Egypt’s choice: The lesser of two evils

It may have been a real blessing in disguise for Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq to have been excluded from the TV debate between then-apparently leading candidates Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh.

There are a number of plausible reasons that the highly uncharismatic establishment candidates Morsi and Shafiq demolished these relatively more charismatic and individual politicians. But it could also well have been a factor that Moussa and Aboul Fotouh did each other in by relentlessly making powerful accusations neither was able to successfully refute: that while they pretended to have moved beyond their prior associations and to represent something “new,” in fact Moussa was still nothing more than a remnant of the overthrown regime of President Hosni Mubarak while Aboul Fotouh was not only an Islamist, but a de facto part of the Muslim Brotherhood.

If Moussa and Aboul Fotouh successfully exposed each other as simply “light” or “stealth” versions of the felloul and the Brotherhood respectively, why not go for the real thing? In the event, that’s exactly what the public did, preferring overt representatives of the former government and the traditional opposition, in almost equal numbers.

Many of the Egyptian revolutionaries instrumental in bringing down the former regime are understandably distraught. Indeed, they’re faced with an impossible choice: the representative of everything they hate from the past and everything they fear about the future.

Typically in elections, most ballots are cast more against a given party or candidate than for one. But the coming Egyptian second round election will be almost entirely a question of which of these two unpalatable options most Egyptians find least disturbing.

Few are going to vote for Shafiq based on his “stability” and “experience” arguments; they’ll be rallying around him as the only way to avoid a completely Islamist-dominated elected government.

Morsi’s 25 percent win in the first round probably demonstrates the outer limits of the Brotherhood’s present ability to secure enthusiastic votes. If he is able to create a broader coalition to win the second round, it will certainly be based on the idea that even Egyptians who are otherwise highly uncomfortable with the idea of an Islamist government should prefer such an experiment to a return to anything directly related to the former regime.

The Brotherhood is going to have to maneuver extremely quickly, and radically alter its tone, if it’s going to be able to reach out to a broad enough coalition before the second round. If they can, this might prove a humbling and moderating experience, but suspicions about their long-term intentions will, and should, linger.

Shafiq has two built-in advantages. First, any impulse to have a divided government with different political forces in control of the parliament and presidency that can check and balance each other defaults to him. Second, any widespread boycott of the election based on the idea that both candidates represent intolerable positions is more likely to pull potential votes away from Morsi.

Indeed, it is almost certainly going to be the key to a Muslim Brotherhood victory to prevent secularists, non-Islamists, and others who would never vote for a representative of the former regime from simply staying home. If there is a widespread boycott, Shafiq’s chances will be greatly enhanced, though if he wins, many will allege fraud by the ruling military government.

But if Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are able to win by creating a broad enough coalition on the grounds that any other vote would be a final and irreversible “defeat for the revolution,” this sets up a very serious potential political crisis for the country. The constitution-redrafting process is at a total impasse and there is no mechanism currently in place for moving forward with it. If Muslim Brotherhood candidates dominate parliament and hold the presidency, there is a very real question about how the military will react.

Already in a series of edicts, decrees, extraconstitutional “principles” and other documents issued by the military leadership, powers of both the presidency and the parliament have supposedly been transferred to the military. Under these documents, the military would have control of its own budget, final say on national defense issues and numerous other extraordinary prerogatives.

It’s likely that efforts by the military to secure its own powers in independent structures parallel to those to be determined by democratic elections would intensify in the event of a Morsi victory. In other words, it’s hard to imagine the military simply walking away and handing the keys to the kingdom over entirely to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Under such circumstances, especially with no clear process under way for creating a new constitution, the military and the Brotherhood will have to either craft a deal neither of them is at all comfortable with, or begin what is likely to be a bitter, dangerous and prolonged power struggle.