Egypt’s presidential runoff election on Saturday and Sunday was supposed to be democratic. But that’s in doubt now that the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court, comprised of judges appointed by ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak, pulled a soft coup on Thursday.
The court dissolved the newly elected parliament, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, placing power solely in the hands of interim military rulers who appear to be paving the way for a return to the pre-revolution days of the old guard.
The military leaders obviously fear the ascendency of Islamist politics and their own demise. But their latest move, including the introduction of marital law in advance of the court’s ruling, has exposed to democracy-hungry Egyptians where the greater concern should lie – with a win this weekend for Ahmed Shafiq, the former prime minister under Mr. Mubarak.
In two days of voting this weekend, Mr. Shafiq, a former leader of Egypt’s air force, faces off against Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, an engineer by training who once worked for NASA in the United States. Both Shafiq and Mr. Morsi won roughly 25 percent of the vote in the first round of elections in May.
Since then, though, fear factories have spun out of control claiming that the “painful” second-round choice would hardly bear the fruit of last year’s revolution. Many believe the election is between two extremes: a throwback to the era of Mubarak or a drastic shift in the direction of a strictly religious state.
Now, with this latest political ruse on the part of military loyalists, one of those scenarios looks certain: A vote for Shafiq is a vote for the strong-arm politics that have longed plagued Cairo’s halls of power and typified the rule of its imprisoned former leader. Certainly Shafiq owes a political debt to his military colleagues in power and to the court, which also upheld the legality of his candidacy in its ruling.
True, people are nervous about the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi, the chairman of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, makes no bones about the fact that he views Islam as the solution to many of Egypt’s problems. He has argued for barring women and non-Muslims from Egypt’s presidency on the basis of Islamic law.
At his first rally, he led supporters in a chant: “The Koran is our constitution, and sharia is our guide.” He also has a record of inflammatory statements toward Israel.
There is uncertainty that Morsi and the Brotherhood will maintain peace deals with Israel; fear that strict religious rule will stifle values of liberal democracy; and skepticism that Islamist campaign overtures and promises will be dismissed if Morsi should be elected.
To put it bluntly, though, no one knows how the Muslim Brotherhood would rule because it has long been bottled-up by the former regime of Hosni Mubarak. And so, critics suppose and ponder and predict and imagine the worst without any evidence of what will actually occur.
The current Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is far removed from politico-religious groups that support violent jihad. Despite the fact that they believe in the fusion of religion and state and interpret their faith doctrines with more conservatism than Western onlookers may prefer, the Brotherhood has campaigned on bread and butter issues: education, poverty, corruption, economic growth, and jobs.
Their messages have resonated and their campaigns have been far-reaching and effective. At this late moment, they have been the more democratic of the two parties competing for the presidency.
The Brotherhood says it recognizes the need to alternate power and the importance and necessity of popular sovereignty and of judicial independence. They vow not to impose bans on alcohol or bikinis, knowing that the economy of their beloved country depends on tourists who value such things. They also know, as any political group must, that in order to win and remain in power, some of their ideals and preferences will have to be sacrificed.
The Muslim Brotherhood wants – and needs – to gain international legitimacy, particularly from the West, which views the group with great concern. And to make that happen, they’ll have to work hard to avoid the hot-button issues that are likely to agitate already existing tensions at home and abroad. Zealous impulses will likely be subsumed in overwhelming calls for peace,freedom, and democracy – platitudes of the revolution that birthed this historic presidential election.
Shafiq, on the other hand, refuses to accept responsibility for the abuses of the former government. He emphasizes the restoration of law and order but has run a campaign that operates on fear. He warns that the Muslim Brotherhood will bring about an Iranian-style revolutionary guard, and as a result, says Islamists should be shut out of power. He defends the Egyptian military despite the fact that it has continued to abuse its position since Mubarak’s fall.
It is little surprise, then, that his military colleagues would seek to tip the election in his favor just days before Egyptians head to the polls.
Egypt’s attempt at transition to democracy has been messy for sure. It has even been downright loathsome at times. But Egyptians must not be cowed into voting for Shafiq.
While a future under the Brotherhood is filled with uncertainty, that is what democratic elections are all about. Better, then, to vote for Morsi and have uncertainty about the future, than for Shafiq and to know what severe system of governance lies in wait.
Nathan Lean is the editor-in-chief of AslanMedia.com and a contributing writer on national politics and global affairs at PolicyMic. He is the co-author of “Iran, Israel, and the United States” and the author of "The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims." Follow him on Twitter.