A Long & Winding Road Ahead: Maria Golia Reports from Cairo on the Progress of Egypt's Presidential Elections

By Golia, Maria | The Middle East, July 2012 | Go to article overview

A Long & Winding Road Ahead: Maria Golia Reports from Cairo on the Progress of Egypt's Presidential Elections


Golia, Maria, The Middle East


Round one of Egypt's first open presidential elections provided compelling information about where the country stands. Twenty-three of Egypt's 50 million registered voters cast their ballots on 23-24 May, a significantly lower turnout than for parliamentary elections in December 2010-January 2012 (60%).

Yet compared to the Mubarak era (1981-2011) when Egyptians barely voted at all, a 46% showing signals support for the electoral process, despite misgivings about the candidates and the lack of a constitution defining presidential powers. Although many maintain that elections overseen by the military without a constitution are illegitimate, twenty-three million Egyptians apparently believe that a flawed system is better than no system at all.

Candidates had just two months to register and be approved by the Presidential Elections Commission, presided over by several members of the Mubarak regime. Thirteen candidates were admitted but a popular Salafist (Hazem Abu Ismail), a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood (Khairat Al Sharer) and Mubarak's longtime chief of military intelligence (Omar Suleiman) were disqualified, some said unfairly. Protests ensued and street battles claimed 20 lives just weeks before elections. In the midst of the fray, no one seemed to notice that Ahmed Shafik, former air force commander, Minister of Civil Aviation, and Mubarak's last appointed prime minister was still in the race.

The spotlight had shifted to the only relatively well-known candidate, former Foreign Minister and Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa from the secularist camp and Abdel Moneim Aboul Foutouh, who was expelled from the Brotherhood for his decision to run for president. Aboul Foutouh was imprisoned under Mubarak for his role in the banned group and is seen as an honest and intelligent patriot first, and a moderate, unaffiliated Islamist second. The Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) won a large tranche of parliamentary seats and promised repeatedly not to field a presidential candidate. But they reneged, and when their first choice was disqualified they served up another. No one had ever heard of Mohammed Mursi (dubbed by the press 'the spare tyre') but with the FJP, Egypt's most well-oiled political machine behind him, it didn't seem to matter.

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Aside from a highly-publicised TV debate between Aboul Fotouh and Moussa, candidates had little time to formulate, present or even discuss their platforms. Voters had to base their choice on either alliance to a party (i.e. the FJP) or the candidate's secular versus religious status; in short, an assessment of what the candidates' represent rather than who they are or what they have to offer.

Opinion polls touting Moussa and Aboul Fotouh as frontrunners turned out dead wrong. The FJP's Mohamed Mursi and regime remnant Ahmed Shafik were neck and neck, with a little over five million votes each, positioning them for a run-off scheduled for mid-June. Despite the ability to mobilise its constituency, the Brotherhood's showing was weak, a mere tenth of eligible voters, and a sign that people are wary of the FJP's power grab and back door deal-making since the uprising.

The Shafik vote was more surprising. The association with Mubarak's regime that discredited him last March, when he was forced to resign after a two-month stint as prime minister, has proved to be one of Shafik's virtues for a range of supporters cutting across generations and income brackets. 'Strong' was the word invariably used to describe him. Activists and liberals called foul, saying Shafik was backed by the army and his presence in the run-offs was 'an insult to the revolution'. Since monitors were denied full access to the polls, some said the vote was rigged. But the widespread support Shafik garnered proved that a broad swathe of voters are tired of political unrest and yearn for the stability of yore, even if it means empowering the security apparatus the revolution fought to dismantle in the name of civil rights. …

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