Out of all possible combinations, Egyptians ended up with the worst choice for the second round of the Presidential elections. For the 50% of the country who did not vote for Shafik or Morsi, they face a dilemma from hell. Should they cast their vote to reincarnate the old regime or chose the Ikwan’s spare tire who would open the doors to a theocracy? Before making any meaningful decisions, we probably need to sleep over it, internalize this ironic defeat, and understand what really happened.
Voting Patterns: How Did the Vote Turnout This Way?
The voting patterns in the Presidential elections were very different from the Parliamentary elections. Some interesting trends:
- The Salafis disappeared! Apparently demoralized by the exclusion of their candidate, Abu Ismail, the Salafi bloc all but disappeared. Despite the declared support of their leadership to Abul-Fotouh, they did not show us in large numbers, and those who showed up, voted their heart and did not vote as a bloc. This is a sign that the Salafi bloc is mostly excited by candidates of its own, and is not also easy to drive by their leaders as always claimed.
- On the other hand, Copts decided to vote as a bloc this time, and mostly voted for Shafik. Rumors of official Church endorsement circulated. Where true or not, it is obvious that the Coptic vote was more mobilized this time, mostly driven by fear of the rhetoric of the political Islam.
- Despite their success in pushing their “spare” candidate to get to the top of the list, the Muslim Brothers were much weaker in their ability to mobilize the votes beyond their own core supporters (often estimated at around 30% of the vote. they lost a lot of support among their non-core voters. If they continue to behave in the same way, they are likely to lost more.
- The “deep state”, bureaucracy, security apparatus, and remnants of the NDP and previous regime supported Shafik in a desperate battle for survival; and they succeeded. Shafik ran a different campaign from most other candidates: he did not have any popular support base to campaign for him on the ground, but rather the old NDP machine and the state apparatus. The good news is that this machine with all its (old) might was only able to mobilize barely a quarter of the vote. The bad news is that if he comes to power, he will re-energize and restore this corrupt machine.
- Sabbahi’s last minute surprise surge is a sign that the secular and leftist sentiment is still alive and strong, despite the lack of an organized structure to represent it. This is a golden opportunity to build a new party to represent this constituency against the well-organized political Islam (and Christianity) and the remnants of the old regime.
- The revolution still wins! the total vote that Sabbahi and Abul-Fotouh (and others) got, in total, remains higher than the Ikhwan or old regime candidates. The voters were not able to naturally converge on one of the candidates; however, the two leading candidates are the ones to blame for not joining forces and running on a single ticket.
- It is also important not to forget that mostly the second-tier candidates were competing in this election. The top four candidates were not competing: El Baradei withdrew; Abu-Ismail, Omar Suleiman and El-Shater were disqualified. These candidates represented clear and powerful choices for the voters. Omar Suleiman was replaced by Shafik, and El-Shater was replaced by Morsi, who failed to capture Abu-Ismail’s constituency and left them without a candidate to represent them. El Baradei’s constituency first reluctantly and slowly migrated to Abul-Fotouh then started embracing Sabbahi in the last two weeks. Abul Fotouh and Amr Mousa are definitely not second tier candidates, but unlike the four “pure-bred” candidates above, they tried to capture the center by claiming broad, centrist positions.
- Finally, I was surprised by the low vote turnover. Almost half of the registered voters did not vote, in the first free Presidential elections in the history of Egypt (even less than those who voted in the parliamentary elections). I would be very curious to understand the reasons for their absence. Where they confused by the complexity of the choices? Where they turned off by the candidates bickering? Probably 20-30% of the missing votes belonged to the Salafis, who were demoralized after the loss of their candidate; but that still does not tell the whole story.
You add up all these factors and you end up with the disastrous dilemma that we are now facing: the two most polarizing candidates are facing off in the second round.
The Underlying Voters’ Behavior
These trends reveal some interesting underlying behaviors that may explain why Egyptians voted this way in their first free Presidential elections:
- Voting for fear: a big part of the vote for Shafik was not driven by a desire for a vision, candidate or program, but rather fear of the other side (political Islam, represented by the MB and the Salafis). The Ikhwan’s behavior over the past 6 months helped energize this voting bloc which was mostly dormant; whether Copts, or the so called “7ezb el kanaba”. This voting bloc was expected to go to Amr Mousa (and not vote at all). A well-tested elections axiom: “it is much easier to mobilize voters by (negative) fear rather than by (positive) desire.”
- Voting for balance: Egyptians also showed that they desire a balance among the different ideologies, and are not excited by the idea of one side taking too much power. They may vote for the Islamists, but not enough to let them take over the country. They may vote for a secular army general as a President, but they won’t let him restore the previous regime. I would expect that this balance act to continue, especially during the period where we are testing the different parties, and demanding accountability. This balance pattern is very common in the US elections.
- Voting for closure: many are also exhausted with the extended transition period. Their economic interests are threatened and they yearn for the “Security and stability that they enjoyed under Mubarak’s regime”. This constituency is happy to see some sense of closure, not only to the transition period, but to the whole revolution, if they could. This is the anti-revolution constituency which voted to Shafik and will continue to support him in action that will protect their interests or undo the previous 18 months.
- Impatient expectations: the Egyptian voter proved to have a very low patience for results. The rapid decline in the MB vote over a period of 6 months is very alarming to any politician or party who believe that they can build a 17 year action plan! People want clear and rapid actions focusing on their priorities. The MB’s parliamentary agenda was completely off, and they are getting their electoral punishment faster than anyone expected. This is a great pattern of holding politicians accountable, and it will be very effective in aligning their actions with people’s interests (as long as we can maintain a free election).
- Pure-bred vs. hybrids: the Presidential elections also showed that people prefer candidates with clear and transparent positions (pure bred), e.g., Morsi, Shafik and Sabbahi, and are not too excited by candidates who try to take middle positions to appease everyone (hybrids), e.g., Abul-Fotouh and Mousa. This will give future candidates a clear incentive to have clear positions (even if they’re centrist) rather than taking vague positions.
So What’s Next?
For those 50% of us who are disappointed with the outcomes of the first round, this should not be the end. Looking at the bright side, we now have two leaders who have a clear public mandate from 5+ million voters. They should be able to speak on their behalf and represent their interests, even from an opposition seat.
Specifically, Sabbahi, has a big role to play. Amr Mousa’s votes are likely to migrate to Shafik, and I doubt that he will maintain a strong public role. The ex-Ikhwan and Islamist part of Abul-Fotouh’s vote will likely migrate to Morsi (and potentially, Abul-Fotouh himself). So those who will remain are Sabbahi’s voters and the liberal section of Abul-Fotouh’s base; both will likely be best represented by Sabbahi. Abul-Fotouh’s role will be determined by his own choices; whether he wants to support Morsi and get back to the Brotherhood, or remain in the centrist/liberal opposition along with Sabbahi.
His role in the next few days is to articulate our demands or political agenda, and put it on the table for both candidates. This should happen in a transparent way, rather than cutting deals in closed rooms.
The most important demand for this constituency is maintaining a civil state through a strong constitution that provides clear protections for individual rights, free elections, and judicial independence. This will be our main defense against the old or the new authoritarian state.
The second mandate for Sabbahi is to support the creation of a new political party that represents this constituency (Dostor Party), and work on uniting and expanding this voting bloc. This is critical for two reasons: first, the parliament is likely to be dissolved by the supreme constitutional court, and we should have a better representation this time; second, Shafik and his ex-NDP base are likely to start their own new party to compete in the next round, backed by a President in power, and the state apparatus.
The ultimate question of whether to vote for Morsi or Shafik or to boycott the elections will only become clear based on the actions of the two candidates during the next three weeks, and how they respond to the demands of the other 50% of the voters (as well as those who did not vote in the first round).
26 May 2012.