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The Egyptian president: Secular or Sharia?


First round of elections indicate significant opposition to Egypt becoming a religious state.

Photo by: REUTERS

The results of the Egyptian presidential elections are almost final, and it appears that Mohamed Mursy of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafik, a representative the old guard in the Mubarak regime, will likely face one another in final run-off elections.

The results indicate that Mursy got around 25 percent of the vote, followed by Shafik at 24 percent. Other leading candidates include Hamdeen Sabahy, a left wing liberal and strong supporter of Nasser (22 percent), Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotou, who is presented as a "liberal" Muslim (17 percent), and Amr Moussa, the former Egyptian foreign minister during Mubarak’s regime and former head of the Arab League (12 percent).

These results show that voters could be divided into three main groups:

1. Supporters of implementing strict Sharia Law in the country — i.e. members of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups — voted for Mursy.

2. Those who care more for social justice supported Aboul Fotouh and Sabahi.

3. Those who want to regain the stability of the Mubarak regime supported Shafik and Moussa.

These results raise several important points.

1. There are clear indications that the Muslim Brotherhood's popularity has taken a big hit over the last few months in which they have controlled Parliament with more than 45 percent of the vote. Given that most Salafi groups — who won more than 25 percent of parliamentary vote — ultimately supported the Brotherhood candidate, it was expected that Mursy would get around 70 percent of the vote. Many leaders of the Brotherhood were confident that their candidate would win the presidential race from the first round, so the results are considered a big blow to the expectations of the Islamists. Reasons for the party's decline include bad performance in the parliament, breaking their words and promises on several issues, and a very negative image of some Islamist parliamentarians. And Mursy's lack of charisma only made things worse.

2. The results also indicate that a significant percentage of Egyptians are turning against the idea of Egypt becoming a religious state. A supporter of Shafik, Sabahy and Moussa is almost certainly a supporter of a secular state. A small percentage of Aboul Fotou supporters could also be included the latter group because they believed he would not adopt strict Sharia Laws and would allow personal freedoms in the country. Many of Aboul Fotou’s supporters will consider the the Brotherhood candidate too radical and will not vote for him.

3. Shafik has a good chance to win the final presidential race. He will certainly garner support from those who voted for Moussa and another slice of those who voted for Sabahi and Aboul Fotou, mainly because they are against the Brotherhood. Additionally, most Egyptians who did not vote in the first round are likely to be against the Islamists in the final round. If they were supporters of the Islamists, their religious motivation would have inspired them to vote and to support the Brotherhood candidate. In other words, lack of participation in the first round of elections is an indication that a person is not religiously motivated. If Shafik can push non-voters of the secular variety to cast a ballot, he could gain a winning edge over Mursy. Winning the presidency will not be the piece of cake for the Brotherhood that many expected. 

4. Shafik can guarantee success in the final presidential race if he convinces Sabahi to become his vice president. He would likely retain the votes of his own supporters plus almost all votes that went to Moussa and most votes that went to Sabahi. A coalition between a former guard of the Mubarak regime and a left wing Nasserist would seem uneasy, however this possibility is not impossible as Sabahy had previously indicated his huge respect for and friendship with Shafik. They differ significantly on several political issues but share a clear desire to stand against making Egypt a religious state.

5. The real problem that faces the liberal wing in Egypt — or those who are at least oppose a religious state controlled by strict Sharia Law — is their lack of unity. Several liberals are ready to support the Brotherhood candidate because they see Shafik as a replication of Mubarak. 

Unfortunately, this could be a repetition of history. During the Iranian Revolution, liberals supported Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini against the Shah, and the result was the extreme suppression of personal freedoms under barbaric and inhumane Sharia Laws for decades. It would be the biggest mistake of Egyptian liberals not to support Shafik. The alternate outcome would likely turn Egypt into another Iran or even worse.

6. Several reports indicate that the Salafi groups did not follow through on their surprising promises to support Aboul Fotou in the elections. This could be evidence of a possible plot by the Brotherhood in which they asked some of their Salfi "brothers" to show support for Aboul Fotou, the idea being that he would then lose the support of the liberals. And in fact, many liberals withdrew their support for Aboul Fotou immediately after Salafi groups declared that they would support him. Liberals simply felt that Aboul Fotou could not represent both liberals and Salafists because the groups' aims are so polarized. 

7. Even if Mursy wins the final race, the election results indicates that he will face fierce resistance if he tries to impose Wahhabi or Iranian style rule over the country. A huge percentage of the population — at least 58 percent of those who supported Shafik , Sabahi and Moussa —voted clearly in support of a secular rather than a religious state. 

8. The division of Egyptians into two opposing sectors — those who want the country to be led by strict Sharia Laws versus those who want a secular state —speaks to the potential of a civil war. The views of both groups totally contradict one another on very basic issues. Liberals are happy that Islamists practice their faith in the mosque, while Islamists are not ready to give liberals their basic freedoms. In such a situation, a strong, independent military presence could interfere to support a secular state and avert disaster. 

9. The results also indicate a lack of accuracy in polling conducted prior to the elections. Major polls failed to show that Mursy would be the leading candidate of these elections.

10. If Shafik ultimately wins the presidential race, it is unlikely he would repeat the same mistakes of Mubarak. It appears he has learned the rules of the new political game taking place in wake of the January 25 revolution.

In brief, the latest results of the Egyptian presidential elections lend support to the notion that a secular president will rule the country. The final results will determine the future of the country and could seriously affect the wider Arab world. 

The writer is an Islamic thinker and reformer, and a one-time Islamic extremist from Egypt. He was a member of the terrorist organization JI with Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who later became the second-in-command of al-Qaida. He is currently a senior fellow and chairman of the study of Islamic radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

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