A Primer on Egypt’s Presidential Election with Tarek Masoud

April 30, 2014

In the tumultuous three years since protests in Tahrir Square spread into a revolution that brought down dictator Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian government has seen a number of changes of power. Next month will bring about yet another change when voters head to the polls to elect a new president.

To help make sense of the events leading up to the election, HKS Associate Professor Tarek Masoud appeared on the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast to offer a primer on the Egyptian political scene.

“One thing that we have to remember is that the 2011 revolution, for large numbers of Egyptians, was not really about unseating the military,” said Masoud, explaining the popularity of favored candidate and former Egyptian military leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. “You can’t underestimate their yearning for some stability and their hope that this stability will come in the form of a strong man like Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.”


You can listen to the 18 minute interview on Tumblr, iTunes, iTunes U, Stitcher or RSS. A full transcript of the interview is below.

MC: Professor Masoud, thanks for joining us.

TM: Thank you, Matt, for having me.

MC: So, the presidential election’s coming up May 26th and 27th. It’s shrouded in controversy. Can you take us back a little bit and explain what happened to lead up to this election?

TM: Sure. Well, as your listeners probably know, Egypt overthrew its dictator, Hosni Mubarak, in February 2011, and after that there were Parliamentary elections which brought the Muslim brotherhood and other “Islamists” to a majority in the legislature. After that, there was a presidential election and the Muslim brotherhood captured the presidency. A man named Mohamed Morsi was elected president and, after a year in power, was overthrown amid mass protests, but by the Egyptian military. And so ever since July 3rd, 2013, when Morsi was overthrown, the interim government, which was put in place by the military, has been trying, or has been saying that they’re going to get Egypt back to some semblance of a democratic order, and that this would be through elections. Initially, the plan was to have parliamentary elections first and then to have presidential elections, but the timetable was shifted and, in fact, now, the presidential elections are coming first. And, lo and behold, who is running in these presidential elections, but the man who overthrew the last president, the former Minister of Defense, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. And, by all accounts, it looks like Sisi is going to dominate this election. His main opponent, his only opponent, is a man named Hamdeen Sabahi, who had actually run against Morsi in 2012, and had placed third in the election. He’s now polling at around one percent. That number may go up, but nobody expects Hamdeen Sabahi to be able to beat Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, around whom there’s a kind of cult of personality right now. So, that’s basically a kind of short answer to your question.

MC: So, it seems like Sisi was originally appointed by Morsi as Defense Minister. How did they end up becoming politically opposite?

TM: Yeah, well, that’s right. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was appointed Defense Minister by Morsi in August of 2012 and, initially, was believed to be quite loyal to the new President, and people within the Muslim brotherhood felt that Sisi, who had a kind of reputation for being fairly religious, was a sympathizer with the MB, MB meaning the Muslim Brotherhood. And it’s important to note that Sisi had actually, prior to this, been a liaison between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. So, the Muslim Brothers thought that he was actually quite congenial to their point of view. And I’m not sure that he wasn’t. The problem, I think, was that Mohamed Morsi and his allies really, systematically, alienated huge portions of the non-Islamist Egyptian political spectrum. But more than that, they also seemed to be taking certain decisions or engaging in certain rhetoric that the national security establishment of Egypt found to be worrisome. So, for example, Morsi wanted to cut ties with Syria. Morsi was very tolerant of language about waging jihad in Syria. Morsi tried to improve relations with Iran, which worried the Egyptian military because the, you know, the Egyptian military has a close relationship both with the United States and with Saudi Arabia. So, for a lot of reasons, I think the Egyptian military was becoming very dissatisfied with Mohamed Morsi and couple that with the decay in the economy, the constant power outages, fuel shortages, and the mass protests that were resulting, it became, I think, the military thought and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi thought it was politically untenable to continue supporting Morsi, and so that they had to make a decision to remove him.

MC: Now, coming from a dictatorship under Mubarek, it seems interesting that, now, a military figure is actually, you know, the popular, you know, potential president after this month. How is it that the Egyptian public is, you know, supporting what could, you know, on its face, looks like a potential replacement dictator?

TM: Yeah, sort of looks more like continuity than change.

MC: Right.

TM: I think this is a really great question. There’s a lot of things that we’ve got to keep in mind. Remember when Mubarek was overthrown in 2011, what happened? Was the presidency assumed by civilians? No. Power was assumed by the military and Egyptians were very happy with that. So, I think that one thing that we have to remember is that the 2011 Revolution, for large numbers of Egyptians, was not really about unseating the military. It wasn’t really driven by a belief that the military was somehow illegitimately sitting atop the Egyptian political pyramid. I think lots of Egyptians are fine with that and happy with their military. So, it’s not surprising to me that they support Sisi, especially since they believe that Sisi took a very dramatic, necessary corrective action by removing Morsi. Sisi has a new campaign ad that was leaked in one of the big Egyptian newspapers, and you can view it on-line, and Sisi doesn’t appear in it at all, but the basic two points of this campaign ad are that Sisi is a man of the people who is religious, and the second point is that he’s a strong man, and we need a strong man at this time. And I think, you know, you can’t underestimate the yearning of large numbers of Egyptian people who have experienced the period after the Revolution as a period of uncertainty, as a period of economic crisis and chaos. You can’t underestimate their yearning for some stability and their hope that this stability will come in the form of a strong man like Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. I should also note just for your listeners who don’t know, Sisi did, of course, resign his positions within the military. So, he is now, technically, a civilian.

MC: So, it seems like there’s been a, when we look back on the overthrow of Morsi, a lot of people in the West see that as a, you know, overthrowing of a religious government, but there were powerful economic forces at play. I mean, which one was really responsible for the ouster?

TM: Yeah, this is a very good question. So, for some people, some people have commented that what we saw on July 3rd, 2013 with the overthrow of Morsi was absolutely a popular repudiation of political Islam, the idea that religion and politics should be mixed, and I’m not necessarily sure that that’s true. In fact, I think there’s lots of evidence that it’s not true. For example, the campaign ad that I just mentioned of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has this really interesting portion of it where a friend of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s is speaking about what a great man Sisi is, and he pulls out this little sheet of paper, and he says, this is a sheet of paper written in Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s own hand, and it has instructions on what to do if, you know, the world gets you down. And it’s all, like, you know, recite this religious phrase, you know, 999,000 times, and do this, and do, it’s all religious and prayer, and things like that. So, I think the Egyptian people are generally religious people, and the idea that their leader should be religious is something that they are, they want, and, more broadly, the idea that Islamic law, the sharia, should have some place in the nation’s laws, I think this is something that’s highly legitimate, and pretty much everybody in Egypt accepts. So, I don’t think that…

MC: What do you mean by highly legitimate?

TM: The idea…

MC: In the popular consciousness or…

TM: Yes, in the popular consciousness.

MC: Okay. Yeah, uh-hmm.

TM: Exactly. It’s perceived as something that is good.

MC: Yeah.

TM: And so it’s not surprising to me that after Morsi was overthrown, for example, and the interim government put out an interim constitution, it had all of the religious talk that people, at least here in the West, said was in Morsi’s constitution, still has the language about sharia in their new constitution. So, my new feeling is that it really wasn’t so much a repudiation of political Islam as it was a repudiation of Morsi and his government and its failures, a recognition of its failures to really resolve Egypt’s economic problems. Egypt has a population that is, about 15 percent lives on less than two dollars a day in current dollars. It’s experienced a dramatic dwindling of its foreign reserves which are necessary for it to import the wheat that it uses to feed its people subsidized bread. So, Egypt’s economy is, has never really recovered from the, from the Revolution, and I think, in part, that’s why there was so much dissatisfaction with Morsi. The question is, will Abdel Fattah el-Sisi be able to rectify the problems that Morsi was not able to rectify? And on one hand, look, he does have the State behind him in a way that Morsi never did. So, maybe he will be able to at least make policy without having to worry about foot-dragging by elements of the state. But at the same time, I think the depth of Egypt’s problems is so large that even Sisi will have some difficulty.

MC: So, do you think it’s possible that there can be any kind of stasis, or at least, you know, settling in the Egyptian polity without those kind of economic reforms?

TM: I’m not sure. So, I think that the Egyptian government now does have, can count on support from allies such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, which it could, which Morsi’s government couldn’t, and when I talk about support, I mean financial support. So, it’s possible that even without, sort of, deep, structural economic reform, which absolutely is necessary, but at the same time is very costly in the short-term, it’s possible that the assistance of these allies will help smooth things over in the coming period. And remember the Egyptian State has basically been inundating its people with a lot of messages about how the primary threat to the nation is terrorist threat from the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. And, so, it remains to be seen whether people will tolerate a continued deterioration of the economic situation because they feel the primary goal right now is to fight the Muslim Brotherhood.

MC: So, it seems that since Morsi was oustered, we’ve seen a move by the interim government to essentially criminalize the Muslim Brotherhood, and that’s resulted in, you know, scores and hundreds of folks being sentenced to death by mass trial, a lot of, you know, really, things that you don’t associate with democratic government. Are these things being tolerated in Egypt? Why aren’t people more angry about this?

TM: Well, I think that one of the reasons people aren’t more angry, I mean, certainly, some people are very angry -- supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the human rights community -- but I think the, maybe the broader Egyptian public is less angry about it because they really do believe that the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly now, is engaged in a kind of battle against the State and against the institutions of the State and, therefore, need to be punished severely. And there have, after all, been police officers who have been killed in clashes with supporters of the President. There’s been burning of churches, burning of police stations. So, there are reasons for people to believe that the Muslim Brotherhood needs to be suppressed. At the same time, it’s important to note these trials, so you’re speaking specifically of a ruling of, that 539 Muslim Brothers were sentenced to death for the killing of one police officer, and there is currently, that decision is actually being appealed and I think I just read this morning that it was being appealed by the prosecutor. In other words, that part of the Egyptian judicial apparatus that brought this case is actually not happy with the outcome. But it is important to note that it’s the judiciary that is actually, makes these kinds of decisions. It’s not as if the military made this call. And I think, in fact, it’s a kind of, as evidenced by your question, it’s actually kind of a PR disaster for the Egyptian military because it gives the lie to their claim that they’re restoring democracy in Egypt. So, I think they’d just as well prefer that these kinds of things didn’t happen. We’ll see in the end what actually ends up taking place, but my view is that the death sentences are evidence of just how much the Egyptian State in all of its different parts, not all of which work together all of the time, but how much they view the Muslim Brotherhood as threatening to the coherence of the national entity known as Egypt.

MC: Now, a fair portion of the population does have some affinity with the Muslim Brotherhood. It was the only party that really had organization before even Mubarak was ousted, but now without it, it’s not participating, really, in this election. Many of its, you know, associated parties, parties that are, have Islamist intentions, they are, you know, in exile and they’re essentially not participating in the election at all. Is the election valid without their participation? I mean, we’re talking about a sizeable portion of the voting populace, right?

TM: Yeah. Well, I mean, for an election to really be free and fair, obviously, everybody who wants to participate, or who can credibly participate, should be allowed to participate, and that’s clearly not the case in Egypt. So, by our existing metrics of whether elections are meaningful or not, then we would have to conclude that this case is not a meaningful one. At the same time, you know, is the Muslim Brotherhood likely to continue to boycott the Egyptian political system or will they eventually come around to reconciling themselves with what happened on July 3rd and trying to make some accommodations within the existing system, I think that’s an open question and I think now we’re starting to hear some rumblings about some reconciliation between the State and the Muslim Brotherhood, where members of the Muslim Brotherhood who are not implicated in crimes against the State will be allowed to continue to participate in politics. And I think that, thinking long-term, that has to be the answer in Egypt. That, in other words, you can’t exclude the Muslim Brotherhood or any other political force from the political arena. That, if Egypt is going to get back to some kind of normalcy, it’s going to be through inclusion, it’s going to be through every side recognizing that they’re better off playing within the system than playing without it. And that’s going to require the Muslim Brotherhood to do some difficult calculations, but it’s also going to require the new regime to conclude that the Muslim Brotherhood is not, that the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation is not, does not constitute an existential threat to them. And, so, it’s possible that once Sisi wins this election, if he wins it by a landslide, he may feel that he is strong enough to hold out an olive branch to the Muslim Brotherhood and allow them to participate.

MC: So, presuming Sisi does win, do you expect some stability to actually take place in the short- and long-term?

TM: I think so. I think that, I think, certainly, the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters will not stop in their protests against the interim government, and I should note that there are massive and continuing protests almost every day in Egypt, in universities, where I think students are not reconciled to what happened on July 3rd, 2013. So, that I don’t see ending. However, I do think that once Sisi becomes the President, the entire security apparatus will line up behind him. The support of the people for the President coupled with his deployment of coercion and maybe even coupled with a little olive branch to the Islamists will probably suggest in the short-term that things will quiet down a little bit. But at the same time, I could see the opposite happening, right? I could see, you know, Sisi getting elected and a big segment of the Islamist support base getting further radicalized and thinking that the only way to bring change is through violent revolution. All of which is to say I really don’t know the answer to the question.

MC: [Laughs] Well, Professor Tarek Masoud, thank you so much for being on PolicyCast today.

TM: Thank you, Matt, for your great questions.

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Tarek Masoud, associate professor of public policy

Tarek Masoud, associate professor of public policy

"I think that one thing that we have to remember is that the 2011 Revolution, for large numbers of Egyptians, was not really about unseating the military."