After the highly publicized “Egyptian Revolution” took the world by storm, ousting U.S.-backed strongman President Hosni Mubarak, the world waited with anticipation for the outcome of the first Egyptian Presidential elections to be held since protests forced the country’s much hated leader to dissolve his government, and a military junta was installed in his place.
The results of the elections, however, which took place on May 23 and 24, were far from what many Western supporters of the Arab Spring would have hoped for. The day’s winners were Mohamed Morsi, the chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party (a party closely linked to the conservative Muslim Brotherhood) and Ahmed Shafik, a general and former prime minister under the Mubarak presidency (who is viewed as a throwback to the much hated regime). Due to the close results of the first round of elections, runoff elections are scheduled for June 17.
The Obama administration did a good job of adapting to a constantly changing situation during the first days of the Egyptian Revolution. Despite the fact that Washington sustained friendly relations with Mubarak throughout his rule, the White House took the stance that the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square presented a historic opportunity for democracy in the Middle East. It now appears that Egypt’s new democracy will lead to a dramatic and possibly violent set of runoff elections that may leave the United States short of allies in an already tense region.
To say the least, the atmosphere in pre-electoral Egypt is extremely polarized. The elections have left many wondering how a candidate openly supported by the man who was overthrown by overwhelming popular opposition is now in a position to win the elections. The situation became even tenser this week as Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament be dissolved and that former regime leaders be allowed to hold office.
This is essentially translated by many analysts into open support on the part of the judiciary for the candidacy of Ahmed Shafiq. The military and police forces also support the Mubarak affiliated candidate. Meanwhile, representatives of the Freedom and Justice Party have called the court’s move a coup.
Pre-electoral polls suggest that the majority of the Egyptian public supports the Freedom and Justice Party over the return of a Mubarak era official and opt for a more hard line theocratic rule. 6 out of 10 Egyptians state that they would like the country’s laws to strictly follow the Koran, and the same percentage feels Saudi Arabia is a better model than Turkey for the role religion should play in public life. Previous parliamentary elections have already led to a victory of the Muslim Brotherhood, which hopes to install a modern democratic system while upholding their slogan of “Islam is the solution.”
Either outcome could put the United States in a sticky situation with tough decisions to make. The Obama administration may have to decide if it will recognize the victory of a Muslim Brotherhood-supported government that is openly hostile to U.S.' interests in the region and whose foreign policy will most likely oppose that of Washington.
The U.S. would also have to decide if it will support the installation of a more U.S.-friendly candidate, perhaps by military means, even if it remains unclear whether the democratic majority in Egypt supports him. The fact that Obama has already opened high level dialogue with the Islamists suggests the former, meaning that come this Sunday the United States may have to carefully rethink its position in the Middle East. The world will be waiting as Egyptians head to the polls again.