This Article was published on the Dailybeast website here, under the title “Egyptian elections: There is no clear front runner in the crowded field”. It’s better and modified there, although i do like my my title better. 😛
When I was in DC last week, the talk amidst the pundits in the Think Tanks and newspapers was regarding whether the next President of Egypt will be either Amr Moussa or AbulFotouh. In the absence of any real data or a clear front –runner, everyone assumed that the two with the highest media profiles would be the ones entering the run-off. One week later, this no longer rings to be true, with the bets now being placed on neither one of them making it. Why? Because they are both grey, and Egyptians, the great centrists that they are, when it comes to their President, are no longer interested in grey. Only Black or White. This is why AbuElFotouh and Moussa are now stagnating, and Mohamed Morsy, Ahmed Shafiq and Hamdeen Sabahy are all rising amidst the polls and the population. Why? Cause they are not grey.
AbdelMoneim AbulFotouh and Amr Moussa tried to position themselves as the two major centrist candidates from the Get go, one as the centrist Islamist candidate, and the other as the centrist “civil” (secular is such a naughty word, we are told) candidate, both hoping to rally different factions get the biggest amount of votes possible this way. Smart strategy, but not after a revolution, and especially not after the tumultuous year and a half that Egyptians have spent trying to figure out what exactly is going on in this country and where it is headed. The Egyptian voter would like some clarity, and neither one of those two candidates offered them that, which was incredibly evident in the debate that took place between them last week. Both of them –between attacking each other in the most undignified of ways-gave the most centrist answers they could come up with, and both come out as wishy-washy to the undecided voters. That was one presidential debate that no one won, and it left the average Egyptian voter thinking that whomever the President will be, it shouldn’t be those two. A hint: maybe someone should’ve explained to them that you are not supposed to debate your opponent in presidential debates, but rather use the time and media attention to talk to the undecided and give them the messages you were prepped to deliver by your handlers, instead of coming off looking like bickering old hags.
There are arguably 6 Egyptian voting blocs: Muslim Brotherhood, Non-MB Islamists (mostly salafis), liberals, revolutionaries (many leaning leftwards and majority are Baradei supporters), old regime backers and Independents. Moussa was counting on liberals, old regime backers, independents and some revolutionary voters who will see him as the only alternative to the Islamists. AbulFotouh was counting on getting the Baradei supporters, the independents, some liberals and some of the MB votes. Both were hoping to get those votes to get into the run-off elections, and both are now facing the realities that their calculations might all be wrong, with Morsy securing the MB votes, Sabahy almost securing all of the Baradei and revolutionary votes and Shafiq becoming the great hope of old regime backers. Why? Well, because Morsy is unquestionably MB and is very clear about it, Sabahy is a non-islamist revolutionary true and through, and Shafiq has been very vocal about his opposition of the revolution and the revolutionaries and a reminder of “the good old days” of Mubarak, where everything worked, the streets were secure, and no Islamist would dare to do “shananigans” they want to engage in now. Those respective groups had finally found the candidate that they feel comfortable supporting, which leads us to the ultimate question: Who, exactly, will vote for AbuFotouh and Moussa?
Well, with those 3 main groups out of the way, this leaves both candidates with a more limited pool of potential supporters, which may not offer them the best options or positioning. AbulFotouh has won the backing of the Salafi Noor Party, which immediately raised the question about what kind of deal he made with them, how centrist he truly is, and if his wish-washy answers to questions were not an attempt to win the center but rather fool it to vote for an islamist candidate. He still has few revolutionary supporters , which include revolutionary figures such as famous leftist activist Wael Khalil and the one-time revolution’s symbol Wael Ghonim, supporting him, but even they are finding it harder and harder to defend him as he journeys around the country with the Salafis or issues statements about his intentions to shut down alcohol factories.
Moussa is not having it any easier either, because the liberals are divided over supporting him or not. Their reasons vary from 1) Not desiring to vote for such a symbol of the Mubarak Era after revolting against Mubarak, to 2) concerns that he is more interested in the Presidency for his own Glory and ego, and not because he genuinely wants to save the country, and 3) their belief that Moussa is too much of a politician to take a principled stand on civil rights or liberties against the MB, and that he may very well compromise on those issues for the sake of his own political gain. This presents another problem for the liberals: if not Moussa, then who? This left the liberal votes divided between those who choose to back Moussa because he is an acceptable compromise, those who will back Shafiq because their friends are doing so and are doubting Moussa’s chances, and those who will hold their nose and vote for the Nasserite Sabahy instead because they believe he won’t compromise on civil rights and liberties, even if it means hurting their economic interests.
Make no mistakes: Many Independent votes will go to Moussa, especially from Upper Egypt, but he doesn’t have the support of the majority, or even half, of the independent votes, which seems like it will splinter itself over all candidates. Unless he engages in a final hail Mary before the elections, it could be very possible that we may not reach the run-off. His only hope lies in the ignorant faction of the independent voters, who will go and vote for the name that they know on the ballots. But even then, the names of the other candidates have become quite known for the majority of those voters, so it really is anyone’s game.
Either way, he and AbulFotouh will not get the large centrist majority that they hoped to gain to win from the first round or at least secure their place in the run-off. They might still get in, but it will be all dependent on their get out the vote campaign on the election day, and while Sabahy has the Baradeites, Morsy the MB, Shafiq the old NDP and AbulFotouh has the Noor Salafi machine, Moussa doesn’t really have anyone but his campaign and the few liberal parties that have supported him, because there are no excited hardcore Moussa supporters out there. He is far too grey.
This is not a new concept for Egypt, and something that only the people who bothered to analyze the parliamentary elections managed to get: Egyptians do not vote for centrist parties. Take the case of ElAdl Party for instance, which is in my opinion a great party filled with honest revolutionaries and genuine leaders, when it entered the parliamentary elections focusing on winning the centrist votes. They showed themselves as the alternative to the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood controlled Freedom and Jusitice Party and the Nour Salafi Party or the thinly veiled secularism of the Egyptian bloc, and ended up being the biggest losers in the elections, winning only one seat. Why? They were too centrist, which the average Egyptian voter viewed as attempting to not take a side, and instead voted for someone who will. The same logic applies to the Presidential elections, and it’s something that most pundits have elected or chosen to ignore. It underlines a fundamental political truth that everyone in the Egyptian political scene seems to ignore: You can’t synthetically create a center. A center is formed when two opposing forces of equal power and clearly different ideologies are fighting for control, thus creating the political balance that allows a center to emerge. This doesn’t exist in Egypt, which is why AbulFotouh is turning more and more islamist to appease his new salafi supporters, and Moussa is finding himself up in shit-creek without a paddle.
On a final note, the Egyptian presidential election has one final achievement to add to the list of the Egyptian revolution’s achievements so far: It has killed all ideologies. We have leftists supporting an Islamist candidate, liberals supporting a Nasserite leftists, A revolutionary workers-rights crusader candidate who didn’t get the support of the workers and ended up only getting nominated by MP signatures from parties that he considered anti-revolutionary, and revolutionaries who were strongly opposed to strong executive powers now begging for a constitution that doesn’t turn Egypt into a parliamentary system now that the Islamists have taken over the Parliament. It’s a fine mess that will surely leave analysts and pundits scratching their head for years to come to make any sense of its one million and one questions, where ironically all the answers so far are as clear as grey.