2012 Egyptian Presidential Post-Election Report: President Asterisk

by Joshua Tucker on June 25, 2012

in Campaigns and elections,Comparative Politics,Election Reports

We are pleased to welcome back University of Texas-Austin political scientist Jason Brownlee with the following post-election report on Egypt’s presidential elections:

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Sunday afternoon, the Presidential Election Commission (PEC) declared Dr. Mohammed Morsi, candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the winner of Egypt’s first competitive race for the country’s top elected office. There is no question that Morsi’s victory, with 52% of the vote, is a historical milestone. During the past eight decades the Brotherhood has organized and evolved under colonial rule, monarchism, and the post-1952 military regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser and his successors. Foreign powers, including the United States and Israel, have questioned the Brotherhood’s commitment to democracy and the fate of Egypt’s international agreements under Brotherhood leadership. The election pushes Egypt and its partners into territory many feared to tread. It is worth noting too, Morsi will not only be Egypt’s first Islamist president. He will also be the first civilian to hold that post.

Despite its symbolic significance, though, Morsi’s victory is clouded by questions—not about his democratic commitments, but about the intentions of Egypt’s military overlords, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Rather than letting the presidential election cap a transition to civilian rule, the SCAF has hit the reset button on the last fifteen months of popular participation and institutional reform. Before the ballots for Morsi and his challenger, retired general Ahmed Shafiq, were even counted, the junta circumscribed Egyptians’ vote for president, as they have done twice before during the past fifteen months.

Since forcing President Hosni Mubarak from office on February 11 of last year, Egyptians have participated in a series of electoral exercises that displayed ex ante uncertainty and ex post irrelevance. First there was the March 19 referendum on constitutional changes. 79% of voters approved limited changes to the country’s autocratic 1971 Constitution. The outcome stung revolutionaries who had led the protests against Mubarak and wanted to overhaul the constitution completely, for they were less effective at the polling stations than they had been in the streets. Meanwhile, the generals of the SCAF, who had overseen the constitutional proposals, could cite the vote as an endorsement of their stewardship. Nonetheless, the junta soon undercut this legitimacy by unilaterally issuing a constitutional declaration that did not go before the public. Retrospectively, the referendum became a free and fair fraud, a public relations exercise without political consequence.

Then there were the parliamentary elections for Egypt’s main legislative chamber (the People’s Assembly) and the largely ceremonial Consultative Assembly. Voting for parliament began last December and stretched for two months. (Elections to fill each house of parliament were staggered across three phases to allow for Egyptian judges to supervise the process. One-third of seats were assigned through two-candidate majoritarian districts and two-thirds through party lists.) Results gave the FJP a plurality in the People’s Assembly, which they used to partner with well-represented Salafists (ultra-traditionalist Islamists) and claim the speakership. But on June 15—the eve of the runoff between Morsi and Shafiq—Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) ordered parliament be dissolved on the grounds that members of the FJP and other parties had contested plurality seats while their parties ran lists as well.

During the Mubarak era, comparativists viewed the SCC as one of the most politically independent state institutions. However merited that reputation might once have been, the timing and partisan implications of the June 15 ruling exposed the SCC as a tool of the SCAF. Egypt has independent judges, but with a surfeit of Mubarak appointees who still accede to executive pressure it has nothing like an independent judiciary. The high court’s decision abrogated Egyptians’ second major democratic exercise after the uprising and occluded an already byzantine constitutional process. The FJP-led People’s Assembly had recently reached a deal on the composition of a 100-member Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution. The dissolution of parliament called into question the viability of that assembly, passing it back to the SCAF to determine who would serve on that body. Additionally, the absence of a permanent constitution meant Egyptians were choosing a president whose powers were TBD.

Finally, we have the presidential polls. Since 1956, when Nasser took the position (he had been prime minister until that point), the Egyptian presidency has been the source and center of political power in the country. Historically, the president enjoyed sweeping appointment and dismissal authority over the legislative and judicial branches of government. He could also penalize dissenters at a whim. Therefore, the first post-Mubarak presidential elections posed potentially the most politically consequential contest yet. After the PEC disqualified the Salafists’ standard-bearer, one FJP candidate, and former spy chief (as well as Mubarak’s sole vice president) Omar Suleiman, thirteen men competed in the first round of voting on May 23-24. Morsi, from the FJP, and Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, placed first and second, each with about a quarter of the national vote.

A week ago the runoff took place. As reported by the Carter Center and local observers , voting was devoid of systematic fraud and some twenty-five million Egyptians cast ballots (50% turnout). It was another free and fair experience, at least with respect to the mechanics of Election Days. Most importantly for the PEC’s eventual announcement of a winner—which matched the FJP’s expectations—party agents had been allowed to witness voting and tallying at individual polling stations and regional aggregation centers. But the evening of June 17, just as the judges had begun tallying votes, the SCAF issued an annex to its earlier constitutional declaration that stripped the presidency of command authority over the armed forces. His purview will be limited to domestic affairs that do not touch on national security. Moreover, he may serve less than year, since the approval of a permanent constitution will invoke new elections for parliament and president.

Election watchers can breathe a sigh of relief that the PEC did not try to steal the election for Shafiq. Like the referendum and parliamentary polls, however, SCAF intervention has tainted the presidential contest and retarded an already sluggish transition process. All eyes will be on Morsi and the FJP to see whether their presidential victory will induce them to accommodate the SCAF in other areas, such as letting parliament remained dissolved and allowing the junta to select members of a new constituent assembly.

Last fall the SCAF vowed June 2012 would be the culmination of Egypt’s transition from security state to representative government. Acting-president Hussein Tantawi and his fellow officers still maintain the fiction that they will relinquish power by June 30. In reality, the generals have tightened their grasp, motivated in part by their vast immobile assets around the country. Therefore, unless Morsi’s campaign translates its slender mandate into a broad and public push for reform—something the Brotherhood has historically been loathe to pursue —the
SCAF will continue becoming a fourth branch of state, eclipsing the judiciary, legislature, and president, and Egypt will edge closer to being an Arab Pakistan.

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