Vote Like An Egyptian
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Vote Like An Egyptian

Egypt's first free presidential election has been a long time coming. Ever since the 1952 revolution and the overthrow of the monarchy, its leaders have come to power by military coup or in carefully staged polls whose result was always clear long before any ballots were cast.

world Updated: May 20, 2012 02:04 IST
The Guardian
The Guardian
Hindustan Times

Egypt's first free presidential election has been a long time coming. Ever since the 1952 revolution and the overthrow of the monarchy, its leaders have come to power by military coup or in carefully staged polls whose result was always clear long before any ballots were cast.

Now a genuine contest with an unknown outcome is being fought at rallies, on billboards and leaflets from Aswan to Zagazig. Cliff-hanging drama, bitter rivalries and high stakes have combined into a riveting story that is being closely watched as the most populous - and formerly the most influential country in the Arab world - prepares to move to civilian leadership.

An unprecedented live TV debate between the frontrunners, Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, was remarkable for the sheer ordinariness of their sparring about healthcare and campaign financing, rather than for any political virtuosity or verbal pyrotechnics.

Hosni Mubarak - forced to step down last February after 30 years in office - would never have locked horns with even the two token opposition candidates who were allowed to challenge him in 2005.

Having played a pioneering role in the Arab spring, Egypt's fledgling democracy is coming to life amid bouts of violence and suspicions that even the election itself could yet be postponed. This is just one big uncertainty in what blogger Issandr El Amrani calls "an almost comically uncertain political transition".

Not least is the question of what powers the president will have since a new post-revolution constitution with his job

description has yet to be written. Linked to that is the position of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, guardians of the state since Mubarak quit.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and his colleagues have pledged to step down by July 1 after a probable runoff round in mid-June between the two candidates who come out on top next week. What role the generals will play is one of the biggest issues facing Egypt.

Strikingly, all the leading candidates have so far been deferential in their statements on the military and their jealously guarded status. That suggests they will continue to wield considerable power behind the scenes, whoever ends up as president.

Excitement seems to be greater for the presidential race than for the parliamentary elections, which produced a sweeping majority for the Islamists who were kept out of power under Mubarak - 40% for the Muslim Brotherhood and another 25% for hardline Salafi fundamentalists.

That result, says commentator Rami Khouri, reflected "the citizenry's trauma of the previous decades of state dominance or even oppression, including large-scale theft and corruption". Parliament's performance has been underwhelming, not least because the military has clipped its wings. So, 18 months after Tahrir Square, the presidential battle is seen by many as the one that matters - a choice between stability and uncertainty, between head and heart.

Moussa, Mubarak's former foreign minister, comes close to the pejorative description of being a "fuloul" (remnant) of the old regime. He left it in 2001 to head the Arab League, where he acquired global recognition and a claim to statesmanship he uses to taunt his rivals as inexperienced amateurs.

Unabashedly secular, Moussa emphasises the need for urgent practical measures to tackle the economy, health and illiteracy - still a shocking 20-30%.

At 75, he is the oldest candidate, an advantage when recurrent terms smack of the bad old days. "No one who takes office now will be given a second chance because expectations are so high," says the journalist Abdullah Hamouda.

Aboul Fotouh, an independent Islamist who broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood to run on his own, has proved popular and dignified, stressing that he is seeking to appeal to "all Egyptians". Supporters range from liberals suspicious of any "regime remnants" to Salafists whose own candidate was disqualified.

The Brotherhood - still by far the best-organised and disciplined political force in Egypt - is running Mohamed Morsi, an uninspiring figure whose main problem is countering the impression of cynical opportunism when the organisation reversed its previous decision not to field a candidate, especially after doing so well in the parliamentary elections.

Observers predict that one likely outcome is the Brotherhood ordering its members to back Moussa.

Given the dominance of Islamist MPs, experts say the new constitution looks likely to shift from a powerful presidency to a French-style system where executive power is split between an elected president and a prime minister chosen by parliament. Under different scenarios, Khairat al-Shater, the Brotherhood's disqualified presidential candidate, could well end up in that job.

Egypt's historic weight in the Arab world invests this election with special significance. Many beelieve that Saudi Arabia, angry at the US abandonment of Mubarak and unsettled by the phenomenon of Islamists entering democratic politics, would like to influence the result. Last week, Riyadh loaned more than $1 billion to Egypt's central bank to help ease pressures on the country's badly depleted foreign currency reserves.

But ordinary Arabs everywhere have been reacting with enthusiasm rather than calculation as they watch the drama unfold in the country many know as Umm ad-Dunya - 'Mother of the world'.

Last week, as the TV debate was held and scores died in suicide bombings in Damascus, one Syrian tweeted poignantly: "We're so late in Arab revolutions. While Egypt does a new, awesome thing, we are bombed to pieces."

Immediate worries include the risk of electoral fraud or a bombshell like a Mubarak acquittal between the two rounds, or some sudden manoeuvre by the military brass.

Overall, though, the greatest danger may be of exaggerated expectations that will breed disappointment.

"Too many Egyptians think that July 1 is a magic moment when there will be a president and a new government," said one veteran observer. "It could take a lot longer than that."

First Published: May 20, 2012 00:09 IST