Egypt's Presidential Election Experiment

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 fifteen months after thirty-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 US-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.

Moussa--perhaps more than any other candidate--enjoys widespread name recognition across urban and rural areas of the country. The 76-year-old diplomat has campaigned heavily over the past year, seeking to portray himself as an experienced statesmen that can bring stability back to the country and act as a bulwark against the rise of Islamist groups in post-Mubarak Egypt. In addition to the Muslim Brotherhood's roughly 50 percent parliamentary bloc, ultraconservative Salafis won 25 percent of the seats in the People's Assembly.

Throughout his campaign, Moussa has sought to turn his greatest liability--being a 'feloul' (a pejorative term used to describe remnants of the former regime)--into an asset by plugging his credentials on the global stage and stressing his independence from the Mubarak government during the tumultuous last decade when the foundations for the January 25 revolution were laid.

Moussa held his final press conference on Sunday at the villa that serves as his campaign headquarters in a residential Cairo neighborhood. After walking in surrounded by a phalanx of aides and backers to a smattering of applause, a number of representatives from an assortment of small parties and movements announced their endorsement of Moussa's candidacy.

"We are supporting Moussa for the sake of the nation and to fulfill the goals of the revolution. He is the man to transition us from military rule to civil rule," said Tarek Zidan, the head of the Egypt Revolution party (which, critics point out, is revolutionary in name only). "We reject the use of religion in campaigning and the language of sharia. All of the candidates are Muslim," he added in a pointed barb to his Islamist rivals.

Taking questions from reporters afterwards, Moussa was characteristically elusive when asked about the future role of the military council if he won the presidency--a crucial topic in the so-called transition. "By electing the president, the affairs of the state will be transformed to the president. This is the big difference," he said.

Another candidate with ties to the former regime who has emerged as a dark-horse contender is Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak's last prime minister. A retired general who once commanded the country's air force, Shafik served as Mubarak's civil aviation minister for ten years. He was named prime minister on January 29, 2011--four days after the revolution began. With support from the military council, he remained in the post after Mubarak's ouster, but was forced out of office just three weeks later in the midst of mass protests against him in Tahrir Square.

Shafik had been written off by many as a viable candidate because of his extremely close ties to the former regime, yet he is enjoying renewed buzz around his campaign, aided by favorable state media coverage. Having survived an attempt to disqualify him from running as well as a high-profile corruption probe, he is now widely considered a leading contender.

"I look at his CV and I see that Shafik is the only one who has the experience to execute his plans," said Maged Youssef, a 24-year old medical student taking part in a protest against a group of disgruntled civil aviation employees planning to unveil additional corruption allegations against Shafik. "This is not the time to vote for someone who is new and just trying out, for now we need someone with experience."

While billing himself as the candidate who can bring law and order back to the country, instability seems to follow Shafik on the campaign trail, with protesters often swarming his rallies and security concerns prompting him to cancel a recent campaign stop in Upper Egypt.

The most prominent leftist contender in the election is Hamdeen Sabahi, a socialist and Arab nationalist in the tradition of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Sabahi is also enjoying a last-minute surge in his candidacy, with an impressive roster of endorsements that includes leading intellectuals, artists and activists and a third-place finish in the Egyptian expat vote, capturing 15 percent, behind Morsi and Aboul Fotouh.

Meanwhile, the presidential candidate considered closest to the revolutionary youth who first led the uprising against Mubarak and who have continued to struggle against the military council that replaced him is Khaled Ali, a 40-year-old labor lawyer who made a name for himself fighting private-sector corruption and defending independent unions and worker protests. Ali spent his last day of campaigning by joining more than 200 people on a twenty-four-hour hunger strike in solidarity with hundreds of detainees facing military trials after being arrested in the wake of clashes with the army near the ministry of defense earlier this month.

"Of all the candidates we can say support the revolution, like Sabahi and Aboul Fotouh, Khaled Ali is the only one that showed up," said Mona Seif, 26, a prominent activist and founder of the No to Military Trials group, who is voting for Ali.

However, many revolutionaries are boycotting the presidential election altogether, refusing to participate in a transition process they view as illegitimate in the hands of a military council that has cracked down severely on protests and strikes since taking the reins of power fifteen months ago. Compounding the problem is the fact the president is being elected without a constitution in place and without a clear idea of what authority he will have vis-a-vis the military, the parliament and the other branches of state. Negotiations to form a constituent assembly to write the constitution remain deadlocked.

"What is happening is all theater," said Mariam Kirollos, a young activist speaking at a a roundtable discussion she helped organize in downtown Cairo titled 'Presidential Elections: Boycott or Participation?' "The regime is still in power and this election is in their interest. Any president will just be a puppet to the military."

The Muslim Brotherhood along with other groups--Islamist or otherwise--may have emerged as the new power brokers in the post-Mubarak political landscape, but it has been the power of the street that has forced far more concessions from the military council over the past year and a half, most significantly a scheduled handover of authority by June that necessitated this week's presidential poll.

While the election is billed as the last stage in the country's transition, the question remains, a transition to what? The military remains deeply entrenched in the economy and government institutions, while the main pillars of the state--the judiciary, the police, the security and intelligence agencies--have not been reformed.

Despite the uncertainty, millions of Egyptians will head to the polls on Wednesday to cast their ballots in what should prove to be a historic election. For the winner, a turbulent future awaits.

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