CAIRO — There’s election fever in Egypt that’s being felt around the world. For the first time, Egyptians are about to elect a “real” president and the result is anything but clear, which adds more drama to the Middle Eastern “plot line” – and that is causing a feverish concern everywhere.
After electing an Islamist parliament, the whole world is watching whether the Egyptians will go for an Islamist president too. If this were to happen, it would have far-reaching consequences for a region where the US has huge interests.
Whatever the international connotations or concerns, here in Cairo, the elections are all that matter at the moment. A trip down the October Bridge (named for the outbreak of war in the region in October 1973) – a network of roads that links Cairo’s sprawling metro area – is an experience that tells much of the current state of affairs.
Massive billboards with head shots of the leading candidates peer down at the drivers stuck in traffic jams below: former secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, staring far into the horizon; moderate Islamist candidate, the avuncular Abdul Moneim Abu el-Fetouh; Ahmed Shafiq, a pillar of the Mubarak regime with his characteristic smirk; and the Muslim Brothers’ man, Mohammed Moursi.
Egyptians living abroad have already begun casting their ballots, an indication of the importance – and feverish aspect – of the election, which will be held May 23 and 24 in Egypt (with a runoff, if necessary, on June 16 and 17). About half a million expats living in 166 other countries have registered to vote, according to a report by UPI.com. About half of them live in Saudi Arabia, followed by Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, the United States and Canada, according to CNN.
Comments heard round the world
Facebook and Twitter comments worldwide are abuzz with people’s reactions to this historic moment. Someone, for instance, posted a picture of himself smiling next to the ballot box at the Egyptian Embassy in London. A doctor living in Dubai wrote, “I have just come back from the consulate. I have taken part in presidential elections for the first time in my life. A great feeling. Glory be to the martyrs [of the revolution].”
Here in Cairo, there are posters and election detritus everywhere; even songs can be heard wafting through the spring air, composed especially for the campaigns, and, of course, there are the ubiquitous advertisements on radio and TV.
Here’s Ahmed Shafiq’s theme song:
And Abu El-Fetouh’s:
And finally rock music and graffiti from Mohammed Moursi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate…
In up-market coffee shops as well as cheap cafes, you can hear men and women, young and old, discussing whom to vote for and wondering if they can trust the military that runs the country or if the military they actually hand over power.
After decades of voting with a certain outcome (meaning Mubarak was the winner — surprise, surprise!!) Egyptians are learning to cope with the uncertainty and suspense of “real” elections.
The election results are not the only uncertainty
There, of course, is lingering fear that the military might just find a way to avoid handing over power to a civilian administration. Or even if those leaders do, they will somehow retain control from behind the scenes. The suspicion is not unjustified. The ruling military council promised to hand over power in six months when they took over after the fall of Mubarak. Now it is nearly 18 months since they have made that promise. The suspicion runs deep.
A graffiti artist painted a picture on the external wall of the AUC in Cairo, off Tahrir Square, portrays the fear: a sinister man in a military cap pulling the strings of various headless men in suits.
There’s also speculation that the vote might be rigged. It’s a fear fueled by the fact that the ruling military council has stipulated that the electoral rulings are final; no one can appeal them. The Islamists, who control Parliament, have threatened to stage a second revolution if Shafiq, a pillar of the former regime, was to win.
A long way to go
The former head of the UN nuclear watchdog, Egyptian diplomat and Nobel Laureate Mohammed El-Baradei, has said the fact that Shafiq was allowed to run is evidence that the revolution still has a long way to go.
Shafiq was once the commander of Egypt’s Air Force and served as prime minister in the dying days of the Mubarak regime. His campaign is the slickest and is well-funded. Many say Mubarak’s mega-rich business associates, who have fled the country, are bankrolling Shafiq’s drive to become president.
MPs have accused the army and the police of enrolling soldiers to vote for him. One leading MP from the Muslim Brothers has warned that Shafiq could only win if the election is rigged, adding a sinister note: “This could only happen over our dead bodies.”
Egypt today is a divided and polarized country, not only between the Islamists and secular constituencies, but also between those who support the military and those who want them back in their barracks as soon as possible.
The Islamists, who control Parliament and have three candidates in the presidential race, want to run Egypt in accordance with Islamic sharia.
Their secular opponents are divided and every one of their candidates has a serious handicap. They are either little known, lack money and resources or, as in the case of the two front-runners, are at a disadvantage due to their legacy of working for Mubarak for many years. Moussa was Mubarak’s foreign minister for ten years, and Shafiq was his last prime minister.
Both have tried to portray themselves as a safe pair of hands, the only ones capable of steering the country through a difficult period. That may go some way toward persuading hesitant voters fed up with the turmoil and uncertainty associated with the revolution. They will most certainly attract those who want to avoid an Islamist president at any price.
Moussa, who’s tried hard to distance himself from Mubarak, is leading in the polls. But polling is a new art in Egypt and not very reliable. Next to him is Shafiq, closely followed by the moderate Islamist Abu El-Fetouh.
If one believes these polls, the Muslim Brothers candidate will lose, and the Islamist vote will go to Abu El-Fetouh in a run-off against either Moussa or Shafiq. That seems to jive with an intuitive understanding of what public opinion is here.
The “Facebook” vote
Those who support the Islamists have three candidates to choose from. Those for a secular head of state don’t have an obvious choice, though. This is especially true of the “Facebook generation” behind the initial spark of the revolution. They have spoken out against both Moussa and Shafiq.
The approaching presidential election, however, has given focus to what has been a chaotic transition from military rule. But pending court cases against Shafiq, which could lead to him being disqualified in the eleventh hour, confirm once again that simmering tension could boil over at any moment.
Earlier this month, supporters of a disqualified candidate tried to march on the Ministry of Defense, the seat of the ruling military council. The result, unfortunately, was carnage.