EGYPT’S first free presidential election has been a long time coming. Ever since the 1952 revolution and the overthrow of the monarchy its leaders have come to power by military coup or in carefully staged polls whose result was always clear long before any ballots were cast.
Now a genuine contest whose outcome is unknown is being fought at rallies, on billboards and leaflets from Aswan to Zagazig. Cliff-hanging drama, bitter rivalries and high stakes have combined into a riveting story that is being closely watched as the most populous — and once the most influential country in the Arab world — prepares to move to civilian leadership.
An unprecedented live TV debate between the frontrunners, Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, was remarkable for the sheer ordinariness of their sparring about healthcare and campaign financing rather than any political virtuosity or verbal pyrotechnics.
Hosni Mubarak — forced to step down last February after 30 years in office, and now on trial — would never have locked horns with the two token opposition candidates who were allowed to challenge him in 2005, when he won with 88.6 per cent. Pharaoh did not deign to debate against those who had aspired to replace him.
Having played a pioneering role in the Arab Spring — its own revolution inspired by the events in Tunisia — Egypt’s fledgling democracy is coming to life amid bouts of violence and suspicions that even the election itself could yet be postponed — just one big uncertainty in what blogger Issandr El Amrani calls “an almost comically uncertain political transition”.
Not least is the question of what powers the president will have since a new post-revolution constitution with his job description has yet to be written. Linked to that is the position of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), guardians of the state since Mubarak quit.
Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and his colleagues have pledged to step down by July 1 after a probable runoff round in mid-June between the two candidates who come out on top. What role the generals will play is one of the biggest issues facing Egypt.
Strikingly, all the leading candidates have so far been deferential in their statements on the military and their jealously guarded status, secret budgets and economic empire. That suggests they will continue to wield considerable power behind the scenes — whoever ends up occupying the presidential palace.
Excitement seems to be greater for the presidential race than for the parliamentary elections, which produced a sweeping majority for the Islamists who were kept out of power under Mubarak — 40 per cent for the Muslim Brotherhood and another 25 per cent for hardline Salafi fundamentalists.
That result, as commentator Rami Khouri argued, reflected “the citizenry’s trauma of the previous decades of state dominance or even oppression, including large-scale theft and corruption”. Parliament’s performance has been underwhelming, not least because the military has clipped its wings. So, 18 months after the dramas of Tahrir Square, the presidential battle is seen by many as the one that matters — a choice between stability and uncertainty, between head and heart.
Moussa, Mubarak’s former foreign minister, comes close to the pejorative description of being a fuloul (remnant) of the old regime, though in fact he left it in 2001 to head the Arab League, where he acquired global recognition and a claim to statesmanship he uses to taunt his rivals as inexperienced amateurs.
Unabashedly secular, Mousa emphasises the need for urgent practical measures to tackle the economy, health and illiteracy — still a shocking 20-30 per cent. At 75, he is the oldest candidate — an advantage when recurrent terms smack of the bad old days.
— The Guardian, London