The stakes in Egypt’s presidential election

May 22, 2012

Egyptians will vote on May 23 and 24 in the first presidential election since the downfall of Hosni Mubarak in February of last year. If, as seems likely, no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff election in June between the top two candidates.

Mostafa Ali is a journalist for Ahram Online and member of Egypt's Revolutionary Socialists. He recently wrote an analysis of the presidential election for Ahram Online titled "The long road to Egypt's presidential palace." Here, he talks with Alan Maass about who the presidential candidates are and what they represent.

WHO ARE the major candidates in the presidential election and what do they stand for?

THERE ARE three candidates who have been at the top of the opinion polls all along, and two others who have risen in the polls in recent weeks.

One of them is Amr Moussa, Hosni Mubarak's former foreign minister from 1991 to 2001 and the former secretary-general of the Arab League from 2001 to 2011. He has been leading in the polls for a long time. He reestablished himself after the revolution last year as an opponent of Mubarak--as someone who differed with him on major foreign policy issues, especially the question of Israel.

The second person who is one of the main frontrunners is Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a longtime opponent of Mubarak and one of the leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was expelled from the Muslim Brotherhood last summer for breaking party rules and running for president. The Muslim Brotherhood, knowing that it would win the parliamentary elections, had promised not to field a candidate for president--to assure people, especially the West and the ruling military council, that it had no intention of monopolizing all aspects of power in the country.

Voting in Egypt's first fully free elections
Voting in Egypt's first fully free elections (Ahmed Abdel-fatah)

Aboul Fotouh broke ranks and announced he was running for president. He is considered to be from the liberal wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. He has a social democratic program and is quite liberal on social issues, on the role of women, on the Coptic Christian minority and so on.

The third person who been at the top of opinion polls is Hamdeen Sabahi. He is a longtime opponent of Mubarak who has also been in jail a number of times, just like Aboul Fotouh. He is the candidate of the Nasserist Dignity Party and is well known for his anti-Zionist positions, ever since his student days in the 1970s.

Those three candidates have led in opinion polls for quite a few months. But in the past few weeks, there have been some twists--in particular, two people who jumped into the race late.

One is Mohamed Morsi, the head of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political party formed by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood had serious conflicts with the military council that has ruled Egypt since Mubarak's downfall, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF. About a month and a half ago, it reneged on its promise not to put up a presidential candidate. It is now running Morsi, one of its leading members, and he has been moving up in the polls, right behind the three frontrunners.

The other twist is that Mubarak's former aviation minister and his last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, has also decided to enter the race. He was brought in by Mubarak when the rebellion was underway in the hopes of appeasing the protesters with a new government--though clearly that didn't work.

Shafiq is believed to have played a part in masterminding the infamous Battle of the Camel on February 2 last year, when thousands of pro-Mubarak forces attacked the mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square, killing dozens and injuring hundreds of people. If he didn't plan the attack, he at least did nothing to stop it.

Shafiq has moved up in the polls quite fast in the last few weeks as well and is considered to be a serious contender.

These are the major frontrunners, but one other candidate is important to mention. His name is Khaled Ali. He is well behind in the polls, but his campaign has picked up a lot of steam--he was little known to the general public until about a month ago.

Ali is a labor lawyer and a left-wing activist. He made name for himself among human rights activists and also among sections of workers, because he spent years fighting in the courts against Mubarak's privatization of public-sector companies. Ali actually won some historic lawsuits to renationalize some of these companies. He was also the lawyer who won a historic verdict from the courts two years ago to set a minimum wage for all workers in the country.

Ali calls himself a socialist--he's running for president on a radical left-wing program centered around getting the army out of political life and the redistribution of wealth in the country.

COULD YOU talk about where these candidates stand in relation to the revolution that toppled Mubarak--whether they stand for the continuation of Egypt's transformation or restoration of the status quo?

FROM THE point of view of activists in Egypt--those who want to see the revolution extended--you could group these candidates into three categories.

First, there's Moussa and Shafiq, the former ministers from Mubarak's government. They are considered by most of the revolutionary forces to be remnants of the old regime--even though Moussa has tried to distance himself from Mubarak. That isn't how the general population views them, but for the most left-wing sections of activists, a victory for either of them will be seen as a defeat for the revolution.

Second, there is Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, who cannot be considered a remnant of the old regime. But he and the Brotherhood are viewed quite negatively by the left as people who cut deals with the old regime at many points in the past--and who played a destructive role through their alliances with the military council over the course of the last year.

The Brotherhood hasn't participated in the massacres of protesters, but ideologically, it backed the SCAF in its attacks on the revolutionaries. So for the left, the Brotherhood is considered to be in the camp of the old regime and the counterrevolution, even if it wasn't a remnant of the old regime.

The third category is the candidates who are associated with the revolution. These include Aboul Fotouh, who was expelled from the Muslim Brotherhood; the Nasserist Sabahi; and the socialist candidate Khaled Ali. These three contenders are seen as candidates of the revolution because of their long-time opposition to the regime, their participation in the struggle last year, and their more or less principled opposition of military rule throughout the past year.

LET'S TALK more about each of these categories of candidates. First, how is it possible that candidates who represent the old regime could have the possibility of winning the presidency so soon after Mubarak's downfall?

IT'S IMPORTANT to understand that most people aren't looking at the candidates in the same way as those who are most active in the revolutionary movement.

For example, many people who are voting for Moussa--Mubarak's former foreign minster and the head of the Arab League--are actually pro-revolution, but they have accepted his argument that he was a longtime Mubarak opponent. These people are attracted to Moussa because at a time of instability, he has a lot of government experience and a lot of international experience, and despite his age--he's in his 70s --he seems to them like someone who can lead the country at this moment.

The situation is different with Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister. Shafiq is an outright counterrevolutionary. He repeats every day that Mubarak is his role model, and he promises to use an iron fist to deal with protesters and revolutionaries--in order to bring back law and order within 24 hours of assuming the presidency.

So it is quite surprising that he has become one of the frontrunners. But this has to do with two factors. First, after more than a year of ruling the country, the military council has succeeded in weakening the revolutionary forces. By using the fact that most people were waiting for the parliamentary and presidential elections, they were able to gain the upper hand and, I believe, temporarily stabilize the system, at least politically.

This has given tremendous confidence to Mubarak's old ruling party and the remnants of the old regime--which are definitely still a force in politics and the state machinery. The forces of the counterrevolution believe the revolutionary moment has passed by, and they're organizing like mad in support of Shafiq.

But it's also true that a lot of ordinary people will vote for him not necessarily because they are against the revolution, but because in the context of the economic crisis, Shafiq poses himself as a man of action--a man who will be able to deliver on domestic security issues and economic issues right away, having been in government before.

CAN YOU talk about the Muslim Brotherhood's decision to change course and run a candidate? And another question: The Brotherhood and other Islamist parties dominated the legislative elections that began late last year. Why isn't Morsi dominating in the presidential election now that he is running?

THE MUSLIM Brotherhood came into a serious conflict with the military council after it won a parliamentary majority at the end of elections back in January.

The Brotherhood wanted to be able to appoint a cabinet and dismiss the one that was appointed by the SCAF. Secondly, there is a fight over who's going to write the constitution. The Brotherhood obviously wanted to do this, using its parliamentary majority. The SCAF wanted to have the upper hand in writing the constitution and opposed that.

Because of these conflicts, the SCAF has led a major propaganda campaign against the Brotherhood, with the participation of the mainstream media, even the privately owned media. There has been an intense campaign of Islamophobia over the past four months--with the idea that the Brotherhood is power-hungry and wants to turn Egypt into a new Iran and so on.

That campaign obviously hurt the Brotherhood's credibility. But more than that, the Brotherhood, with its parliamentary majority since the start of the year, has failed to really address some key issues--not just long-term economic issues, but even immediate crises, like an acute gas shortage which has left cars and trucks lining up for a day or two to wait for gas. Actually, the Brotherhood in parliament is constrained in what it can and can't do to address some of the immediate economic issues.

So this combination of factors--first, the Brotherhood entering into a serious conflict with the military council, and second, its inability to really challenge the neoliberal policies set by the former regime--has taken a toll on the Muslim Brotherhood's popularity.

The Brotherhood probably won 50 percent of the votes in the parliamentary elections, and that doesn't count the votes that went to other Islamist parties. But it's not expected to do as well in the presidential elections.

However, having said that, the Muslim Brotherhood is still the largest political organization in the country, with deep roots in working-class communities all over the country, north and south. On May 17, it organized a human chain in support of Mursi, with people locking arms in long lines--and it was one of the longest human chains in history, stretching about 700 miles, from Aswan in the south of the country, all the way to Alexandria in the north.

That sheer ability of the Brotherhood to mobilize is why its candidate, despite entering the presidential race very late, has managed to go from the low single digits in opinion polls not so many days ago to being among the frontrunners.

Still, there is a drop in popularity for the Brotherhood since the parliamentary election. Many people--not a majority, probably, but many--who voted for the Brotherhood then, now don't think it's actually committed to fighting corruption and changing the system. Some of these people are falling into the hands of the Mubarak candidates. But others are supporting the candidates associated with the revolution.

So Aboul Fotouh, who was expelled from the Brotherhood, has gained a lot of support from young people in the organization--exactly because he was expelled and because he supports the revolution and refused to join the attack on activists and protesters during the past year.

WHAT ABOUT Aboul Fotouh and the other candidates associated with the revolution? How will they do?

THE FORCES that are the most committed to the revolution and to stopping a return to the old regime are divided in the election between three or four candidates. So the vote will be split among them.

But the positive sign is that if you add the votes that will go to the three main candidates associated with the revolution--Aboul Fotouh, Sabahi and Ali--they will probably get between 30 and 35 percent of the vote between them. That's not that bad, considering the situation--the fact that there aren't sizeable organizations on the ground throughout the last year, like there are representing the Islamists or the regime forces.

There has been a retreat in the last few months in terms of mass mobilizations, because people have been waiting for the presidential elections. More people are expected to vote for the president than in the parliamentary elections--and the turnout in the parliamentary elections was quite massive.

Part of the reason is that a lot of people had hopes the parliament would have immediate solutions to the acute economic crisis. A lot of workers voted for the Brotherhood on that basis. Now, as people get dismayed with the parliament, more and more of them are putting their faith in the next president to have a magic want to solve the country's economic crisis and bring about freedom and justice. It's very ironic--now that people are turning their hopes away from parliament, many are putting their faith into the next president.

In reality, the next president--even if it's a president who comes from the left--will inherit a system that is mostly still intact from the Mubarak days: the same state machinery and same ruling class, determined to continue the same neoliberal policies and deals with the IMF. It may take a few months, but it's inevitable that people will come to realize that electing a new president isn't going to be enough to change the system.

It's interesting that strikes around the country have not only continued, but have matured in a number of ways. Workers are not only walking out--they're going out on strike because they've realized that so many promises made by the government over the course of the last year and now by the Muslim Brotherhood aren't being met.

So it's a very intense situation, and a new president is going to have to make important concessions to millions of workers and the poor to stand a chance of maintaining any kind of popularity for an extended period of time.

The elections are taking place in a period of intense economic struggles, but unfortunately, a lot of these strikes do shake the Military Council, but not enough, because they aren't coordinated and there is no political representation for the working class movement.

Overall, these are learning experiences for a lot of people--through economic struggle and through political struggles in terms of learning what the parliamentary system is about.

Maybe one point to end on is the massive excitement about the presidential election among a majority of people. In spite of everything that's happened, the terrible things the SCAF has done and the Brotherhood's broken promises, there's a sense of excitement that the first-ever democratic election is going to take place, and that people now have the right to discuss politics and choose candidates.

That's a very important step for a population that has been quite beaten down for 60 years. The elections will be a major accomplishment of the revolution, and there's quite a lot of excitement about that, despite everything else.

Transcription by Karen Domínguez Burke

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