Egyptians ask why a Mubarak holdover like Shafik did so well

May 26, 2012 

— The battle scars of the revolution that led to the end of Hosni Mubarak’s regime continue to define the Egyptian landscape.

The sides of buildings are adorned with graffiti mourning the nearly 1,000 civilians killed during the uprising. Protesters keep a stockpile of rocks in Tahrir Square, just in case they have to defend themselves while encamped there. The dated pictures of the 30-year ruler that once peppered the capital have been replaced with campaign posters for what was Egypt’s first democratic election.

And yet during elections this week, just 15 months after Mubarak was forced to step down, many Egyptians voted for someone who has pledged to reinstate the very system they seemingly risked their lives to end, selecting Mubarak’s former prime minister and unapologetic regime remnant Ahmed Shafik as a runoff finalist.

Why?

While revolutionaries struggled Saturday to answer that question, there were clues that a rift between revolutionaries and ordinary Egyptians had always existed and had been fermenting since Mubarak left office. State media, the main source of information for most Egyptians, routinely blamed the state’s growing instability on the revolutionaries, and in a nation where many voters had never met a revolutionary, they trusted state media more.

In addition, over the past year the revolutionary effort had been diluted by a splintered message, growing unemployment, worsening crime and parliamentary elections that yielded little change.

By Election Day, the once politically passive group of Egyptians known as the Couch Party because they sat out the revolution spoke up at the polls.

Shafik, a former air force general and a well known figure among Egyptians, offered something immediate – stability and leadership. The revolution, it seemed, offered too much choice to a nation mired in uncertainty. Egyptians voted for something familiar – the government candidate.

“The lesson of the elections in Egypt in that people are not voting for a moral position, about how Egypt should be governed," said Zaid Akl, a political analyst at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic studies. “It is about what voters feel they will gain immediately if they vote for a particular candidate. What they asked in this election of the candidates is: ’How will I benefit now by voting for you?’ ”

Shafik, who garnered 23 percent of the vote in the first round, according to results released so far, will go against Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi, who although uncharismatic, had the backing of Egypt’s most organized political machine, earning 25 percent of the total votes cast.

But the difference between Morsi, the presumed frontrunner, and Shafik, was just 342,000 votes out of the estimated 20 million or so cast, and, like Shafik, the Brotherhood also represented a familiar choice, experts said.

“The only pattern of this election is the voters said we want what we are used to,” Akl said.

By Saturday morning, both Shafik and Morsi were vying for the now disenfranchised revolutionary vote.

Where a Shafik once proudly defended his work in the regime, on Saturday, he said at a news conference that “there is no way we will recreate the old regime. Egypt has changed and there is no way it will go back.”

Morsi met with leaders of various parties leaders, hoping to win their endorsement.

On Saturday, some revolutionaries defended their decision not to coalesce around one candidate. Instead, they split their votes among three of the 13 candidates on the ballot -- a decision that may have been fatal to their hopes; the unofficial returns show that those three candidates combined had won an outright majority.

But the revolutionaries said they were trying to embrace the democratic spirit, giving people as much choice as possible, and blamed their loss on the challenge of going up against the two established organizations – the remnants of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood and the NDP have political experience, where the revolutionaries were new to politics, and they employed that knowledge, said Ahmed Maher, a founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, a leading force in the uprising.

“Shafik backers woke up and understood they had to win this battle or they were gone forever,” Maher said. “The revolutionaries were divided. …This was our fault. Had we stood together we would have made it to easily” the run off.

Maher said his party was debating whether to support Morsi or call for a boycott. Voting for Shafik was not an option, he said.

While the outside world has long thought of Egypt’s revolution as driven by Twitter, that’s an overstatement. Most Egyptians don’t own a computer, and depend on – and trust -- the state-owned media for their news.

Almost from the beginning the state media cast the revolution as a fight between the government and unknown elements on the streets. Mubarak himself hinted at it in his penultimate speech before resigning, telling the public they faced a choice “between chaos and stability and the options are before us — we face a new changing reality and want the army and people to work with us to promote the best for Egypt and its children.”

And while government news stations and newspapers endorsed the revolution in the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s fall, it increasingly depicted revolutionizes as thugs who were responsible for rising crime and falling employment. The government it suggested had met the protesters demands.

The day after the election, The News, a state owned newspaper declared, “We have achieved the dream,” suggesting Egyptians no longer should demand change because the government had adequately responded.

In the months leading up to the election, retired generals called the protesters “street bullies.” Ads urged Egyptians to support their police and army. In October, when Coptic Christians were protesting outside state-run Channel One TV, presenter Rasha Magdy announced that armed Coptic demonstrators were firing at the military and called on Egypt’s “good citizens” to rush to the building and protect the army.

When state-owned television talk shows conducted man-on-the-street interviews during protests, the always reached the same conclusion: the revolutionaries were sowing unpopular instability. During mid December clashes outside the cabinet building over the ruling military council’s appointment of a new prime minister, a caller identified as Salim phoned into state television and said, “What is happening is not a revolution and they have nothing to do with the revolution and they are paid to do that. I know because of how they look. What those people want from the country is that it be destroyed.”

The in studio analyst agreed: “According to the government statement some of the protesters went inside the People’s Assembly building and attacked the soldiers. What do you expect from them? They have to defend themselves.”

Ahmed Shaqi, 33, a salesman at a local grocery store just north of Cairo, doesn’t feel like his community faces a crime problem. And yet as a regular watcher of state news, he said he became convinced that security was Egypt’s biggest problem. Shaqi voted for Shafik because he said that while he once supported the revolution, Egypt now needs a proven leader.

“A lot of people have been convinced about Shafik because he will use his authority and bring back security,” Shaqi said.

Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent.

Email: nyoussefe@mcclatchydc.com Twitter: @nancyayoussef

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