Monday, May 28, 2012

Egypt: The great experiment begins


CANDIDATES. Turnout. Runoff. Three of the words that American voters (and those in other countries) are almost inured to are suddenly, staggeringly new to the voters of a nation whose geopolitical importance can’t be overstated, and whose future couldn’t be more uncertain.

Last week in two days of voting, the people of the Republic of Egypt took their first real steps toward participatory democracy, spurred by the events of the Arab Spring, voting in their first popular election in, seriously, 5,000 years.

Over the weekend, NBC News correspondent Richard Engel confirmed what other news sources reported on Monday: Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ahmed Shafiq, a hardliner from Egypt’s past, would face a runoff vote on June 16 for the presidency of the nation of 81 million people whose citizens’ median age is 24 years old. The contrast between the choices couldn’t be starker.

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Morsi has openly expressed a desire to help transform Egypt from a largely secular nation into an Islamic state, and also to usher in a correspondingly hard line toward Israel in particular and Western nations in general. As articulated, Morsi’s platform would essentially transform Egypt into an Iran-style theocracy, with disastrous consequences for relations with the United States and other world powers.

A Shafiq victory would be just as problematic, but for other reasons. Shafiq is a former prime minister in the service of Hosni Mubarak, the pharaoh manqué who was ousted from power last year. As a politician in the authoritarian mold of Mubarak, and a former head of the Egyptian air force, Shafiq is facing opposition from Egyptians who don’t want a new president who follows in the footsteps of the dictator whose autocratic, repressive style of rule drove them into the streets in the first place.

“We have carried out the revolution against the authoritarian regime, which was run by Hosni Mubarak,” said columnist Ibrahim Mansour, writing in Monday’s edition of the Al-Tahrir newspaper. “And without doubt, Ahmed Shafiq is a natural extension of Hosni Mubarak.”

The resulting uncertainty, destined to last until at least the June vote, and maybe longer, is already making itself felt. “Investors are afraid because now we have two extreme candidates facing one another. No one will invest heavily in Egypt ... until it becomes clear who is president,” said Amr Chamel, a trader at Pharos Securities told Reuters on Monday.

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CALL THIS bad news on top of bad news: In the wake of last year’s bloody unrest, estimates emerged that Egypt — a country heavily dependent on tourism — was losing more than $300 million a day. And unlike other Middle Eastern countries, like Libya or Saudi Arabia, Egypt can’t fall back on oil reserves as a buffer against economic instability.

In many ways, Egypt is a captive of an existential tug-of-war, a pushmi-pullyu scenario distilled in the starkness of the choices for the next president. NBC News’ Ayman Moyeldin grasped this in a Monday analysis on MSNBC.com:

“For 16 months, a debate has raged over the country’s political future. Should it be a presidential or parliamentary system? Should it be an Islamist state? Secular? Capitalist? Socialist? The candidates tried to define themselves assuming these were the metrics the voters used.

“But the results of the first round of voting showed that Egyptians en masse have yet to answer a central question about the country’s future: Do they accept change and the uncertainty and chaos it brings, or will they choose stability and the stagnation it breeds?

“For the past year and four months, everything that has unfolded in this country can be seen through this prism – a choice between change or stability.”

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Ironically, it’s that tug-of-war that reinforces a sense of hope for Egypt’s future; that indecision on the part of the 50 million or so who voted in the first round of elections has distinct parallels with our own participatory democracy in the United States, and others around the world.

No one said the process of deciding free and fair elections has to be as transparent as the outcome of those elections.

Next month the Egyptian people will complete that first step to deciding their own future — the first such step in five millennia. But in taking that bold and necessary move, they’ll discover one of the abiding ironies of democracy: while having a choice of candidates is crucial, sometimes a choice is no choice at all.

Image credits: Morsi and Shafiq: Khaled Elfiqi/EPA via MSNBC.com.

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