By Adel Iskandar
Being a non-smoker in Cairo is a trying experience. Never mind the inhalation of suffocating fumes from vehicle exhaust and hovering industrial smog or the mass combustion rice grains that annually send a colossal billowing cloud over the city. Never mind the lack of concern and consideration for clean air in public spaces, even in the presence of infants and pregnant women. Never mind the fact that most locally manufactured tobacco products are notoriously packed with synthetic impurities and toxicants (as if tar and nicotine aren’t enough!). Being a non-smoker is most endangering when a stranger, say a taxi driver, stretches his arm to offer you that potent cigarette. To take or not to take. To take the cigarette is to violate one’s own personal choice, subject one’s body to a nefarious substance, douse oneself in a lingering unpleasant aroma, and submit one’s will to external pressure. To refuse the cigarette is to turn down an act of hospitality and goodwill, break a social code, and imply one is too classist to smoke with the “masses,” or it may be seen as a sign of timidity, cowardice, and even emasculation. Quite a lot to process in a single decision, but nevertheless, it is a dilemma.
Egyptians are faced with such dilemmas on a ceaseless basis. Take the 6 October Bridge or Salah Salem Street during rush hour. Boycott Mobinil because of Sawiris’ Twitter joke, Vodafone for trying to take credit for the revolution, or Emirati Etisalat for its aggressive monopolistic strategies toward the Egyptian market. What to give up because one’s salary is too minuscule to cover basic necessities? Food or medicine? Such are circumstances in which two equally unfavorable and disadvantageous choices must be pondered and in which inaction is not an option. This is a philosophical conundrum that is often described as being on the “horns of a dilemma,” in which one is faced with the outcome of being impaled by one of the two horns of the bull.
Today Egypt is facing an even more puzzling predicament—a presidential trilemma. With the official results from the elections confirming the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy and Mubarak’s last prime minister Ahmed Shafik heading for a run-off this weekend, many Egyptians are gripped with a deep-seated sense of disbelief, anxiety, panic, dejection, and demoralization. Shafik is now effectively viewed as the military’s strongman, an apologist for Mubarak’s regime, and an unrelenting bulwark of the “stability” camp. Revolutionaries see him as a Darth Vader character who they hold at least indirectly responsible for the surreal murderous attack of 2 February 2011 on Tahrir, known unflatteringly as the “Battle of the Camel.”
Morsy is the uncharismatic, unimaginative, unappealing, and often unintelligible stebn (spare tire) candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood whose organization has effectively alienated a large proportion of the population. By using religious rhetoric to elbow out political opposition during all three election rounds—constitutional amendments, parliamentary, and presidential—the Brothers have appeared opportunistic and disingenuous. Perhaps more catastrophically, their confusingly unclear rhetoric on whether they will impose shariʿa and their seemingly complicit silence during the killings of protesters in Maspero, Mohammed Mahmoud I and II, the Cabinet protest, Port Said, and Abbaseya all in just seven short months have left many Egyptians concerned about their trustworthiness. Not to mention their monopolization of the parliament and its most crucial legislative task ahead—the writing of the constitution.
If the results are to stay, Egyptians will choose between a return to the old corrupt tyrannical regime or a complete transformation into a seemingly unfavorable scenario that would give the Brotherhood a trifecta of both parliamentary houses and the presidency. Throw in a few ingredients to raise both stakes and fears, such as sectarianism, and the bull’s horns seem sharper than ever. With claims that many Christians voted for Shafik, there is a growing sentiment that describes the Coptic minority of being anti-revolutionary, anti-Islamist, and pro-SCAF, effectively making it the target of everyone but the supporters of the old regime.
In the few days between voting and the announcement of the results from the first round of elections, there was absolute silence from the Presidential Election Commission (PEC), which governs the process. With no official results disclosed and speculation and panic mounting, suspicion rose that something was being cooked up behind the scenes. Abdelmonem Aboul Fotouh, Hamdeen Sabbahi, and Amr Moussa all took advantage of this circumstance to file official complaints with the Commission calling for suspension, cancellation, a recount, or a freezing of the elections in the hope that their chances be resuscitated. There appeared to be strong evidence suggesting that fraud occurred (and likely in Shafik’s favor), but the PEC, which possesses absolute authority to refuse appeals or dismiss them outright without investigation, did precisely that. With hundreds of journalists in the audience during the press conference in which the PEC announced the results, the Commission brushed off any and all appeals and cut the event short, refusing to answer questions from the media.
Those who picked neither Shafik nor Morsy, an overwhelming majority of voters, saw this predicament of choosing between the two candidates as a crisis and the PEC’s dismissal of reports against the process an unacceptable outcome. With little recourse and the country heading toward a run-off, they hang on to a glimmer of hope due to a law passed by the newly elected parliament known as the “political isolation” law, which is meant to prohibit members of Mubarak’s disbanded National Democratic Party (NDP) and top officials from his regime from participating in political life. The law was passed primarily to nullify the candidacy of former Vice President Omar Suleiman, Ahmed Shafik, and former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa. The law was not activated ahead of the first round of the presidential elections, allowing Shafik and Moussa to run. However, with thousands protesting in Tahrir and across the country, the eliminated candidates and their constituencies have been pushing the constitutional court to review this law in the hope of applying it to Shafik, who would then be disqualified, culminating in a rerun of the elections. The court has agreed to convene just two days before the run-off, ensuring that Egyptians experience a true political cliff-hanger. Arguably anything can happen in this coming week, and tension in the country is at an all-time high.
In the meantime, it appears SCAF (the body that appointed the PEC) too is weighing its options in Shafik and Morsy, along with rising star Hamdeen Sabbahi. Having butted heads with the Brotherhood ahead of the elections, SCAF is less inclined to see Morsy go through compared to SCAF lackey Shafik. Nevertheless, it almost certainly fears a Shafik win will kick-start another wave of massive protests by the Islamists, secularists, revolutionaries, and other groups, which would continue to prolong Egypt’s “transition” and hurt the military’s already tarnished image internationally. What would a Morsy presidency look like? With SCAF at the helm of Egypt’s foreign policy, delicately balancing relations with the country’s two top benefactors, the United States and Saudi Arabia, how would the Brotherhood in the driver’s seat affect these relations?
The Brotherhood has always been a thorn in both Saudi Arabia and the United States’ sides. But recently this seems to be changing as congenial relations with Washington have emerged, delegates sent back and forth, and promises of compliance made. On the regional front, with Saudi Arabia dangling a hefty $3 billion grant that Egypt so desperately needs (especially since Fayza Aboul Naga seems to be juggling the IMF and World Bank), SCAF is inclined to do whatever the Kingdom demands, even if it comes down to knocking the Brotherhood out. But luckily for Morsy and company, a recent diplomatic spat between Egypt and the Saudis saw a top delegation comprising highest level Brothers such as Parliamentary Speaker Saad el-Katatny and prominent Islamists travel to Riyadh to genuflect and sing King Abdullah’s praises. This may be just enough to ensure that the United States and Saudi Arabia turn a blind eye to a Morsy ascendency.
The Muslim Brotherhood, now weighing its chances, is forced to challenge any calls for a recount or investigation of irregularity for fear this may disadvantage its candidate by either dropping him from round two or introducing a less polarizing figure than Shafik who would pose a greater challenge for Morsy. Alternatively, if fraud was indeed widespread (presumably to give Shafik an advantage), the Brotherhood should rather be ahead of the pack to confront it for fear that it might repeat itself in the runoff, certainly to the Brothers’ disadvantage. But it seems the group has opted for a massive campaign to beautify Morsy in the eyes of liberals and revolutionaries in order to consolidate any and all voters who are discontent with Shafik. It has also made public overtures to SCAF suggesting that there is complete harmony and friendship between Morsy and members of the military council. With the once banned Muslim Brotherhood behaving like an omnipotent political force, it is sizing up any and all opposition, even the ruling SCAF. Ahead of the run-off, knowing that Shafik is the military’s favored candidate, the Brotherhood is flexing some muscle and overtly waving the carrot and the stick in the junta’s face.
With both options for president presenting seemingly ominous outcomes for the electorate (not simply in the persons of Shafik and Morsy, but rather the configuration of political forces and ensuing realities), many are contemplating a complete boycott of the process. This climate has also presented an unlikely possibility: Hamdeen Sabbahi. A surprise success in the election, the Nasserist candidate who was virtually unknown to the average Egyptian just a few months ago was able to secure substantial numbers and win huge metropolitan areas like Cairo, Alexandria (a Salafi stronghold), Port Said, Suez, and Giza. With a shabby, underfunded campaign and limited television spots during the run-up to the vote, Sabbahi seems to have soared precisely because of the lackluster image, overexposure, and polarizing rhetoric of other candidates. He became an instant sensation once the results suggested Morsy and Shafik came out on top. Since then, Sabbahi has been a much sought-after television guest, and Egyptians have flocked to support him online and in rallies, all in the hope that he may be vindicated with admission into the second round. So far very little suggests this will happen, but a verdict from the constitutional court against Shafik’s candidacy would throw Sabbahi back into the fray, and this time with substantial support and hope against Morsy and all other candidates, especially if Aboul Fotouh concedes and withdraws from the race.
Some are hoping for a Sabbahi revival in almost messianic proportions. However, the least known candidate is not without his quirks. With the deep state digging into the very viscera of Egyptian politics, is there no suspicion in his unexplainable glowing success? Is it possible that he may in fact be the one groomed to arrive on a white horse to sweep a run-off against Morsy by unifying revolutionaries, the poor, the wealthy, the liberal and secular, the Islamists, the former regime, and everyone but the Brotherhood, all while not alarming SCAF? It is no surprise that as people sat before their televisions lamenting the dilemma of a Shafik-Morsy duel, Al-Nahar TV hosted Sabbahi in an interview that was no short of a breakthrough—akin to Wael Ghonim’s epic interview with Mona el-Shazly on Dream TV in February 2011. The host, already calling him “Mr. President,” could not stop basking in his glow as pre-recorded interviews with prominent revolutionaries and residents of his town spoke about him reverently. The interview even included emotionally-charged moments with carefully chosen background music to add to the melodrama, and the camera frequently moved from videos to close-ups of Sabbahi wiping away his tears. This was a moment made for television.
If Sabbahi were a revolutionary, which he certainly seems to be, will he be able to confront SCAF on its violations? If he were a true Nasserist, would he see to it that the military establishment goes unchallenged as did his inspiration? Arguably Sabbahi may be SCAF’s best-case scenario. In one fell swoop, SCAF will have silenced the revolutionaries, liberals, Islamists, foloul (remnants of the Mubarak regime), the rich, poor, young and old all, thereby guaranteeing an end to public dissent, reducing scrutiny, and allowing state institutions time and space to ossify. Could Sabbahi be another horn of the bull likely to poke Egyptians?
Egyptians have known and understood the classic definition of dilemma from time immemorial, and have immortalized it in their use of the word khazouk (meaning an instrument used to impale someone). Some say when Egyptians came out to protest they were choosing between the khazouk of Mubarak’s police and the khazouk of uncertainty. They have since tasted khazouks from SCAF, the police, the government, the Brotherhood, the Salafis, the liberal parties, the disjointed youth revolutionaries, the economy, the religious institutions, and other Egyptians as well. With the coming days presenting Egyptians with an unlikely trilemma, whatever the outcome might be, we should all take a collective deep breath and brace for the pain. And the next time you’re offered a cigarette in a taxi, be sure to take it.
Adel Iskandar is an Egyptian-Canadian scholar of Middle East media, a postcolonial theorist, analyst, and academic. He is the author and co-author of several works on Arab media, most prominently an analysis of the Arab satellite station Al Jazeera and an edited volume on Edward Said. He teaches at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
An earlier version of this essay was published in the Egypt Independent.