29. Presidential elections, the need for uniting the country and CIDT remaining non-partisan

Article summary: 

Egypt is preparing itself for the second round of presidential elections on June 16 and 17 with two remaining candidates: Ahmad Shafīq and Muhammad Mursī. These two candidates reflect a great division one sees in Egypt, between Islamists (Mursī) and those opposed to Islamists (Shafīq).

The choice is not an easy one.

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Muhammad Mursī

Head of the Muslim Brotherhood faction in the Egyptian parliament during the last years of Husnī Mubārak.  He is the president of  Freedom and Justice Party. While not very charismatic he became a presidential candidate after the Higher Committee to Oversee the Elections disqualified Khayrat al-Shātir, widely known as the financial backer of the Muslim Brotherhood. Theoretically, the Freedom and Justice Party and Muslim Brotherhood are separate, but links between the two are intensive. This is also the case with Muhammad Mursī who is widely accused of being obedient to the general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ahmad Shafīq

An Air Force general who has a similar background to Husnī Mubārak who also was an Air Force general. Shafīq was the head of EgyptAir, was responsible for building the new Cairo airport and became the Minister of Civil Aviation. He is a secularist and technocrat with a reputation of being hands-on. Shafīq was also the last Prime Minister for Mubārak before he stepped down and is non-apologetic for the deeds of Mubārak. He also plays on the wide-scale fear that many Egyptians have of the Brotherhood.

It seems to be a choice between the Muslim Brotherhood or a return to the old regime. Not a choice that most liberals want to make. A few days ago, I met with Dr. Hasan Badrāwī, international relations secretary of the liberal Wafd Party, who stated that his party endorses neither candidate and leaves the decision what candidate to choose to the conscience of each individual voter.

An unexpected choice

The choice between Mursī and Shafīq was unexpected by many observers. Along with many others, I had predicted that the run off would be between ‘Amr Mūsá and ‘Abd al-Mun’im Abū al-Al-Futūh. Dr. Hātim Al-Qādī, Head of Information and Decision Support Center, Cabinet of the Prime Minister, told me that the polls showed Mūsá leading the candidates in the beginning of the campaign, but that his popularity started to wane by the end of his campaign. Shafīq’s popularity had been rising, but many had not paid attention to this. Shafīq, in particular, benefited from the clashes between the supporters of the discredited Hāzim Abū Ismā’īl (Salafī) and the army in violent demonstrations in front of the Ministery of Defence, the headquarters of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Abū Al-Futūh was a strong contender of ‘Amr Mūsá. Abu al-Al-Futūh, an Islamist who had broken away from the Brotherhood, had made successful overtures to appeal to the centrist voters and with both liberals and Copts supporting his campaign. He lost much of this support after the Salafī al-Nūr Party, that had fielded Hāzim Abū Ismā’īl, decided to support Abū Al-Futūh over Mursī. This created fear among centrist voters and liberals and caused many voters to switch alliances to leftist presidential candidate, Hamadīn Sabāhī, whose star had been rising during the final period before the first round of elections. The choice of Mursī and Shafīq in the second round can thus be explained.

Polls showed another major point: Around 35 percent of the voters remained indecisive until the last moment. That made it possible to see rapid shifts between one candidate and another. Also, polls could not be conducted during the last six days before the election.  Many polls were also flawed because they were based on telephone interviews which excluded the poorer segments of the electorate who do not have telephones.

Divided country

What one sees now is a highly divided country. Some people endorse Shafīq because they fear that the Islamists want to change Egypt in an Islamic state. They are already a majority in Parliament and now they might also take the presidency?  For the advocates of Shafīq, that is too much. They also look at the advance of Islamists in other countries in the region and fear this will bolster Islamists in Egypt. Fear for Islamists has also been wiped up by anti-Islamist propaganda. TV host Tawfīq ‘Ukāshah’s presentation of a video of the slaughter of a young Tunesian man by Islamists is an example of such propaganda. The slaughter did take place but the exploitation for political gain has hardly been noticed by non-Islamists.

Mursī is also attracting votes from non-Islamists who do not want to return to the days before Mubārak was toppled.  Revolutionary groups, like the Six April Movement and Kifāyah, endorsed Mursī, not because they think Mursī is the ideal Presidential candidate, but because they don’t want a representative of the old regime (Shafīq) in power.

Advocates in favor of Mursī say that he is in favor of shifting power from the presidency to an elected parliament. The argument goes that once a dictator has fallen, he should be followed up by a system of parliamentary democracy that will increase chances of democratization.  Some analysts say that if a dictator falls only to be replaced by a strong president, a new dictatorship may appear. Others say there is no guarantee that Mursī will actually cede power to the parliament.

Sadly, most arguments seem to be based on or influenced by fear for one another.
A third group consists of people who are against both candidates and refuse to vote for either of them. I expect that this could reduce voter turn-out for the second round of elections and thus reduce the political strength of whichever candidate is elected.

What is the position of Egyptian Christians in these first free presidential elections?

The first word that could be used is: Fear of an Islamist takeover. The Freedom and Justice Party attempted to reduce Christian fears during the Parliamentary elections in a number of statements and Mursī has done so during his presidential campaign.  However, many Christians do not trust words.

Hānī Labīb notes that several Egyptian media and commentators claimed the majority of Christians voted for Shafīq which has helped create the impression that Christians are anti-Islamist. Despite the accusations and assumptions, the ballots, Labīb notes, didn’t register names so it is impossible to accurately determine the number of Christians who truly voted for Shafīq.

One of the rumors goes that Muslim Brothers in some villages in Upper Egypt campaigned with the slogan that a vote for Shafīq would be a vote for church building in your (addressing the electorate) village.  While I could not confirm this, if such local campaigning is true, it does not serve to improve relations between Islamists and Christians. I do not think that it serves Christians well to be caught between Freedom and Justice Party/Islamists in general and Shafīq.  Local relationships in Egypt are important and help to address tensions which include relations between Islamists and Christians.

Where does Arab-West Report stand in this turmoil?

Inside our office, we are also divided. I still advocate a position of non-partisanship while managing director, Hānī Labīb, has (outside Arab-West Report) endorsed Ahmad Shafīq, not because he favors the old regime, but because he doesn’t want a religious state, Muslim or Christian. If Islamists would win the presidency, this would mean, Labīb says, that Sharia law would likely be implemented.

I believe that there is no doubt that Islamists and sympathizers make up a large segment of the Egyptian population. Estimates based on past elections show that they could attract as many as 7 million Egyptian voters.  However, this means that Islamists voters are still a (albeit, large) minority because there are around 50 million total voters. During the parliamentary elections the overall voter turn-out was 54 %. During the first round of the presidential elections only 46 % of registered voters have cast their ballots. The voter turn-out in the second round is expected to be lower. But even with a voter turn-out of 20 million or 40 % Islamists would be in a minority.

While Islamists do not form the majority in Egypt, it is also not a small section that one can ignore. It is therefore my opinion, that ways should be found that encourage Islamists and non-Islamists to work together to rebuild the country which is an economic shambles. It is also important that Christians avoid becoming embroiled in polemics between Islamists and non-Islamists. If a Christian votes for Shafīq, it is his choice, but Christians should not become involved in anti-Islamist rhetoric.  Hard questions may be asked, but that is not the same as making unfounded accusations. Lines of communication must remain open to prevent Christians from forming mental ghettos and Islamists and Christians from seeing each other as enemies which will only inflame tensions.

Christians often claim that their numbers are far larger than they really are.  I recently argued with a Christian cabdriver from Al-Zāwyah al-Hamrah (a district in Cairo that saw conflicts between Muslims and Christians in the final days of Sadat in 1981) who claimed that Christians make up 20 percent of the population. He rejected all arguments that this number could be exaggerated.  It is such claims that Christians are stronger than they really are that encourage such Christians to engage in non-violent conflicts and disputes with Islamists which are totally self-defeating.  Now claims have been made that some five million Christians will vote for Shafīq and thus that he has obtained the support of many Christians. But in reality, no one actually knows how many Christians will support Shafīq in the run-off elections.

Hānī Labīb believes Shafīq probably had the largest number of Christian votes in the first round of the presidential elections, followed by Mūsá and then Sabāhī. A smaller number of Christians also voted for Amr Mūsá. Hānī Labīb says there was a small following of Christians that supported medical doctor, Dr. Sharīf Dūs as well as another small group that favored Abū Al-Futūh.

The claim that many Christians voted for Shafīq is dangerous for Christians - as it increases polarization which neither Christians nor other Egyptians need.  Christians need to be realistic and argue from a position that is realistic.

I do not think that any president elected, whether Shafīq or Mursī, will have the power as previous presidents have had.  Thus, the risk of the new president becoming as powerful as Husnī Mubārak is very unlikely.  I strongly hope that the new president of Egypt will make sincere efforts to unite all Egyptians.  While I might personally feel that Amr Mūsá,  Hamadīn Sabāhī and even Abdel Monem Abū Al-Futūh would have been better suited to unite Egyptians than either Muhammad Mursī or Ahmad Shafīq, Egyptians now have to choose which of the two remaining candidates will become their president.  The new president will have a mandate for four years only and Egyptians should make sure that no president oversteps that mandate. I believe that Egyptians need to be united and that not only a president, but also Egyptian citizens themselves have a duty to achieve this objective.

I have asked Hānī Labīb to explain his position:

Q. You made videos and placed them on Youtube where you strongly advocate voting for Shafīq and state many Islamists are not to be trusted. See: Video 1
Video 2 - Link does not function, checked on 16.03.2016 , Viedo 3 

Don’t you think this is in violation with CIDT/AWR’s position of non-partisanship?  I know you gave this endorsement as an individual Egyptian citizen and not as CIDT/AWR managing director, but don’t you think this is nevertheless in violation with the policy if CIDT/AWR to be non-partisan?

I often give my opinion on Egyptian television programs. I’m not interested in Shafīq as a person; I’m in favor of supporting a civil state. If the choices for president were different, I wouldn’t vote for Shafīq. I’m not voting for Shafīq, I’m voting for a secular state. The problem with many Islamists is that they are two-faced. There are many media reports, including reports archived at the Arab-West Report that prove this. I have been on TV giving political commentaries before I joined Arab-West Report. Now, in these elections, I have to make a choice. I make the distinction between the opinion of  CITDT, which I believe should be non-partisan, and my political opinion as a private citizen.  I understand that CITDT is objective, and I support that mission, but privately I do make partisan statements.

I have debated Islamists like Dr. Sa’d al-Hussaynī and Shaykh Usāmah al-Qūsī on television. Islamists make the same distinction that I do. When they’re debating on TV, they state that they are only representing themselves and that they’re not speaking on behalf of their movement. I am also not a party representative; I’m presenting my private opinions. I am also not speaking as a representative of the Church or on behalf of Christians in Egypt.

Q. Do you think you can advocate dialogue and mutual understanding within CIDT/AWR while attacking Islamists outside CIDT/AWR?  What do you think this does to the credibility of your voice in CIDT/AWR?

A: It doesn’t interest me what Islamic leaders such as ‘Isām al-‘Iryān think of me. What is important to me is that I have my facts correct and if I make a mistake or misstate a fact then they should correct me. In all discussions that I have had with Islamists, no Islamist has accused me of having my facts wrong. They could disagree with me but they could never argue that I had my facts wrong. I wrote a book called “Citizenship and Globalization: Copts in a Changing Society.” This book received the State incentive award in the field of social science (modern history) from the Ministry of Culture. In the book there was a chapter on relations between Copts and Islamists and in this chapter I wrote about all the things that are now mentioned here. My book received an award and no one claimed there were facts wrong.

None of the original 13 presidential candidates were, in my opinion, qualified, but the fact is that there are only two candidates left. I don’t trust Islamists. In Arab-West report we have a transcription of a dialogue between Evangelicals and Islamists.  The discussion between Evangelicals and Islamists concerned the constitutional assembly. In the first constitutional assembly, that was later abolished, there was not one single Evangelical member.  Only the Evangelicals participated in a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, not the Catholics or the Orthodox. After the discussion the Evangelicals released a statement saying they were not happy with the dialogue. So the dialogue between the Evangelicals and the Muslim Brotherhood happened before the constitutional assembly was formed. So the idea is, we are having a dialogue but you are not even helping us, Evangelicals, put one member in the assembly. The Evangelicals expected more from the Muslim Brothers. The Muslim Brothers are ready to talk, but they are not ready to grant concessions and allow Evangelicals join the assembly that will write the new constitution. The Muslim Brotherhood responded to the Evangelical disappointment by pointing to the fact that they have one prominent Evangelical member, Rafiq Habib, but he wasn’t chosen by Evangelicals to representative them. The Evangelicals hoped participating in a dialogue would help them. However, The Muslim Brotherhood is only interested in consolidating as much power for them selves as possible.

Not giving small minorities a chance to participate is immensely typical. The Muslim Brotherhood is not going to put up a fight against allowing minorities to participate, but they won’t facilitate their inclusion. The Muslim Brotherhood wants as much influence as possible, even if it means disappointing Evangelicals and other denominations of Christians. Of course, everyone is ultimately self-interested, but there are around seven million Islamist voters, a large minority, who are not willing to give up power to comparably small minorities like Evangelicals.

"Your article is excellent. Great thoughtfulness." - Prof. Dr. Abdallah Schleifer

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