Muslim Brotherhood candidate tries to reassure nervous voters while former prime minister goes on the attack.
Perhaps it was impossible, with thirteen candidates in the race, for any of the contenders in the first round of Egypt’s presidential election to run a majority.
Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, led the field in the first round with about 5.7 million votes. Ahmed Shafiq, the final prime minister under deposed president Hosni Mubarak, came in second with 5.5 million. But with around 23 million votes cast altogether, neither man broke the 25 per cent barrier.
So the challenge for both candidates in the run-off, scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, will be to convince the other 50 per cent of the Egyptian electorate – not just to support them, but also simply to show up, because run-offs typically have lighter voter turnout.
Their task is complicated by the fact that only one of the three high-profile defeated candidates has made an endorsement.
Both candidates have used the weeks since the first round to broaden their appeal. Morsi has tried to reassure voters fearful of a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government. Shafiq has tried to downplay his links to the old regime – no small task, given his last job. He has simultaneously launched an offensive against not just Morsi but the Brotherhood in general.
Much of Morsi’s support in the first round came, not surprisingly, from the Muslim Brotherhood’s vaunted political machine, which spent heavily on advertising and on door-to-door get-out-the-vote campaigns.
He also gained some votes when the electoral commission expelled Hazem Abu Ismail, a salafi preacher, from the race. The decision – Abu Ismail’s mother held American citizenship, which disqualified him under the constitution – made Morsi the most conservative of the high-profile Islamist candidates.
It’s impossible to say how many would-be Abu Ismail voters went for Morsi, but interviews with his supporters in Cairo and the Nile Delta last week suggested a majority of them did exactly that. Morsi has actively courted the salafi vote: He appeared last month at a rally in Zagazig with Safwat Hegazy, a hardline preacher who told the crowd Morsi would help realize the dream of an Islamic caliphate.
With the Islamist vote largely on his side, Morsi has tried to broaden his appeal. He held a conciliatory press conference the week after the first round in which he said a Coptic Christian could serve as deputy president, and promised not to restrict women’s rights to work and to dress as they please. He also tried to reassure the tourism sector, which largely backs Shafiq, saying that it would retain its freedoms – meaning tourists would be allowed to drink alcohol and sunbathe on Egypt’s beaches.
Shafiq’s support, on the other hand, came as a surprise to many analysts: Pre-election polls had him at the bottom of the pack with less than 10 per cent of the vote.
But his message – that he would quickly restore security and stability – resonated with many voters tired of the insecurity and economic decline that has characterised Egypt since the revolution.
He was also able to reactivate many of the now-defunct National Democratic Party’s electoral networks. Their campaigners had kept a low profile since the revolution, but they swung into action to support Shafiq, particularly in the Nile Delta, long a bastion of support for the party (and the home of two former presidents, Mubarak and Anwar Sadat). More than two million of Shafiq’s votes – one-third of his total – came from just four governorates in the Delta: Sharqiya, Minoufia, Gharbiya and Daqahliya.
Shafiq has held several press conferences since the election, and at each one he has stressed the message of stability. But he’s also tried to reassure what he calls “the youth,” insisting that he would not restrict their freedoms of speech and protest (though his promises do not inspire much confidence). He has also stressed his personal piety – “everyone knows how religious I am,” he said in a speech earlier this month – while emphasising that he would preserve a civil state.
At the same time, he’s gone on the attack, repeatedly describing the Muslim Brotherhood as killers and fanatics. He has spread rumours that Morsi wants to sell the Suez Canal to Qatar, and move the capital of Egypt to Jerusalem.
Who did they convince?
Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the moderate Islamist (and ex-Muslim Brother) who placed fourth in the first round, endorsed Morsi earlier this week. He has not done much campaigning on Morsi’s behalf, but his endorsement will undoubtedly shift some of his votes to the Brotherhood’s candidate.
The rest of the electorate is seemingly up for grabs. Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister and Arab League chief, has not endorsed anyone. The conventional wisdom is that his votes will move to Shafiq; both men are secular candidates who served in the previous regime.
But in interviews, some of Moussa’s supporters draw a distinction between the two men. Moussa left government in 2001, after all, and he embraced the revolution, at least rhetorically. Shafiq’s appointment, on the other hand, was one of Mubarak’s last efforts to kill the revolt. So while some of Moussa’s voters will back the ex-prime minister – that seems to be the case among Egyptians abroad, who have already voted – their support is not a lock for Shafiq.
Hamdeen Sabbahi, the Nasserist candidate, has also not endorsed anyone. It seems highly unlikely that his supporters, many of them ardent revolutionaries, will back Shafiq.
Instead many of Sabbahi’s voters, and some of Aboul Fotouh’s, are planning to boycott the election, or spoil their ballots. With turnout already low in the first round (less than 50 per cent) and expected to fall further, there’s not much margin for error.
A sizable boycott movement would tip the results – probably in Shafiq’s favour, because few of the would-be boycotters are likely Shafiq voters – and undermine the legitimacy of the entire process.