Dangers Ahead for Egypt

Egypt faces nasty campaigning, divisive sectarianism and the threat of a new kind of tyranny as it moves to phase two of presidential elections.

When they return to the polling stations in mid-June, Egyptians will be forced to choose between one candidate posing falsely as Mr. Order (Ahmed Shafik, a cranky leftover from the old regime) and the other even less persuasively as Mr. Personality (Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood's "spare tire" who became the movement's nominee only when its first choice was disqualified because he previously had been convicted by a kangaroo court).

Both candidates immediately attempted to shake the Etch A Sketch. Shafik, who had run in the first round as the strongman who would face down the Islamists, suddenly explained that he would be quite willing to work with the Islamist majority already elected to parliament. And Morsi immediately reached out to the candidates he had defeated narrowly and posed as the rainbow candidate of the broad coalition of revolutionary forces.

But Egyptians are still in for an unpleasant campaign. On the surface, narrowing down the field to two opponents is likely to set off the sort of negative campaigning and character assassination that had been mercifully muted in the multicandidate first round.

And more deeply, a very nasty kind of sectarianism has already emerged. You will not hear it from the candidates themselves, who will speak sweetly of national unity. (In his final campaign rally before the first round of voting, I heard Mohamed Morsi use symbolic language of "Muslim and Copt," "mosque and church," and even the martyrs of "Tahrir and Maspiro," the latter referring to the largely Christian victims killed last year while demonstrating at the state-television complex.) But Egyptian Christians, understandably nervous about the Islamist rise, lurched heavily toward Shafik in the the days before the election and away from more consensual or prorevolution candidates. That seems to have been enough to help Shafik place second; in the June balloting, it is difficult to imagine many Christians voting for Morsi. Some will hold them responsible for visiting upon them a security-minded former general, promising "deeds, not words" and delivering prerevolutionary rhetoric, thus reopening wounds and divisions that seemed to have healed a year ago.

And if a Shafik candidacy is divisive, his victory would likely be worse: his sudden rise in the polls; the refusal of the Presidential Election Commission to enforce legislation designed to bar him; the manner in which state-owned media seemed to revert to habit by boosting his candidacy; and his position as Mubarak's last prime minister have all have led many revolutionary groups to insist that any election resulting in a Shafik victory is by definition fraudulent. Rather than concentrate on the looming economic crisis, Egypt might easily plunge into a dangerous mix of paralysis and disorder.

If Shafik would lead to gridlock, Morsi offers just the opposite. Islamists dominate the parliament but have been able to do little with their majority because executive authority lies with an unaccountable cabinet and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the interim military leadership. Their few accomplishments have sometimes been blocked by the courts. But if the presidency and parliament were both in their hands, the cabinet would follow. In Mubarak's Egypt, the president served as chairman of the SCAF. Under the country's interim constitution, the president also chairs the National Defense Council. Of course, nobody expects real civilian oversight of the military and security forces to operate immediately, but those who wonder if the military will surrender power have often overlooked the degree to which key Egyptian institutions are currently hardwired to place authority on the president's desk.

A Morsi victory would test whether the Brotherhood's strong constitutional position would allow it to overcome resistance by what is called in some other nominally democratic systems the "deep state"—the shadowy web of security, military and elite leaders who seem able to call all the shots. There may indeed be something of a deep state in Egypt, but robbed of the presidency, it may lack coherence (and, if the past year is any indication, competence). What might be more likely than a soft or hard coup is grinding guerilla warfare in which the deep state gradually retreats.

Should that happen, Egypt's political fate likely would be determined by three things. First, can the Brotherhood deliver on its ambitious "Renaissance Project" and its promise to deliver clean government, jobs, education, health care—and even an end to traffic tie ups? Second, can the Brotherhood coexist with the less shadowy parts of the Egyptian state (the courts, the bureaucracy, the various ministries, councils and state bodies that are not used to dealing with either Islamist leaders or democratic oversight)? And third, can clear constitutional rules be written that protect minority rights, make lines of accountability clear and facilitate the development of democratic habits?

There is no doubt that in foreign-policy terms, a Morsi victory would be a severe headache. But for Egyptians focusing on domestic concerns, the real question is whether they have traded the tyranny of an autocratic ruler for the tyranny of the majority. For all the mistakes made over the past year, I am not pessimistic. The democratic spirit that seems to have struck deep roots in the society may still ensure that when everything that could go wrong does go wrong, the country can still recover.

Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a nonresident senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Image: Jonathan Rashad