiq is announced as the winner.
Already, this election and the prior Parliamentary elections are under attack regarding their legitimacy. The courts are considering an appeal to disqualify over 100 Brotherhood Parliamentarians elected in individual elections rather than from party lists. The Constitutional Court also is contemplating a decision to disqualify Shafiq altogether just prior to the run-off, based on his role in the Mubarak regime. Street protests are resuming on a large scale protesting the illegitimacy of the initial round of elections and the court rulings in the trial of Mubarak and his associates.
I worry that the election may not come off at all, and if it does it seems more likely to inflame rather than quiet political conflict.
The low-level of popular support for either of the two major candidates could be, indeed, troublesome; however, I wouldn’t underestimate the legitimacy that any candidate might enjoy simply by having come to power via a perceived free election. Perception seems key here, and should Shafiq win, I’m doubtful that most Egyptians won’t interpret that as SCAF meddling. More than a day of rage, that might lead to a full-scale revolution led, this time, by the Brotherhood (parallels to the Russian Revolution here). Should Moursi win, I’m not sure how that would lead to a coup. Unlike in Algeria in 1992, the military is already in charge in Egypt.