Post-Election Blues in Cairo

Early this afternoon, I walked the several blocks from my apartment to Tahrir Square. Each Friday, for the last few months, thousands have flooded the world’s most famous traffic circle in anticipation of Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential election. Today, the square was all but empty, save a few older men huddled under tents, reading the newspaper, and a lone television presenter filming a spot as the occasional car sped by. Some might put this down to election fatigue now that the first round of voting is at long last over. Others would no doubt take a less charitable view: Tahrir is empty, they’d say, because the revolution is dead.

Egypt woke up this morning to the not-entirely-shocking but nonetheless convulsing news that the top two vote-getters in the election appeared to be Mohamed Morsi, the flag-bearer of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ahmed Shafik, the former commander of the Egyptian Air Force and Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister. Until just a few weeks ago, pundits gave neither much of a chance. Both were late entrants into the race. The Brotherhood originally registered Morsi as its backup candidate to its first choice, the Deputy Supreme Guide of the 84-year-old revivalist Islamic organization, Khairat Al Shater, who was later disqualified from the race due to criminal convictions under Mubarak. Morsi, an uncharismatic Brotherhood insider, was derided as a “spare tire” and polled in the single digits in pre-election surveys.

Shafik not only embodied the derogatory feloul label attached to “remnants” of the former regime, but seemed to relish it. He vowed to save Egypt from the rise of political Islam using whatever means necessary. (The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the ultraconservative Salafists together won some 70 percent of the seats in the parliamentary elections that wrapped up earlier this year.) For months, it has been another feloul candidate, former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, whom most have considered the frontrunner. But while Moussa downplayed his decades working under Mubarak and pledged to midwife a transition to full democracy, Shafik pledged to restore a government reminiscent, if not necessarily identical, to the one he once served. This morning, Shafik’s spokesman made it plain to the New York Times, “The revolution has ended,” he said.

In many ways, Morsi and Shafik’s respective surges arose symbiotically. Morsi, whose momentum in recent weeks owes largely to the Brotherhood’s unrivaled ground game and organizational prowess, tacked sharply rightward on religion, promising a faithful implementation of Sharia law and depicting himself as God’s chosen candidate. Shafik, in turn, seized on fears of an Islamist takeover; it’s no surprise that some of his strongest support came from Egypt’s large Christian minority. Combined with rival feloul Moussa’s extraordinary flameout (he looks to have won only about 10 percent of the vote), shockingly low turnout (around 50 percent), and a split in the liberal-secular vote between the moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and surprise third-place finisher, the Nasserite socialist Hamdeen Sabbahi, the election’s two most polarizing figures now look set to contest the runoff in mid-June.

There could yet be more drama in store. The official count is still taking place, including in the most populous areas of the country, and Sabbahi’s camp claims it will have the edge over Shafik when all is said and done. On Twitter, though, despair is already rampant among liberals and revolutionaries, apoplectic at the prospect of a either a hard-core Islamist or an unapologetic remnant of the old regime assuming the presidency. Lazy headline writers have for months been referring to Egypt’s “unfinished” revolution. If the current results hold, many will find a new adjective more appropriate: “lost.”

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