Egypt's dilemma: The professor or the pilot?

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Egyptians will vote June 16 and 17 in a runoff election to determine their next president. The two candidates are unexpected beneficiaries of a divided electorate, disqualifications of more popular candidates and better organization among several key constituencies. The results will determine the future of the largest Arab state, as well as play a pivotal role in influencing the long-term impact of the Arab Spring, a movement for democratization and anti-authoritarianism that began in Tunisia in December 2010, and has led to uprisings, civil wars and regime changes across North Africa and the Middle East.

The candidate who won the most votes -- at just under 25 percent -- was Dr. Mohammed Morsi, representing the Muslim Brotherhood, under the banner of the Freedom and Justice Party. Although he earned his Ph.D. in engineering from the University of Southern California and his children have U.S. citizenship, he is aligned with the more traditionalist wing of the Brotherhood -- which also controls the Egyptian parliament.

Under the slogan "Islam is the Answer," the movement has argued for a harder line against Israel -- Morsi has called Israelis "vampires" and "killers" -- as well as for more restrictions against Egypt's already pressured Coptic Christian community.

Despite his Islamist credentials, Morsi was never expected to be the Brotherhood's candidate. With little experience in government other than five years as a minor figure in parliament and posts within the Brotherhood, he was catapulted to the final round due to the disqualification of more prestigious Islamist candidates and a division of votes by more liberal candidates, who combined drew almost 50 percent of the votes.

Morsi's support draws from the same voters who gave the Freedom and Justice Party almost 50 percent of seats in parliament -- Egyptians who want more Islamic law, more restrictions on cultural expression and fewer rights for women and minorities, all in the name of a particular -- and far from universal -- version of Islam.

This could be enough to catapult this Islamist cipher into the most powerful position in the Egyptian government. Ironically, Morsi's actual resume -- college professor, unremarkable legislator and political activist -- parallels that of Barack Obama before his election in 2008.

The alternative candidate standing in the June election is Ahmed Shafik, a former Egyptian air force officer, with a distinguished record as a combat pilot, military attache in Rome, air force chief of staff, commander of the Egyptian air force and, after retiring, minister of civil aviation. Most controversially, he was the last prime minister -- for just over a month -- under authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak (also a former air force general), resigning just before the regime itself collapsed in February 2011.

Shafik represents for many Egyptians both the bad and the good of the former dictatorship: stability, but also restrictions on freedom; peace with Israel, but a treaty system that was increasingly unpopular with the typical Egyptian; economic growth, but also corruption and a system managed for the benefit of Mubarak and his entourage.

Shafik does appeal to the millions of Egyptians who are more secularist than Islamist, and would prefer for Egypt not to become even more socially repressive. Coptic Christians -- 10 percent of Egypt's population -- see Shafik as a protector of their religious liberties against rising Islamist attacks on their churches, schools and neighborhoods. Members and relatives of Egypt's military, security forces, and government ministries also prefer Shafik as the candidate most likely to maintain them in their positions, while seeing in Morsi the threat of mass dismissals, or worse, under a regime led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Polls indicate a close contest between the two men, as Egyptian voters ponder two candidates who seem at odds with the values of the Arab Spring and the revolution of 2011, at least as it played out in Tahrir Square, on Facebook and in the international media. In truth, however, both represent the two most powerful trends in modern Egyptian politics -- the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood and secularism led by the military.

The impact on domestic and international affairs will be profound in either direction, as Egyptians select the man who will determine relations with the U.S. and Israel, attempt to reform a creaking economy, decide the role of Islam in the state and cope with the rising demands of an educated population facing unemployment rates of more than 12 percent.

Dr. Wayne H. Bowen is a professor and chairman of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University and is also a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. He earned his BA from the University of Southern California, and his MA and Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University.

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