Actually, in Egypt now it is Chirac vs Le Pen

Last week, the nail-biting finish in the first round of Egypt’s presidential election reminded me of the George W. Bush versus Al Gore race in 2004, which was similarly close.  Now that we know that the run-off in the second round will be between the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy and the revanchist Mubarak-era figure Ahmed Shafiq — the Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi (in the photo below) was the near-run third that made the finish so tense — I think of a different historical parallel: the Jacques Chirac versus Jean-Marie Le Pen presidential election in France in 2002.

As in Egypt, the French election involved two rounds and in the first round the French left unwisely divided its vote between the Socialist Lionel Jospin and a range of smaller and more narrowly-focused parties; this resulted in two right-wing candidates, Jacques Chirac (mainstream right) and Jean-Marie Le Pen (far right), getting through to the second round.  Thus, in the ‘real’ presidential election — that is, the second round — a very large part of the political spectrum had no representation at all.  That is how many feel in Egypt today, forced to choose between two candidates they fear and detest.  Unfortunately, the lesson from France — where Chirac went on to win in a landslide but had difficulty governing because few people really wanted him as president — is that a skewed second round can produce a leader without a mandate.  That’s the last thing Egypt needs facing a long backlog of urgent economic problems, among other things.

In retrospect, any number of coalitions could have formed in Egypt going into the first round that would have changed this equation.  Mostly this would have meant keeping Shafiq out of the second round because even though many are disenchanted with the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsy himself inspires no one, the MB political machine is strong enough that Morsy was always going to do well in the first round.  But a large share of Sabbahi’s support came from the revolutionaries, for whom Sabbahi was a genial but ideologically slightly awkward fit; it would have been no more awkward, then, for the liberal Islamist Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh (who finished fourth) to have thrown his support behind Sabbahi to form a united front under a ‘reformist’ banner.  Likewise, Amr Moussa (who finished fifth) could have seen the writing on the wall and formed a ‘secular’ alliance with Sabbahi.  Or, perhaps best of all, the revolutionaries could have gotten it together to field a real candidate of their own, one who came up within their ranks and shared their ideology better than an old school Nasserist.  I was long a believer in the beauty of having a leaderless revolution but there’s no question it left the cause at a disadvantage when it came to the presidential election.

But none of that happened, so now we have an Ikhwanifelool runoff: whom to vote for?  I don’t envy Egyptians having to make this choice and am heartbroken that these two dead ends are where the hard-fought path of revolution has led us.  But I will say this: the great lesson of the last fifteen months is that there was, in fact, too little revolution last year rather than too much.  What was always a military regime remains a military regime.  For a time, the security services were pushed back, which was a genuine if short-lived success and, really, merely a half-revolution that needed to be made whole.  Today, even that achievement is in question.

I don’t know what Morsy would do if elected but I am pretty sure I know precisely what Shafiq would do and I don’t like it.


The photo at the top is by Hossam el-Hamalawy — who I just mentioned in this post — and was taken in September 2011; the prescient sign reads “Down With the Next President.”  The photo at bottom is by Mohammed Salem at Reuters and shows former candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi surfing the crowd at the rallies this week to protest the Mubarak trial verdict — a trial and verdict I analyzed here.

A hat tip to the Arabist for finding these two photographs, which capture the mood of the moment.


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