The Arab Spring began in Tunisia last year when weeks of protests forced President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from power, inspiring pro-democracy activists across the Arab world. The 15 months since Mubarak was forced from power has been turbulent, with continued violent protests and a deteriorating economy. Foreign direct investment has reversed from $6.4bn (£4bn) flowing into the country in 2010 to $500m leaving it last year.
Egyptians voted on May 23-24 in an historic presidential election, 15 months after ousting Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring uprising, contested by Islamists and secularists promising different futures for the country after the overthrow of veteran “dictator” Hosni Mubarak. Field Marshall Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, has been acting Head of State ever since.
Six months ago more than 70 percent of Egyptian voters cast ballots for Islamist parties. Presidential polls for Egypt’s 50 million eligible voters went on smoothly. Three weeks of official campaigning, which included a US-style televised presidential debate, brought the Brotherhood to the fore. If none of the candidates wins more than 50% of the vote, the top two will have to compete in a run-off June 16-17. The election pitted Islamists against others like neo-secularists, and revolutionaries against Mubarak-era ministers. Thirteen people are vying for the top job but the frontrunners are: Ahmed Shafiq, a former commander of the air force and briefly prime minister during February 2011 protests, Amr Moussa, who has served as foreign minister and head of the Arab League, is accused of belonging to the old regime, the powerful Mohammed Mursi, who heads Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, an independent Islamist candidate. The race is likely to come down to either Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, a liberal Islamist who nevertheless has the backing of conservative Salafists, or Amr Moussa, an official from the Mubarak era.
None of the 12 candidates was expected to get more than half the votes and win outright in the first round on Wednesday and Thursday, and a run-off between the top two is likely in June. It is the first time that ordinary Egyptians, ruled down the centuries by pharaohs, sultans, kings and military officers, have a genuine chance to choose their leader.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate for president in Egypt, Mohammed Morsi is the favorite leader as the top vote-getter. Shafiq is widely viewed as an extension and symbol of Mubarak’s rule and his run-off against Morsi is the most polarizing result possible.
Islamist candidates have promised an Islamic-based project that will meet the revolution’s goals, prompting fears among secularists and Egypt’s Coptic minority over personal freedoms and raising questions over the future of the country’s lucrative tourism industry. Shafiq and Mussa have vowed to maintain stability and restore law and order but their ties to the old regime sparked fears of renewed protests by those who will feel their revolution threatened.
The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), in power since Mubarak’s ouster, urged Egyptians to turn out en masse to the polls, while warning against any “violation.” The SCAF has vowed to hand power to civilian rule by the end of June, after a president is elected, but many fear its retreat will be just an illusion. The army, with its vast and opaque economic power, wants to keep its budget a secret by remaining exempt from parliamentary scrutiny, maintain control of military-related legislation and secure immunity from prosecution.
Mursi was originally the Muslim Brotherhood’s reserve candidate, but he was thrust into the limelight after its first choice, Khairat al-Shater, was disqualified by the Higher Presidential Electoral Commission (HPEC) over an unresolved conviction. The Brotherhood has nevertheless likened Mursi, a US-educated engineer and MP, to an underrated football substitute.
Mursi has said he would include a wide range of political forces in any government. Mursi promised at a news conference to provide representation to women and children, and said the era of a “Superman” as president was over. The Freedom and Justice Party head said the presidency would no longer be about one person; it would be an institution. Mursi also promised that the new constitution would be written by a panel that truly represented the diversity of Egyptian society. The current 100-member drafting assembly was suspended following complaints that women, young people and minorities were under-represented.
For Mursi, the anti-Mubarak protest was a reminder their uprising has been hijacked. He was quick to come out with a response. At a news conference, he again struck a conciliatory tone and tried to reach out to wider Egyptian society, knowing he will need its support to win the presidency. Obviously, under tremendous pressure from western terrocracies, Mursi said women have a right to freely choose the attire that suits them. The 60-year-old added that he would appoint Coptic Christians as presidential advisers and even one as vice-president “if possible”.
The Brotherhood’s Mursi, trying to allay such worries, pledged in a final rally that “we will not export our revolution to anyone”. Mursi was pitched into the race at the last minute after the Brotherhood’s first-choice candidate was ruled out. He may lack charisma, but he can rely on the Brotherhood’s vote machine. His rivals include Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, an Islamist who has drawn support ranging from liberals to hardline Salafi Muslims; Moussa, who was foreign minister before moving to the Arab League and has strong name recognition; and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, who like his former boss, once commanded the air force.
A late surge helped Hamdeen Sabahy, a leftist inspired by Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose “Free Officers” overthrew King Farouk in 1952 and set up the system that has put military men in the presidency for the past 60 years.
Whoever wins faces a huge task to deliver changes that Egyptians expect to relieve a grim economic outlook. The military that was a pillar of Mubarak’s rule is likely to remain a powerful political force for years.
THREE (Some Observations)
The poll outcome may have divided Egypt and deeply disappointed the activist movement that galvanized the nation’s 2011 revolt against Mubarak’s entrenched old guard. Thousands had taken to the streets of Cairo after the Higher Presidential Election Committee (HPEC) published the results of last week’s first round, which saw Mursi win 24.3% of the vote and Shafiq get 23.3%. The presidential vote results were being contested even before they were released.
The new president will also have to reform the police to deal with the rash of crime that followed the uprising. As many as a third of voters are reported to be undecided about which candidate to choose. The next president will inherit a struggling economy, deteriorating security and the challenge of uniting a nation divided by the uprising and its sometimes deadly aftermath, but his powers are yet to be defined by a new constitution.
Tourism, a major revenue generator for the country, has also dropped by a third. The new Islamist government is not expected to boost tourism for revenues by sacrificing Islamic values. There could be “adjustments” to begin with before the tourism operations are streamlined.
The election marks the final phase of a tumultuous transition overseen by the ruling military council after Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising last year. After decades of pre-determined results, for the first time, the outcome of the vote in the Arab world’s most populous nation — which also pits revolutionaries against old regime members — is wide open. According to pollsters, the large number of voters undecided between candidates reflecting radically different trends and the novelty of a free presidential vote make Wednesday’s election almost impossible to call.
The generals now ruling Egypt on an interim basis are due to formally hand over power by July 1. The military council which assumed presidential power in February 2011 has promised a fair vote and civilian rule. In the second city of Alexandria, says that for many people the election is not about religious dogma or party politics, but about who can put food on the table.
Until a new constitution is approved it is unclear what powers the president will have, prompting fears of friction with a military which seems determined to retain its powerful position. Everyone seems to recognize the extraordinary nature of the moment, the first chance in history Egyptians have had to choose a leader. There are supporters of all the main candidates, Islamists and ministers of the old regime, side by side in the queues. Everyone talks of the huge economic challenges ahead and of the two tests Egypt’s democracy now faces – first, to conduct a fair vote, then to persuade all Egyptians to accept the result, even if they don’t like it.
Many Gulf states are concerned about who will lead the regional heavyweight after their long-time ally Mubarak was ousted. Their conservative monarchies have so far emerged from a wave of Arab uprisings relatively unscathed.
The West, long wary of rise of Islamism Islamists as consequence of post-sept-11, and Israel, worried about its 33-year-old peace treaty with Egypt, are watching to see if proponents of political Islam add to their gains after sweeping most seats in a parliamentary vote that ended in January. “Our vote will make Egypt’s voice in the Arab world ring loud and clear,” said Saad Abed Raboh, a civil servant in his mid-50s voting in Alexandria. “For 30 years Egypt’s vote was muted, but now it will be heard because Egyptians will choose their president.”