It was an achievement for Egypt to conduct a democratic presidential election last month. This weekend Egyptians will choose between two ideologically contrasting, authoritarian figures in a decisive second round of voting.
Authoritarianism has deep roots in the Middle East. It took decades to figure out how to depose a dictator. It may take longer to discover how to dispose of a patriarchal social order, a system of norms which prescribes that men dominate women, the military to control the civilian, and for clerics to influence politics, restrict religious freedom, suppress human sexuality and arrange marriage.
Mohammad Mursi and Ahmed Shafiq are the two contenders for the presidency in the runoff elections. The race is tight.
Mursi is backed by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the strongest conservative religious movement in the region. Few believe that the MB is capable of running the country without its undergoing ideological transformation. The Islamists already have a majority in the parliament.
Shafiq is covertly backed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). SCAF is expected to hand over power to a civilian government in July. Few believe that the military will immediately relinquish power; the generals run lucrative and privileged economic projects: 30% of the economy.
The two candidates are personally more flexible than the establishment they belong to. Before he taught in the Arab world, Mursi was a professor of engineering at California State University. And Shafiq was an impressive Chief of Air Force, an innovative Minister of Aviation and a Prime Minister.
Mursi promises to fight corruption, serve the poor and reform foreign policy, while Shafiq offers stability, prosperity and secular governance.
Mursi was active in the Arab Spring uprising as a senior leader in the Islamist movement, while Shafiq was Mubarak’s last prime minister, handling the uprising as if it were a passing wave of social unrest.
Mursi has formed the Freedom and Justice Party to distance himself a notch from organized religion and broaden his secular base. He initially expected to have the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament to write the new constitution. Under pressure in recent days, he conceded to allow the formation of a diverse national assembly which will draft the new constitution.
Regardless of who wins this election, the new leader of Egypt will succeed or fail depending on how far he serves the entire nation, far beyond his constituency. Regardless of the charisma which any candidate may bring to the presidency, the ultimate outcome of his rule still depends significantly on developments beyond his control.
Consider the personal element first. If Mursi is the new president, will he be sober, eager and trusting enough to form a coalition government in which major secular parties and social movements could join him in running the country?
Moreover, will Mursi, the former US professor, guide his Freedom and Justice Party to follow the moderate political path of Turkey, and to go even beyond the Turkish model, in respecting minority groups?
And if Shafiq is elected, will he realize that Mubarak’s dynastic style of governance is now obsolete? Will he be able to provide security without suppressing dissent? Will he restrict privilege and expand entitlement provisions?
Socio political factors will significantly impact the performance of the new president. Three such variables come to mind: the quality of the new constitution, the performance of the economy and international support.
After the elections, the newly formed assembly will revise the constitution which is supposed to restrict the power of the president, distance the military from politics, protect human rights and insure sound foreign policy. The president will not be able to introduce reforms without a progressive legal framework.
The relevance of the economy on leadership is significant. The eighty million Egyptians are industrious, but they live on land which is 95 % desert. Egyptians need tourists to return to the Pyramids. If the economy continues to decline, the priorities of social and political reforms may weaken. Reform and dependence on aid do not go well together.
International policy of assistance to Egypt should change in the new era. For instance, US military aid to Egypt is about $1.3 billion and non-military assistance is only $250 million. Without a strong economic and scientific base, Egypt cannot break the cycle of poverty. Cairo needs more economic and scientific empowerment than politically-tied military aid.
The success of the new president will have to be a combination of personal achievement and supportive socio-economic factors.
Egyptians who fear the military most will vote for Mursi, and those who fear a dominant political Islam most will vote for Shafiq.