TSG IntelBrief: Egyptian Polls Reflect Military’s Success in Shaping Presidential Election
April 10, 2012
Bottom Line Up Front:
• The splintering of the Islamist vote between such a large number of candidates has the Egyptian military well-placed to ensure that, while there was a successful revolution, there will be no true regime change after the May elections.
• Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat el-Shater had less than 2% in a recent poll, which suggests either the state-run poll was influenced by the military ― as long has been the case under Mubarak ― or voters might be hesitant to give the Brotherhood too much power for fear of returning to a one-party rule.
As of mid-April 2012, the list of candidates for Egypt’s upcoming presidential elections has been finalized, while the robust jockeying for public support among the 23 candidates is just beginning in earnest. While much has been made of the recent entry into the race by the former intelligence chief, Omar Sulayman ― and how this move ensures a two-person showdown between Sulayman, supported by the military, and Khairat el-Shater, the Brotherhood candidate ― a poll released on April 9 shows a more complicated picture, one that suggests the Egyptian military is succeeding in its calculated strategy to divide the Islamist vote among a wide array of candidates as it works to reassure an unsettled public that has perhaps grown weary of the sweeping changes that have taken place in the past year.
In a nation-wide poll conducted by state-run newspaper al-Ahram, Amr Moussa, the former head of the Arab League and foreign minister under Mubarak, garnered the support of over 30 percent. Hazem Abu Ismail, the Salafist candidate whose eligibility was just pulled due to his mother’s dual nationality (she held both Egyptian and American citizenship, an odd situation for the strident anti-American candidate) was in second place with almost 23 percent. Former Muslim Brotherhood senior official Abdel Abul Fotouh was in third with just over 8 percent, with Sulayman, who hadn’t even entered the race when the newspaper conducted the poll, was close behind in fourth. El-Shater was far behind, with less than 2 percent of the vote, even though he had declared his candidacy well before the poll was finished.
We have previously written of the likelihood that the Egyptian military, with far more experience than the Brotherhood in the actual wielding of power, would pursue one of two fundamental strategies: either split the Islamist vote or co-opt it. The just-released poll numbers suggest that this parallel strategy has been effective, with Moussa and Sulayman both far better positioned than the Islamist candidates in the final month and a half before the election. Fearing that the military might suddenly revoke al-Shater’s eligibility ― a curious turn of events given that it was the military that cleared his convictions and let him run in the first place ― the Muslim Brotherhood has announced it will field a second “”just-in-case”” candidate. This action would play into the military’s strategy by ensuring the Brotherhood both divides and confuses its base of support while the military employs its still-considerable power to ensure victory for its preferred candidate.
What might policy makers learn from this snapshot of the upcoming election? What might explain el-Shater’s weak showing just months after the Muslim Brotherhood took a large share of the seats in parliament?
A closer reading of both the poll results ― and an examination of who conducted ― it might provide some answers. First, al-Ahram polled 1,200 people across the country, but the scope of that survey did not extend into the border regions. These are the areas that might be more supportive of the official Muslim Brotherhood candidate, given that both the Brotherhood and the border regions have long struggled under strained relations with the central government in Cairo. However, given the fact that the Brotherhood has been more of an urban underground group during its decades of illegal opposition, this may not adequately explain el-Shater’s abysmal showing in this poll. Al-Ahram’s status as a state-run newspaper, however, might provide a more meaningful clue.
A legacy of President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s time in power, state-run newspapers have long served as propaganda machines for the ruling regime and the military. Any newspaper that failed to hew closely to the party/military line was ultimately a very short-lived enterprise. So it might not be altogether surprising that a state-run newspaper would run a poll that shows a potential powerful challenger to the military in such a poor light. Indeed, the opposite ― a state-run paper under the effective control of the ruling military council promoting an Islamist candidate ― would be unexpected. As noted above, Sulayman, the military’s choice, nearly tied for third place despite the notable handicap of not being a candidate at the time the poll was conducted. Even in post-revolution Egypt, there can be no doubt that the military continues to exercise tremendous influence, especially with the newspapers they’ve essentially controlled for so many years.
Another possible explanation ― one that also benefits the military ― is that the poll is accurate, and simply reflects the views of a public that is wary of returning to a one-party system, while at the same time resentful that the Muslim Brotherhood broke its pledge not to field a candidate. If this is true, the military will have succeeded in a remarkable display of political sleight-of-hand: only a year after the autocratic regime of Mubarak was toppled in the Arab Spring uprising, the public has been convinced that deposing the former president doesn’t have to mean deposing his biggest supporter/benefactor: the military.
El-Shater, a financial technocrat, clearly doesn’t have the fiery appeal of Abu Ismail, or the inter-generational name recognition of Moussa, whose time with the Arab League might help lessen the stain of serving in Mubarak’s cabinet. Sulayman, the ultimate insider, is appealing to the public’s need for security, both actual and economic, while making the somewhat strained argument that he shouldn’t be considered part of the old regime simply because he had been the intelligence chief for 20 years and one of Mubarak’s closest advisors.
A public, exhausted by a year of revolution, might be hesitant to push for even more sweeping change by electing a Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist candidate. This weariness could help explain the poll results as well, since both Moussa and Sulayman want to be seen as establishment candidates in the best sense of the word: capable, level-headed, and able to ensure Egypt regains a position of power and prestige in the region though moderation and cooperation instead of extremism and confrontation.
Underscoring all of this, the military ― through its savvy political machinations ― seems to be proving that, in Egypt, revolution will not necessarily mean regime change.
• Now that Sulayman and el-Shater are both officially in the race, relations between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood will be strained as both parties spend the next month and a half working publicly to delegitimize the other.
• The military will continue to divide the Islamist vote; at the same time, it will play up the public’s fear of insecurity and instability while also highlighting its role as the nation’s provider and protector.
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