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Egypt, revolution and counter-revolution

Published:Monday | June 4, 2012 | 12:00 AM

John Rapley, Contributor

After fighting, and sometimes dying, for free elections, Egyptians have now completed the first round of their presidential poll. And the result has left many of the activists in the Arab Spring wondering if it was worth their heroic sacrifice.

The uproar which erupted in Tahrir Square last weekend after ousted president Hosni Mubarak was slapped with a life sentence - when some demanded death - and the acquittal of two of his sons on corruption charges could only have sapped optimism and sparked outrage.

The country having opted for a two-stage election, with the first round narrowing the list to the top two candidates, electors will return to the polls this month. And while the first round of voting offered Egyptians a wide range of choice, the second confronts them with options many detest.

The two candidates who made it through to run-off are Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq. Morsi is the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamist party. Shafiq was once a Cabinet minister of deposed president Hosni Mubarak, and therefore a scion of the ancient regime. Given that the Arab Spring was largely motivated by liberal democrats and socialists who dreamed of a Western-style democracy, and that the Muslim Brotherhood initially sat it out, there is a tragic irony that the Islamists may now reap the fruits of their struggle.

Low voter turnout

But it's not surprising. The Muslim Brotherhood was the best-organised opposition party in Egypt. Once they decided to contest the elections, it was clear their foot soldiers could mobilise their supporters. That's precisely what happened. Turnout in the election was surprisingly low, and victory fell to those parties which could move their support bases.

Given that the Islamists emerged the clear victors in the parliamentary elections held earlier this year, a win by Morsi would deliver the country into their hands. This might, or might not, be bad for the revolution. On one hand, the Muslim Brotherhood has softened its line and promises a gentler version of Muslim rule than what we see in, say, Iran. On the other hand, having broken its promise not to contest the presidential poll, the Brotherhood will be regarded with suspicion by the many Egyptians who don't want to live in a Muslim state.

That goes for Egypt's large Christian minority, many of whom can be expected to support Shafiq in the second round. Shafiq has made no secret of the fact that he would like to turn back the revolution somewhat. The return of the old guard, after such a long and blood-soaked struggle, would be a bitter blow to those who sacrificed so much for democracy. But many of those same people may feel they have no option but to support Shafiq, preferring the devil they know to the one they hope never to meet.

Polls without constitution

Hovering over the whole process, its intentions unclear, lies the military. Largely because of the influence of the generals, Egypt opted for the unusual democratic transition of electing a new Parliament and president before it drew up a new constitution. Accordingly, it is unclear what role the future president will be allowed to play. The Muslim Brotherhood would like to shift power towards Parliament. If Mursi is president, he might well acquiesce in an erosion of his powers. Shafiq will certainly stand up for the presidency. A former officer, he would likely enjoy military backing.

But even if Shafiq doesn't win power, it isn't clear if the military will stand by while the Brotherhood seizes the reins. Elements in the armed forces still see themselves as the guardians of the constitution and the guarantors of the country's integrity. They may feel justified in intervening directly. If they do so, a substantial part of the population would probably give its tacit consent.

It's too early to say whether the revolution has become a counter-revolution that restores the old guard to power. Egypt may evolve a delicate balance which sees Islamists with more, but not all power. Given the country's make-up, this would not be an undemocratic outcome.

But even that best-case scenario is probably not what the revolutionaries had in mind when they swarmed into Tahrir Square last winter.

John Rapley is a research associate at
the International Growth Centre, London School of Economics and
Political Science. Email feedback to and