A Minute With...

Kenneth Cuno, expert on the Middle East

5/30/2012  8:00 am

More than a year after “Arab spring” protests forced a revolution in Egypt, the country voted for a new president on May 23-24. A runoff election between the top two vote-getters will take place June 16-17. What does this first phase of voting indicate about post-revolution Egypt? What will be at stake in the runoff? Kenneth Cuno is a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Illinois whose research focuses on the social history of modern Egypt. Cuno has been following developments and talked about them with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

Hosni Mubarak was toppled in last year’s revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood was a late-comer to the protests, yet the two candidates left standing are Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmad Shafiq, and the Brotherhood candidate Muhammad Mursi. How did this happen?

image of professor ken cunoThe first-place finish by Mursi, with nearly a fourth of the vote, is being credited to the organizational strength of the Muslim Brotherhood and, of course, the conservative religious values of many Egyptians. Shafiq’s law-and-order stance resonated with people upset by the post-revolution crime wave, and he had at least some support from elements of Mubarak’s defunct National Democratic Party. The extent of Christian support for him, as a non-Islamist, isn’t clear.

The non-religious supporters of the Jan. 25, 2011, revolution, currently called the “revolutionaries” in the Egyptian media, lacked a nationwide organization like the Brotherhood’s or the NDP, but even so their favored candidate Hamdin Sabbahi finished a strong third with about a fifth of the vote, running strongly in the major urban centers of Cairo and Alexandria. Another result awaiting analysis is the decline in overall voter turnout, to 46 percent – a 20-point decline from the parliamentary elections held between November and January.

The Muslim Brotherhood, along with more conservative Islamists, captured about 70 percent of the parliament in those earlier elections. What might be the result if the Brotherhood candidate also wins the presidency?

Islamism is the idea that Islam can be the basis of a socio-political system superior to other systems like communism, liberal democracy and the like. But there are varieties of Islamism – witness the two states actually run by Islamists: Iran and Turkey. Policies adopted by Islamists in power or seeking it reflect the local political scene more than some international, one-size-fits-all agenda. Islamist parties now lead coalition governments with non-religious parties in Tunisia and Morocco, and invoke the moderate Turkish example.

In Egypt the Islamists are in a stronger position than in Tunisia or Morocco, though they are divided. The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and its allies hold about 46 percent of parliamentary seats, and their Islamist rivals, the more extreme “Salafis,” led by the Nour Party, hold a fourth of the seats. Mursi only received about 25 percent in the first round, which may indicate voters’ disappointment with the performance (or lack of it) by the parliament so far. Nevertheless, if Mursi wins the presidency, he and the FJP would have considerable power, and the question is how they would use it.

Mursi ran hard to the right to win over Nour supporters after their candidate was disqualified, pledging to “implement the Sharia” among other things. Now he is running toward the center, trying to win over the revolutionaries, whose distrust of the Islamists may be outweighed by their fear that Shafiq will bring back a version of the old Mubarak regime. But many revolutionaries may sit out the second round, out of dislike for both candidates. 

With the military still in charge, and no new constitution, how much power do the president or parliament even have?

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has pledged to turn over executive power to an elected president by the end of June. But it also has said that before then it will issue an interim constitutional declaration defining the president’s powers. There is no date set for the declaration and its extent is uncertain, but many believe that the military intends to preserve its privileged position in the new political system.

The FJP-led parliament has asserted, unsuccessfully so far, the right to approve cabinet ministers. Presumably that won’t be a problem if Mursi is elected, though we can expect there to be tension between a government led by him and the military. Shafiq is a former officer and campaigned as a friend of the armed forces. If elected president he would likely get on with the military and clash with the parliament over ministerial appointments and other issues.

Regardless of who wins the presidency, we can expect a struggle over the constitutional committee, not to mention the new constitution itself. Last weekend the parliament produced a draft law concerning the composition of the committee and procedures for approving a draft, which is already drawing criticism.

Given its recent history and difficult circumstances, how would you gauge Egypt’s progress toward democracy? Could it fall under another autocratic regime?

A return to Mubarak-style autocracy is almost inconceivable. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is sticking to its commitment to hand over power, if for no other reason than that the military is dependent on American aid, and rank-and-file soldiers cannot be relied upon to fire at their fellow citizens. I think that in its own bumbling way the SCAF is made up of patriots trying to serve their country.

Equally important, Egyptians have gone to the polls three times in 15 months, turnout was relatively high and peaceful, irregularities were minor, the results were not known in advance, and so most people accept the results as legitimate even if they are disappointed by them. That alone represents a sea change in the political scene. But it is only the end of the beginning. As we ought to know, democracy isn’t a destination. It’s a process.

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