Egypt's Democratic Hopes Imperiled

The presidential choice comes to this: the old elite vs. the controversial Islamists.

The results of Egypt's first round of presidential elections held late last week were greeted in some quarters with riots and arson. The outrage was the second-place finish of Ahmed Shafik, who has deep ties to the deposed Mubarak regime. Some expressed disgust that after seeing hundreds die in the January 2011 revolution and enduring the hardships of an unsettled year, the presidential runoff gave them a choice between a Muslim Brotherhood figure and a senior Mubarak aide.

Together, Shafik and Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi received fewer than half of the votes; turnout was less than half the electorate. Had spoiled ballots been a candidate, they'd have finished sixth in a field of thirteen. That the top candidates performed so poorly is symptomatic of the deep divisions in Egypt and the immaturity of its long-suppressed political organizations. This is the legacy of decades of stagnation and dictatorship under Mubarak.

This is tough news for those cheering Egypt's democratic progress. Egypt currently has two effective branches of government: the heirs to the old executive, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and the newly empowered legislative branch, the Brotherhood-led parliament and constitutional assembly. The emergence of an elective presidency in Egypt will essentially be the rise of a third branch of government. There is an enormous institutional potential here. While the president will be forced to carve out authority from the two older branches, the position will come with enormous weight. A capable president could play the older branches off each other and force them to resolve their tensions via appeals to the public. Ultimately, the president would aim to eliminate the old executive, returning the military to a quieter role in politics and consolidating his power. All this would be enormously beneficial to the development of a legitimate and democratic government in Egypt.

The contest between Mr. Morsi and Mr. Shafik appears unlikely to produce this dynamic. In spite of the complex political and social forces the revolution unleashed, the Egyptian on the street now faces an unpalatable binary choice: a Thermidorian turn to the old elite or increased authority for the deeply controversial Islamist party.

The new president will give his faction a two-to-one advantage against the third branch of government. If Morsi wins, the Muslim Brotherhood will hold all legitimate authority, but the SCAF will maintain a monopoly on the use of force. The SCAF does not trust the Brotherhood and would thus be likely to hold on to power as long as possible, increasing the risk of a return to dictatorship or civil strife. If Shafik wins, there is a better chance that the SCAF will feel the country is in good hands and go into retirement, but there is also a risk that Shafik would use the SCAF's backing to ignore parliamentary decisions. Some Islamist factions might return to their old, violent ways. Egyptian politics would be stuck in neutral—perhaps more democratic than in the Mubarak days but without any true development of a civil and informed national political dialogue.

Democracy, of course, is invariably messy. Look at the farcical quality of the current U.S. presidential discussion or Greece's present flirtation with Weimar chaos (complete with actual Nazis). Nobody doubts that both countries will remain democratic. The fact that elections occurred in Egypt with minimal trouble and only partial interference from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is cause for optimism, given the country’s history. The institutional features of the presidency will give the president incentives to duke it out with the other branches of government, even if the president has many allies in those other branches.

Morsi, for instance, might instinctively side with the Brotherhood's parliamentary bloc, but any sane politician would probably seize the opportunity to broker a Brotherhood-SCAF rapprochement, even if that meant pushing both sides out of their comfort zones. Shafik, to outmaneuver the Brotherhood in parliament, might appeal to the emerging odd-couple alliance of Salafists and secular liberals. Such moves would infuriate the politicians' constituents and lead to accusations of duplicity, forgotten ideals and cynicism. But that is precisely how politicians in healthy democracies do their work.

The Entrepreneurial Shafik

In the midst of this is Mr. Shafik. He rose to prominence within Mubarak's branch of the military, the air force, before being appointed head of the new Ministry of Civil Aviation in 2002. He spent his tenure fighting to keep the national carrier, EgyptAir, from going out of business. In the process, he performed an excellent austerity program, cutting routes (when he arrived, the airline had just thirty-four aircraft serving eighty-two international destinations in addition to their domestic duties) and talking tough with unions. EgyptAir attracted new customers and new investors, and Egypt's airports benefitted from hundreds of millions in loans for construction, including $350 million from the World Bank.

Shafik thus earned a reputation for being a tough, sometimes micromanaging boss patient enough to wait for his challengers to be the first to make concessions. When a crisis wasn't going his way, he would stubbornly refuse to change direction until his opponents gave up; when a crisis presented an opportunity for him to make changes he wanted, he acted with remarkable swiftness and effectiveness. This reputation, plus his air-force connections, helped him earn the trust of Mubarak; he was even rumored to have an outside chance at being his successor.