End of the Arab Spring, part II: Egypt

The second post in a continuing series. Read the first, on Algeria, here.

In terms of change in the Arab world, Egypt is the big prize. Although Tunisia was the first (and most successful) revolution of the Arab Spring, it was the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 that really made the world sit up and take notice.

As a result, Egypt went on to choose its own leader, for the first time in its history, in the presidential election of May-June 2012. But the victor, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, lasted only a year before being overthrown in a military coup.

In substance, Egypt has returned to authoritarian rule, with the banning of the Brotherhood, imprisonment of its supporters and the violent suppression of dissent. But in form the new rulers continue to profess loyalty to democracy, which is why a new presidential election is to be held in a month’s time.

There is no doubt about the winner. Military chief and coup leader Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi exercises complete control of the state apparatus – as was demonstrated in January’s referendum on a new constitution, which recorded a 98.1% “yes” vote. And on Sunday, when nominations closed, it was revealed that El-Sisi would face only one opponent at the election: Hamdeen Sabahi, who finished in third place in 2012.

A recent poll, taken before either candidate was officially declared, showed El-Sisi’s support at 39% but Sabahi’s less than 1%, with 59% undecided. In the current Egyptian climate, it’s entirely understandable that very few people would admit to an intention to vote for an opposition candidate. But that same climate makes it impossible to stage anything like a fair contest.

Which is not to deny that El-Sisi might well win even an impeccably fair election. Morsi’s rule was obviously an unsatisfactory period even for many Egyptians who had supported the revolution. While El-Sisi’s support seems to come mainly from the forces that backed the Mubarak regime, it is not confined to them; it includes, for example, the liberal Wafd Party.

But the fact that a military leader is set to be confirmed in power is another sign that the momentum of the Arab Spring is spent, at least for the time being. The best that can be said (and it’s by no means insignificant) is that the Egyptian people have shown that they are a force to be reckoned with; neither El-Sisi nor any future autocrat will be able to treat them with quite the same disdain that Mubarak and his predecessors did.

The contest also invites reflection on how different things could have been if the 2012 presidential election had turned out differently – for example, if a different electoral system had been used. There were 13 candidates in the first round, but 97.8% of the vote was shared among just five of them, as follows:

Mohamed Morsi 24.8%
Ahmed Shafik 23.7%
Hamdeen Sabahi 20.7%
Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh 17.5%
Amr Moussa 11.1%

Morsi represented the Brotherhood; Aboul Fotouh was a former member of the Brotherhood known for his more moderate views. Shafik represented the leftovers of the Mubarak regime; Moussa was also associated with it, but was seen more as a reformist. Sabahi represented the left-wing secular tradition.

With a two-round system, voters had to choose between Morsi and Shafik in the runoff: moderate, liberal and secular voters had the unenviable task of deciding whether Islamism or autocracy was the greater threat. In the end, Morsi scored a narrow victory with 51.7%.

But in a preferential system, it’s quite likely that enough of Aboul Fotouh’s and Moussa’s votes would have flowed to Sabahi for him to overtake either Morsi or Shafik, and that he would then have beaten the other of them fairly easily.

As I’ve argued before, Egypt’s subsequent problems stem largely from this basic electoral failing. Most voters were unhappy with the final choice they were offered, and the system encouraged Morsi to believe that he had majority support when in fact he was the first choice of only a quarter of the electorate.

Whether Sabahi would have been a more effective or long-lasting president is impossible to say. But it seems at least possible that such a technical matter as the choice of an electoral system may have determined the fate of the Egyptian revolution, and thereby the progress or disappointment of the Arab Spring.

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