The lapdog of a brutal dictator versus an Islamist in Egypt's presidential elections sure makes our Presidential elections look boring.
Egypt, the heart of the Arab Spring and the catalyst for subsequent revolutions in Libya and Syria, will know in two weeks which of these ridiculous paths the country will take for the next six years. Whether the revolution is crushed and the repressive old guard returns under the command of Mubarak crony Ahmed Shafiq, or if it continues under the banner of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi as he leads Egypt backwards into the 12th century remains to be seen.
These are, of course, hyperbolic exaggerations. Or are they?
Shafiq has openly praised Hosni Mubarak as a "role model," described the Egyptian people as "obedient," is a fan of extrajudicial detention, and has suggested that among his top priorities is restoring order to Egypt using executions and brutal force. Meanwhile, some members of the Islamist-dominated Egyptian parliament are pushing legislative gems like lowering the marriage age of girls to 14.
Whoever wins this election, everybody loses. A Shafiq victory ensures continued unrest that will decimate Egypt's economy and possibly lead to a second revolution that will, perhaps this time, go far enough and clean house of all remnants of the Mubarak regime. Shafiq will be unable to effectively rule in a democratic system where he is opposed at every turn by an Islamist parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. The result will be political stagnation for six years during the worldwide economic crisis that has hit Egypt with growing poverty and a 12 percent + unemployment rate, or alternatively the consolidation of power under a Shafiq presidency that will effectively undo the revolution and reinstate authoritarian rule (with a friendlier façade that makes it even more dangerous than what existed under Mubarak.)
A victory by Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, would give Islamists control of both the presidency and the parliament. The revolution will have succeeded, but certainly not in the way most Egyptians had hoped. They'll have to endure six years of backward policies under the Muslim Brotherhood that will be particularly hard on minorities and bring the shame of having Egypt routinely criticized by the international community. Personal liberty will also take a hit -- not necessarily in terms of political freedom as it would under Shafiq, but rather in terms of the personal liberties that Egyptians currently enjoy to a far greater extent than most of their neighbors in the region (namely alcohol, belly dancers, and prostitutes). These vices aren't just necessary for the tourism industry, but are an important social venting mechanism for a frustrated and poor population.
These are the perils of democracy, especially a new one. We're pretty good at weeding out the ideologues and extremists through our presidential primary process and the result is one moderate candidate from each party going head-to-head in a contest that leaves half the population disappointed but accepting of the results.
Egypt had 12 candidates: 5 independents and 7 from various political parties. The race quickly devolved into a contest between regime loyalists and Islamists. The more moderate candidates, which included another former regime official, a more moderate Islamist, and a socialist split the moderate vote between them. This ensured that the 50 percent of Egyptians who voted for moderates would lose out to the 20-25 percent who voted for the more radical candidates. The moderates needed to form a unified front which they failed to do thanks to diverse ideologies and ego. This left the most popular moderate candidate, a socialist revolutionary, with a close third place finish to Shafiq and Morsi; now Shafiq and Morsi will face off in the final round of voting for President.
It was an entirely predictable, tragic result of an otherwise wonderful moment in Egyptian history -- the nation's first democratic elections. Many would argue that Shafiq deserved a prison cell, not a campaign headquarters, or at the very least should have been disqualified from running. But in contrast to Libya, which has barred many potential candidates with ties to the Gaddafi regime from running in elections, Egypt, to its credit, has no such restrictions and even Mubarak-era throwbacks like Shafiq can run for the presidency.
However, as predictable as the Egyptian elections have been so far, what happens next is also predictable.
Leading up to the elections, Shafiq will conspire with Egypt's elites, business class, military, intelligence service and security forces to provoke, and possibly even orchestrate, violence in the streets for the purpose of scaring Egyptians into voting for him to restore order. Egypt's revolutionaries will fuel the fire by taking the bait and also engaging in unprovoked violence of their own, thus playing right into the hands of Shafiq. Some old-fashioned election rigging by Shafiq supporters won't hurt, either.
This would be a disaster for Egypt. Another revolution would be needed to liberate the country from the grip of oppression once again, and to free the thousands of prisoners sentenced by military tribunals in the past 18 months.
Even a Morsi victory won't necessarily usher in true democracy in Egypt. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the body of 20 military officers who currently rule Egypt, has hedged its bets against a Morsi victory by declaring that SCAF will decide the powers of the presidency after the election. If Morsi wins then SCAF will restrict the presidency and limit his power until Egypt's new constitution is written and approved by the Parliament, creating more controversy and political dissent.
If Morsi wins and is granted enough power by SCAF to actually implement his agenda, Egypt will face six years of political and economic mismanagement and policies that will strain relations with the West -- relations that are essential for Egypt's economic well-being. Depending on just how bad it gets, this prolonged suffering will likely end Egypt's experiment with Islamism at the next election, but not soon enough for most Egyptians.
Which is worse, having to do the revolution all over again to preserve political freedoms, or watching social freedoms erode under the Muslim Brotherhood?
That is for Egyptians to decide. After all, it is a democracy.