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Egyptian Election Marred By Violence


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In another dramatic turn in Egypt, the first free democratic presidential election in the nation's history set up a run-off vote next month between two divisive candidates: Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister under former President Hosni Mubarak. Between them, the two top candidates received just under 50 percent of the votes.

That left the other candidates questioning the process and left many Egyptians disappointed with their options. The Muslim Brotherhood already controls parliament and a victory for Mohammed Morsi would put an Islamist in the presidency as well. While former prime minister and former Air Force general Shafik promises a return to authoritarian control. What are Egypt's choices now?

We'd especially like to hear from those of you who've been to Egypt since the Arab Spring. What's changed? 800-989-8255, email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, last week's atrocity in Houla leads to a new sense of crisis in Syria. But first, Egypt.

Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland and a non-resident senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. He joins us now by phone from Qatar. And Shibley, nice to have you on the program, as always.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Good to be with you.

CONAN: And you conducted a public opinion survey in Egypt in the weeks leading up to this first round of the presidential election. That and other polls showed that there was flagging support for the Muslim Brotherhood and it listed Ahmed Shafik as a bit of a long shot. Are you surprised at the results?

TELHAMI: No, actually, I'm not. I mean, when you look actually at the releases of the polls, including ours, which was taken before May 10, which is the debate between Abul Fotouh and Amr Moussa, we were very clear that you can't predict the elections. You can look at trends because in the end, the elections are about turnout and about passion and about - and the picture in Egypt, we knew, was changing by the day.

Even after the May 10 debate, the headline in the newspaper of Tahrir in Egypt, the morning after that first ever presidential debate that pitted the then two leading candidates, Amr Moussa and Abul Fotouh by all polls, that the headlines said, and the winner is (foreign language spoken). And the tweets were saying, and the winner is all of the other candidates.

So there was a sense that both candidates didn't do well in the debate and the subsequent polls that were taken, including one by El Haram, began to show a decline for Amr Moussa and a decline for Abul Fotouh. We also predicted that Moussa would do considerably better in the actual election than he has done in the polls because of machinery.

And that was actually, you know, everybody identified that. That was not a particular surprise that they would pull it off. But ultimately the trends and the polls were pretty much on the money, which is the Brotherhood ultimately, their candidate will do better than the polls were showing, but they will do considerably worse than they did in the parliamentary election because the trends were showing the public was really angry with them on several scores.

Seventy-one percent of our polls showed that - 71 percent of the Egyptians polled said that they made a mistake by fielding their own candidate after saying that they wouldn't do so. And the role of religion and politics, while it's important, was not in any of the polls showing up as a primary reason for voting, which is, you know, which is the way it turned out. But the biggest surprise to me and to, I think, everybody else, and I'm here with some prominent Egyptians here in the conference room mulling this over this morning, really is the good showing of the Nasserist Arab nationalist, secularist candidate Sabahy who almost pulled it off being top two. He's number three.

And the remarkable thing is that he did well in particularly Islamist strongholds, especially in Alexandria where he himself was surprised. He said, I didn't know I had so much support there. So that really was the big surprise and I think it kind of leads us into this thing of not labeling people Islamist, non-Islamist, just thinking that that is going to be the only or the principle dimension of the way they're going to behave. It's all about issues. That's what we've seen.

CONAN: And right, on that basis, how do you see this next round shaping up, then?

TELHAMI: Two things. One is when you look at what happened in the first round, only 46 percent of Egyptians voted and that's a bit depressing because, you know, people who were being polled were saying, you know, 90 percent of - El Haram, just a couple of days before, said 90 percent are saying they're going to vote in the election. That's half of that. So the turnout wasn't great.

The second part that was depressing was that the two leading candidates combined didn't make 50 percent. They combined at less than it. So a majority of Egyptians actually voted against the two leading candidates. And so there is no enthusiasm and so come this run-off election, the question is, you know, who's going to turn out? So to predict would be very difficult for that reason because I think in the end, politics is really about passion.

And if you look at the Morsi and Shafik and you ask how could you explain the way that they won, well, with the Muslim Brotherhood, we knew they had the machinery. That wasn't hard to explain. With Shafik, I think he's the one who understood that this is more like a primary election rather than a national election where he has to appeal to the rest of the public.

That round one was to appeal to a minority that would support him passionately well enough to place him and then he can change his tune and become the champion of revolution and all Egyptians around, too. He did well that way because he got, you know, a lot of people who were disaffected with the Brotherhood. He got people who were part of the elites that were around Mubarak.

He got people who were related to the security scheme, the families of security establishment members and he certainly did well among the Copts. We knew that he would do well. He was, you know, really catering them directly, at one point, even promising that he was going to put forth a Christian woman as a vice presidential candidate. And I think in the next round, he will probably do better even among women who may be disaffected by the Muslim Brotherhood.

So it's going to be a lot of lobbying, a lot of coalition building in the next two weeks in ways that Egypt has never seen. The liberals will be a critical force here in terms of they have to figure out whether there is something in it for them that they can actually extract from any of these candidates particularly on the constitutional change, which is the, you know, core issue, or whether they're better off sitting out or being on the opposition or going to the, you know, turning out only to disqualify the votes to show that they're close to, you know, that the people who are against both candidates are almost as many as whoever is going to win.

So there's a lot going on here and I think the next two weeks every single day is going to bring a different proposal for a new coalition in the elections.

CONAN: Well, Shibley, thanks very much for your time. We'll let you get back to your meeting.

TELHAMI: Thanks very much. My pleasure.

CONAN: Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland and he joined us from a hotel in Qatar in the Persian Gulf. With us here in studio 3A is Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, author of "The Struggle For Egypt From Nasser To Tahrir Square," and nice to have you with us today.

STEVEN COOK: Pleasure to be with you.

CONAN: And are you surprised by this result?

COOK: Well, I am a big surprised. Going into the elections, it was received wisdom that either Egypt's former foreign minister, Amr Moussa, or Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, the former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, that it was essentially a two-horse race between those two. Moussa, of the top candidates, received the least votes, then Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, I think we were fooled, by and large, by the polling that had been done. In all due respect to Shibley and the work that he's done, I think we put a little too much credibility in what the polls were saying.

It is such a dynamic political environment in Egypt and I think that the Egyptian public is being whipsawed. Day-to-day events are changing their views of things. And it's also true that in countries undergoing political transitions, people tend not to tell pollsters the truth of what they really believe.

CONAN: Well, in the meantime, the result shows the most conservative of the major political candidates, religiously conservative, and the most likely to - the person who says Hosni Mubarak, the previous dictator, is his role model.

COOK: That's true. This is perhaps the worst possible outcome if you are an Egyptian revolutionary, and we're hoping that by dint of the uprising that began on January 25, 2011 that you would force a change, a genuine democratic change to Egyptian society. I think that Mohammed Morsi represents change, but it may not necessarily be a democratic one. And, of course, Ahmed Shafik, the former Air Force commander and Mubarak's last prime minister ran basically an unabashed platform of rolling back the so-called revolution, restoring order and smashing the Islamists, who he called the dark forces.

CONAN: So given these choices, there's also - in terms of the Muslim Brotherhood, they have enormous power in parliament. This has not necessary been an advantage thus far. But is it clear yet, even if they were elected, who would have control of the process of writing the new constitution which would delineate the powers of the parliament, the president and indeed the armed forces who are the other factor here?

COOK: Well, it's a terrific question. Presently, the composition of the constituent assembly, which is this committee of 100 that is supposed to write a constitution in a month, is under negotiation in the parliament. There is a draft law on the table that will bring these issues forward. Because we're still in the transitional period, however, it is subject to the approval of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and there's no guarantee that they will agree to what the people's assembly has determined.

I think, though, that the new president clearly, although his powers have yet to be enumerated, will have an influence on the process as will the parliament. And I think we will see a struggle between the president and the parliament and the president and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and the parliament and the armed forces over who really influences this constitution process because that's really what's at stake here.

The presidential elections are important because they then lead to this constitution-writing process.

CONAN: And the question being, can the president fire the armed forces chiefs? And that's an open question.

COOK: Well, it's an open question and thus far, the military has responded - absolutely not. They will not submit to civilian control and that they will seek to carve out their own autonomous place in Egyptian society and continue to essentially play the role that they've played all along, which is to have an influential political role without being involved in the day-to-day governance of Egypt and hold onto a vast array of economic interests all at the same time.

CONAN: We're talking about a difficult choice Egyptians face in the coming weeks. We'd especially like to hear from those of you who've been to Egypt since the Arab Spring. What's changed? 800-989-8266, email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. In the months since the Arab Spring, it's proven fruitless to try to predict what happens next in Egypt. The latest twist, a run-off between two divisive presidential candidates, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafik, who served as prime minister under former president, Hosni Mubarak. Each represents a very different vision for Egypt's future. So what are the choices now?

We'd especially like to hear from those of you who've been to Egypt since the Arab Spring. What's changed? 800-989-8255, email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at npr.org. Our guest is Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His new book, "The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square."

And joining us now is Tarek Masoud, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government where he specializes in Middle Eastern politics and policy. He joins us now by phone from Jordan and nice to have you back on the program.

TAREK MASOUD: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And I understand you were just in Egypt. What was the feeling there?

MASOUD: Well, the feeling was - it depends on who you talk to. I mean, if you talk to obviously those who we might call the youth of the revolution, this was a discouraging result. To have to choose in the run-off between the Muslim Brotherhood and a representative of the old regime is not quite what these folks had in mind.

If you talk to the Muslim Brotherhood, even though they try to put a brave face on it and claim that this was a victory, I think they were expecting to do a little bit better than this, especially given that they had done so well in the parliamentary election. I think the group that really are feeling quite buoyed and optimistic by this are the supporters of Ahmed Shafik, who, I think, lots of folks had underestimated.

CONAN: Underestimated. And is this a fear of what's been happening, about the lawlessness, about the lack of control? Is it let's go back to the way things were?

MASOUD: I think there's a couple of things. First of all, we tend to look at Egyptian elections through an American lens. So we think that the vote shares by each candidate represent ideas out there in society and the people who agree with the candidate's ideas vote for that candidate. But we've got to recognize that, particularly in the Egyptian case, which is a new democracy, voters aren't terribly sophisticated.

A lot of what drives vote share is mobilization. And the Muslim Brotherhood was able to go out there and mobilize its voters. The thing about Ahmed Shafik, which nobody is really saying, is that he was able to use the apparatus of the state, not just the old national democratic party, but the old security apparatus that knows which families to buy off and which villages. And that really worked on his behalf in sort of mobilizing voters for him, particularly in rural areas where we thought the Muslim Brotherhood would dominate.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Our first caller is Adam. Adam with us from San Antonio.

ADAM: Hey, (unintelligible), you know, devoted listener, first time caller.

CONAN: Oh, thanks very much for both those.

ADAM: Thanks for putting me on the program.

CONAN: Sure, go ahead.

ADAM: Here is my dilemma, you know. When Ahmed Shafik was the prime minister after Mubarak, you know, left the, you know, the presidency and all this kind of stuff, the people were not on the streets, you know, chanting Ahmed, Ahmed. They were in droves, you know what I mean, asking for his resignation. Yet, he is the runner-up in an election for president. You know, I just don't understand how they can, you know, throw one to the dogs one time and then the next time, they put him as a runner-up.

You know, I mean, to me, I always thought, you know, Amr Moussa would be the perfect candidate, you know, for this period at least, you know, for his knowledge of the international arena, you know what I mean? And he can help Egypt a lot more than any of them.

CONAN: Well, let's turn to Steven Cook. The prime minister was forced to resign by pressure from the square in Tahrir Square.

COOK: That's absolutely right. I think, though, as Tarek pointed out, this campaign that Shafik has run was based, in large part, on using the state apparatus to buy off which families where in rural areas. That certainly gave his candidacy a boost. It's also important to recognize that a lot has happened since Ahmed Shafik was forced to resign in March, 2011.

He was not only Mubarak's last prime minister, he was also the transitions first prime minister. And there have been amazing twists and turns in Egyptian politics over the course of the last sixteen months. And it is reasonable to assume that there are many Egyptians who have grown weary of the uncertainty, have grown weary of the precarious security environment, and are seeking an authoritarian solution to Egypt's current problems.

It's discouraging from the perspective of Egyptian revolutionaries, that there are so many people who seem willing to go back to some semblance of the old order.

CONAN: Adam, thanks very much for the call.

ADAM: Yeah, thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Tim and Tim's with us from Long Beach Island in New Jersey.

TIM: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead, please.

TIM: Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to - I wondered just if the military will ever relinquish power to the Egyptian people no matter who is elected and what party is ruling. They pretty much own most of the industries and live comfortably off of them, (unintelligible), hotels, you name it. And whoever is elected is going to be a puppet of the military establishment.

CONAN: All right, Tarek Masoud, what do you think?

MASOUD: Well, I think that you make a very good point, Tim. And I would say if you look at both of the two candidates now who are left, Mohammed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik, you notice that both of them actually are very conservative when it comes to how they will deal with the military. Mohammed Morsi has, on the campaign trail, been sending very clear signals that, you know, his government would not try to get into any conflict with the military or reduce the military's privileges or otherwise bring it fully under civilian authority.

So anybody who takes over in Egypt in the coming period knows that the military is going to have a vast scope of power, and that is generally how it is in many places that are coming out of military dictatorship. Indonesia is a good example of this. But with time, the military's powers generally we expect to get clipped way, chipped away at, until it's no longer a dominant force.

CONAN: Turkey might be an interesting comparison, Steven Cook.

COOK: You just took the words right out of my mouth. Turkey...

MASOUD: Exactly.

COOK: ...is the paradigmatic example of this kind of thing. The Turkish military broadly perceived to be all-powerful and dominant in the Turkish political system has, over the course of the last decade, been reduced in important ways to the extent that the Turkish general staff does not have the ability to drive and influence political events in the way that it once did.

That's certainly a possibility going forward in Egypt. It would be good for Egyptian democracy, if that was the case.

CONAN: Tim, thanks very much.

TIM: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we got - our next two. This is Medea(ph). Medea is with us from Denver.


CONAN: Hi, go ahead, please.

MEDEA: So I just want to say that we Egyptians somehow ended up with two candidates that actually nobody stands. And we're in a very tough position now because we don't want Egypt to be another Iran so we don't to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, you know, runner in Mohammed Morsi. But we don't want to vote for the pro-government person, Ahmed Shafik, either.

And to be honest, I don't how we ended up with these two candidates because Hadeem Sabahy, for example, for Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, they are much more liked by Egyptians. So we're really in a very tough position.

CONAN: Well, Tarek Masoud, devil in the deep blue sea. Some Egyptians, obviously some Egyptians can stand these two candidates. They voted for them, but the majority didn't.

MASOUD: Well, but we have to be very careful here, so while I've long said that the Muslim Brotherhood doesn't represent the first choice of a majority of Egyptians, that's not the same as saying that a majority of Egyptians would never vote for the Muslim Brotherhood under any circumstances. I know that surveys and polls in Egypt have now taken it on the chin in terms of their accuracy, but if you look at surveys and polls done in Egypt for the last 15 years, you find that there is this deep reservoir of religious sentiment and this belief that there should be a harmonization between religion and law.

And so the Muslim Brotherhood isn't - and it's views are not necessarily anathema to a majority of Egyptians. It's just in this case, a majority of Egyptians seemed to have wanted something else. I think the ball right now really is in the Muslim Brotherhood's court. If the Muslim Brotherhood can signal to the youth of the revolution and to those for whom religion isn't really something that they want very much of in their political life, if the brothers can signal to them that they're going to have a coalition government, that they're going to bring less (unintelligible) into government, give them a greater role in the constitution-writing process, then they have a real chance.

And I don't see how Ahmed Shafik could overcome that. If the brothers don't do that and Ahmed Shafik continues to play on this theme of the Brotherhood as sort of this supremacist organization that wants to take Egypt backwards and force Egyptian women to wear the veil and do other kinds of retrograde things, then I think they've got a much tougher road.

CONAN: And Steven Cook, there also have to be questions about the future. Would government in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood be willing to relinquish power in another democratic election?

COOK: Well, that's precisely the concern that the caller was expressing when she said that she didn't want Egypt to become another Iran. I don't think that there's really a basis of comparison between Khomeini's revolution and what we're seeing in Egypt right now, In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood has used at least the language of reform and change ever since it entered the electoral arena in the early 1980s. Still, they've never repudiated their ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic state.

Now, that's a subject of debate what exactly that means. But essentially, I agree with Tarek is that, look, if you look at the Brotherhood and its party, the Freedom and Justice Party, they won a plurality of votes in the parliamentary elections. If they play it right during this runoff period and they make credible commitments to revolutionary youth, liberals and others...

CONAN: And Christians.

COOK: ...and Christians as well, it's going to be hard for Shafik to overcome the ignominy of being Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister. I don't think people can get their minds around that they would elect yet another military officer to be the president of Egypt after everything that has happened over the course of the last year and a half.

CONAN: And, Tarek Masoud, that then leads to the question of who gets to write the constitution?

MASOUD: Well, I think that's exactly right, and I think one of the concessions that the Brotherhood is talking very seriously about making is giving these non-Islamist forces a much greater role in the writing of the constitution. And this is going to be critical because, you know, and this is where I think that there's - there may be a sort of divergence in the interests between the revolutionaries and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood, actually we talked to them what they want Egypt to be is a pure parliamentary system with no president at all.

But I think what the liberals have realized is that a presidential system is pretty good for them because it allows them to overcome using the charisma of their candidate all kinds of organizational - it's the thing like they have at the local level. So not only - they probably want to keep a presidential system. If you can imagine that there's all kinds of these conflicts over the constitution that could emerge. So for the Brotherhood to give up the (unintelligible) over writing the constitution would be a very, very serious commitment by them.

CONAN: Tarek Masoud, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

MASOUD: Thank you.

CONAN: Tarek Masoud, assistant professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, with us on the phone from Jordan. And our thanks as well to Steven Cook, who joined us here in Studio 3A...

COOK: Great pleasure.

CONAN: ...his most recent book "The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.