The Nation: Egypt's Election Experiment

May 23, 2012
Originally published on May 23, 2012 8:13 am

Sharif Abdel Kouddous is an independent journalist based in Cairo. He is a Democracy Now! correspondent and a fellow at The Nation Institute.

Egypt is gripped by election fever. A frenetic mix of excitement and anxiety has taken over the country on the eve of its first-ever competitive presidential poll 15 months after 30-year autocrat Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office in a popular uprising.

Scuffed campaign posters plaster neighborhoods across the capital, clinging to everything from walls to lamp posts to car windows. The leading candidates — their expressions alternating between smiling to solemn — stare past one another from giant billboards looming over the city bustle below. Campaign ads echo across the airwaves while election news consumes newspaper coverage. Television and radio talk shows host daily discussions and debates.

On the street, conversations about the election spill out from cafes, bus stops and public squares, blending into the cacophony of Cairo traffic. As the date of the poll approaches, the most common question people greet one another with is, "Who will you vote for?"

Major questions remain about the powers of the elected president, the future economic and political role of the military and the legitimacy of the entire transition process itself, yet anticipation for the poll — scheduled for May 23–24 — remains high.

Fifty-two million eligible voters will have a chance to select from one of thirteen candidates appearing on the ballot. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a likely runoff between the top two contenders is scheduled for the middle of June, with a handover of executive authority from the Supreme Council of Armed Forces to the elected president by the end of the month.

For the first time in Egypt's history, the winner of the presidential election is not a foregone conclusion.

Among the top contenders is Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a 60-year-old liberal Islamist and former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. With a campaign that combines pro-revolution rhetoric and criticism of the military council with Islamist credentials, Aboul Fotouh has managed to appeal to a broad base of voters, building a unique coalition of support that brings together secular liberals and ultraconservative Salafis.

The diversity of his support was evident at his last major rally this weekend, held two days before a legally mandated campaign blackout went into effect midnight on Sunday. As dusk fell, thousands of Aboul Fotouh's supporters streamed into an open field at the Gezira Youth Center, located in an upscale Cairo district. Young revolutionaries in T-shirts and jeans led vigorous chants and waved flags emblazoned with Aboul Fotouh's face as groups of men in crisp white robes, long beards and shorn mustaches quietly looked on.

Nouran Ahmed, a trendy-looking 15-year-old with her hair piled high in a loose bun, was a strong supporter of the revolution, having taken part in protests in Tahrir Square since the revolution began. "Aboul Fotouh is a good man, he's not part of the old regime and he helps the poor," she said. "We see him as the revolutionary candidate."

Not far from her stood 50-year-old Ramadan Nazeer, a member of Al Gama'a Al Islamiyya, the Islamist group once led by U.S.-imprisoned Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (also known as the Blind Sheikh). "Aboul Fotouh is honest, he is a man of faith and his hands are clean," said Nazeer. "He can bring together all parties in Egypt: Islamists, liberals, leftists."

Aboul Fotouh arrived at the rally by early evening to loud cheers and applause. He sat on a wide stage flanked by prominent supporters that spanned the political spectrum. Among them was Wael Ghoneim, the Google marketing executive who became a symbol of the eighteen-day uprising that ousted Mubarak; Fahmy Howeidy, an Islamist writer; Sherif Doss, a Coptic doctor; Nader Bakar, the spokesperson for the Salafi Nour Party and Rabab Al-Mahdi, a Marxist university professor who serves as Aboul Fotouh's political adviser.

"This is not one person's project, this is a project for all Egyptians," Aboul Fotouh said, addressing the crowd. He called on the military council to hold fair elections and, like most candidates, promised to fulfill the demands of the revolution if elected.

Meanwhile, Aboul Fotouh's former group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is promoting its own candidate, Mohamed Morsi, a 61-year-old engineer with a PhD from the University of Southern California and the president of its Freedom and Justice Party, which won roughly half of the seats in parliament last fall.

Morsi was not the Brotherhood's first choice. In late March, the group reversed its earlier pledge not to field a presidential candidate by announcing it would nominate Khairet al-Shater, its leading strategist and financier, to run. When Shater was disqualified from the race two weeks later by the presidential elections commission over a politically motivated prison sentence he received under the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood threw its weight behind Morsi.

A relative unknown, Morsi was initially written off by some as lacking the credentials to be a bona fide presidential contender, with his detractors mockingly referring to him as a "spare tire." However, the Brotherhood has revved up its formidable political machine to fully back Morsi's candidacy and promote the group's "Nahda" (Arabic for 'Renaissance') project. On the eve of the poll, Morsi is a widely viewed as a front-runner by virtue of the Brotherhood's unparalleled organizational network.

The group's political might was on full display on Sunday evening at Morsi's final campaign rally, held in Abdeen Square in the heart of Cairo. Thousands of supporters gathered before a large stage framed by massive spotlights that criss-crossed the night sky. The crowd appeared entirely made up of people affiliated with the Brotherhood. Young members wearing T-shirts bearing the group's party logo ushered the audience into separate men's and women's rows.

"We are electing an institution," said Amira Nasr Eddin, a 32-year-old 'sister' wearing a black niqab — a face veil that revealed only her eyes. "We have confidence in the Muslim Brotherhood. They have more than eighty years experience in social programs."

Morsi sat on stage on a white couch while public figures — all with Islamist backgrounds — took turns to announce their support for him. At one point, the moderator took to the stage to announce that Morsi had won 35 percent of the Egyptian expat vote, the highest of all the candidates, eliciting a roar of applause from the crowd.

"He is not just a candidate who stands alone," said Islam Alaa, a 23-year-old Brotherhood member with slicked-back hair who clapped and chanted enthusiastically with the crowd. "He has a party and a movement and millions of people who will help him achieve his goals."

Morsi took to the podium at 10:45 pm, just over an hour before the campaign ban went into effect. He drew heavily on religious references in his speech, part of a campaign strategy to portray him as the sole Islamist candidate capable of implementing Shariah law. "Today, we are confident that God wants good for Egypt and its people," he said looking over the thousands gathered.

Morsi and Aboul Fotouh — the two leading Islamist contenders — are also pitted against the candidate long considered the front-runner in the race: Amr Moussa, the former Secretary General of the Arab League who served as Mubarak's foreign minister from 1991 to 2001.

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