After a long - and often torturous - journey, millions of Egyptians will vote in Wednesday's 1st post-Mubarak presidential election. Just who will win the historical contest, however, remains anybody's guess

Mostafa Ali, Tuesday 22 May 2012

The last time Egyptians went to the polls in September 2005 to vote for a president in "multi-candidate elections," the now-defunct National Democratic Party secured 87 per cent of the vote (6.3 million votes) for then-president Hosni Mubarak. In retaliation for daring to run against the country's long-time ruler, the former regime punished liberal lawyer Ayman Nour, who had garnered 7 per cent (540,000 votes) of total ballots cast, with three years in prison on questionable fraud charges.

By most accounts, 30-40 million (60–75 per cent of eligible voters) are expected to head to the polls on Wednesday out of a total of 53 million eligible voters, for an election that will prove that last year's January 25 Revolution that ousted Mubarak has changed Egypt's political landscape and psyche forever.

Despite the fact that the revolution has not fundamentally altered Egypt's pre-February 2011 social and economic system – beyond sending Mubarak and a handful of his closest associates to trial – millions of ordinary people, who lived as silent spectators to Egypt's political life for generations, have finally entered onto the stage of history and will no longer allow others to determine their destiny.

In a recent two-part interview with flagship state daily Al-Ahram, veteran journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal underscored this historic awakening by the Egyptian public.

"Despite all the hard times [over the past year], those who had long been repressed have exploded. This was inevitable. The debate over the country's future has begun,” Heikal said.

Indeed, although Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has more or less set the tempo of democratic transition over the last 15 months, the formerly repressed masses have put their signature on the events that have taken place during the post-revolution transitional period – which is about to come to an end.

In March of last year, 20 million people (40 per cent of eligible voters) took to the polls for a historic referendum on amending Mubarak’s 1971 constitution. They overwhelmingly endorsed the SCAF's proposals – backed by the Islamists and opposed by liberal forces – that presidential and parliamentary elections should precede the arduous task of drafting a more long-term constitution, and that Egypt's freely-elected parliament should set the terms for drafting a new national charter.

Soon afterward, in the spring of 2011, mass protests forced the SCAF to arrest Mubarak and his two sons and charge them with corruption and killing protesters. In November, the generals – facing mass protests against military rule – bowed to the popular will and promised to hand over power to an elected president by 30 June of this year.

Then, between late November and mid-January, more than 30 million Egyptians (60 per cent of eligible voters) participated in the country’s first free parliamentary elections in decades, which handed Egypt's Islamist forces – repressed for decades under the former regime – a solid majority in the People’s Assembly.

This time the people have many choices

In the past two months, the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission (SPEC) – appointed by the SCAF to oversee presidential elections – settled on 13 out of 23 hopefuls to compete in this week's poll.

Although the range of candidates was to be more diverse than anything seen under Mubarak, SPEC’s 10 April decision to disqualify Muslim Brotherhood second-in-command Khairat El-Shater and Salafist preacher Hazem Abu-Ismail from the race –while allowing Mubarak-era PM Ahmed Shafiq to run despite the passage of a law that bans former Mubarak officials from holding public office – caused considerable dismay among a sizeable segment of the public.

The elimination of Abu-Ismail, whose popularity and pro-Sharia message had generated considerable excitement among Islamists and made his candidacy seem all but unstoppable, threatened at one point to derail the entire electoral process as bloody confrontations between his supporters and the army near the defence ministry in Abbasiya left at least 11 dead and hundreds injured – and hundreds more arrested – in early May.

But as the dust settled in Abbasiya, and as public opinion largely agreed to live with the SPEC-set rules of the game, opinion polls – though not necessarily a reliable indicator of public opinion – revealed that Egyptians were homing in on five leading contenders.

Two former members of the Mubarak regime, former foreign minister Amr Moussa and Mubarak's last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, head into Wednesday’s vote with good chances of clinching a spot in the runoffs, slated for 16 and 17 June.

Meanwhile, two candidates who played an important role in the January 25 Revolution and who had already made names for themselves as opponents of Mubarak – Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi and former Brotherhood leader Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh – continued to show that they, too, stood a decent chance of reaching the runoff vote in June.

Finally, though he jumped into the race at the eleventh hour, Brotherhood candidate and head of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party Mohamed Mursi has made his way up slowly but surely into the top five, capitalising on the Brotherhood's unparalleled capacity for public mobilisation.

"All that is solid melts into air"

Judging by two opinion polls published two weeks ago by Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm and the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, the stage seemed set for Moussa to become Egypt's next president after he garnered 40 per cent of the vote. At the same time, Abul-Fotouh seemed the only candidate poised to give Moussa a run for his money and the millions of Egyptian pounds spent by the latter on campaigning.

During the same period, sample voters consistently kept Sabbahi and Shafiq under 8 per cent according to most opinion polls, showing little or no enthusiasm for the Brotherhood Mursi.

However, in a sudden change in public mood following a 10 May televised debate between Moussa and Abul-Fotouh (perceived as lacklustre by many viewers), support for Sabbahi surpassed the 10 per cent mark for the first time. Mursi's and Shafiq’s numbers, meanwhile, skyrocketed, pushing both closer to the top two spots.

In another development reflecting the constant state of flux in voters’ moods, the three candidates who sat at the bottom for weeks (Mursi, Shafiq and Sabbahi) shocked campaigners for the two that had been on top for months (Moussa and Abul-Fotouh) after the announcement of preliminary results for Egypt's May 11-17 expatriate vote.

While Moussa and Abul-Fotouh still came in first and second among Egyptian expats in several countries, Sabbahi and Shafiq fared surprisingly well among Egyptians abroad. Mursi, meanwhile, reportedly swept countries with large Egyptian expat communities, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Writing recently in independent daily Al-Shorouk, veteran liberal journalist Salama Ahmed Salama likened voters' perpetually shifting opinions to "sand dunes constantly shifting in the desert.”

Voter confusion could result from the difficulties newly-politicised, first-time voters typically encounter in making up their minds. However, it might also reflect the state of political stalemate witnessed by Egypt in recent months.

On the one hand, the forces of the former regime, reinvigorated by the SCAF’s success in combating the revolutionaries over the past year, have been fighting hard to preserve the fundamental basics of the Mubarak set-up. They have done this by granting a degree of reform while subjecting revolutionaries to never-ending smear campaigns. They have yet, however, to fully achieve their goals.

On the other hand, the forces that participated in last year's revolution have maintained considerable support among wide segments of workers and the poor, but have failed so far to coalesce around a specific political programme for change which could overcome the civil vs. religious divide between Islamists and non-Islamists. They have also failed to reach a consensus over a single pro-revolution presidential candidate.

Heikal alluded to this political impasse in his interview with Al-Ahram.

"The jumbled situation [of the revolution] happened because the revolutionary youth believe that they can lead the revolution, yet they're still not qualified to lead," he said. Meanwhile, "The SCAF wants to limit the revolution’s scope to merely ending Mubarak’s scheme to groom his son for the presidency," Heikal added.

This deadlock could be a reason for the inability of the bloc of candidates who participated in the revolution (Abul-Fotouh, Sabbahi and Mursi), or the competing bloc of former Mubarak men (Moussa and Shafiq), to capture a decisive electoral lead.

Given the state of limbo that Egypt’s revolution finds itself mired in only four days before Wednesday's vote, it comes as little surprise that a whopping 37 per cent of those asked told pollsters that they had yet to decide on a particular candidate.

The ever changing fortunes of the Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood seemed politically unstoppable after it won a comfortable majority in Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliamentary polls last winter. But a three-month power struggle between the Brotherhood on the one hand and liberal groups and the SCAF on the other has left the group relatively weakened.

The Brotherhood invited additional condemnation from several quarters – including some of its own members – when it nominated leading group member Khairat El-Shater as presidential candidate in March, breaking a year-old promise not to contest the presidency. El-Shater was later replaced for legal reasons by current Brotherhood candidate Mursi.

For months now, a formidable anti-Brotherhood campaign has been waged by certain public and private media outlets by liberals and pro-SCAF figures who have attempted to slander the group by accusing it of monopolising all branches of government and scheming to dominate the constitution-drafting process.

The ferocity of the attacks on the Brotherhood appears to have paid dividends.

For one, the anti-Brotherhood campaign has likely led a considerable number of the group's sympathisers – who had voted for it in parliamentary elections – to decide against voting for the group's candidate in this week's presidential poll.

The Brotherhood’s troubles have also boosted the fortunes of underdog Shafiq, who has jumped on the Islamophobic bandwagon by making Mubarak-esque threats to crush the Islamists – and revolutionaries – if he is elected, in hopes of scoring points with Coptic and liberal voters.

What's more, attacks on the Brotherhood have unintentionally raised the fortunes of two leftist candidates who are proponents of a civil state – Sabbahi and labour lawyer Khaled Ali – in the eyes of some voters who oppose the notion of an Islamist state, but who also fear the return of Mubarak-era autocracy under Shafiq or Moussa.

To add insult to injury, the decision by the powerful Salafist Nour Party – Egypt’s second largest party and one-time ally of the Brotherhood in parliament – to throw its support behind Abul-Fotouh all but spelled the end of Mursi's presidential prospects.

A rising anti-Islamist sentiment seemed to be confirmed by a recent Gallup poll, which showed a sharp rise in the number of Egyptians who had voted for Islamists in parliamentary elections but who now express dismay with their performance in the People's Assembly and, as a result, are less likely to vote for them in the presidential elections.

"The Brotherhood is definitely in a difficult position now because of the Islamist-led parliament's failure to deal with the economy; allegations of vote-buying; and its manoeuvring to monopolise power," Mohamed Kadry Said, head of security studies at the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told Ahram Online.

Yet, despite poll results to the contrary, the recent last-minute success of the Brotherhood to mobilise hundreds of thousands of supporters in an impressive show of force for their candidate points to the fact that the 80-year-old Brotherhood will remain a powerful player in Egypt’s political future – especially given the absence of any viable leftist or liberal alternative.

From drawing tens of thousands of followers to packed campaign rallies, to forming the world's longest human chain, the Brotherhood has sent a powerful message to opponents that it remains a force to be reckoned with.

In fact, in the aftermath of the months-long power struggle with the SCAF, the Brotherhood and its candidate have sharpened their anti-SCAF rhetoric, recycling revolutionaries' calls for "the revolution to continue until justice for the martyrs is realised and social equality ensured," thus bolstering its anti-establishment credentials among Egypt’s poor.

"One cannot ignore…that the Brotherhood's massive organisational machinery – which pervades all اhamlets, villages, and governorates – has catapulted the group's candidate towards the top of the list," Salama wrote in Al-Shorouk.

Egypt's political future post-SCAF?

Many of those who supported the revolution from the outset doubted all along that the ruling military council would actually hand over power to a civilian administration, as the council had promised the day after Mubarak's ouster and again following November's bloody street battles between protesters and military personnel.

In fact, a small group of activists have called – so far unsuccessfully – for a boycott of Wednesday’s presidential poll, arguing that the ruling generals are simply "putting on a show" aimed at buying time or "deceiving" the public, and that they actually have no intention of returning to their barracks anytime soon.

However, many Egyptians from across the political spectrum have maintained the belief since February of last year that the generals understand perfectly well that the people’s desire for democratic transformation – embodied by a willingness to make great sacrifices over the course of their 15-month struggle – could not be derailed by gimmicks or Mubarak-style repression.

In fact, Said told Ahram Online that the SCAF, contrary to widely circulated rumours, had not necessarily thrown its weight behind any particular candidate, since it wants to see free and fair elections and a stable political situation. The generals, he added, remain confident that they can deal in their own way with anyone elected president by the people.

Over the past year, the SCAF has proven its ability to act in a conciliatory manner and make concessions to opposition forces in order to avert major crises, said Said. "The holding of elections in and of itself was a major concession by SCAF to the people," he noted.

Nonetheless, the complete transfer of power to a civilian administration – with an elected president following an elected parliament – will by no means guarantee the absence of the SCAF's intervention in politics, if and when the generals believe that their vested interests are threatened.

But for the time being, the SCAF – on some level – has had no choice but to bow to the popular will, which demands free and transparent elections.

There are no guarantees that an elected president (no matter who wins) or parliament (now led by the Brotherhood) will provide easy answers to the country’s economic crisis, or invent quick ways to satisfy a population thirsty not only for voting rights but for a semblance of social and economic equality.

"Any new president [who seeks reform for the benefit of the people] will inherit a bureaucracy in the state machinery that remains untouched by the revolution," Heikal told Al-Ahram, highlighting some of the nightmare scenarios with which Egypt's new commander-in-chief could be forced to contend.

Few can envision how elected officials might face off against the masses of angry workers, poverty-stricken peasants or marginalised slum dwellers who voted them into office in the event that the latter's expectations are dashed.

"There will be a 100-day honeymoon between voters and the new president, like those seen in older democracies. But at the end of this period, if the president has not acted in a transparent manner and set clear timetables for improving people’s lives, many could return to Tahrir Square to voice their dissatisfaction,” Said added, referring to Cairo's iconic protest venue.

At the end of the day, only one thing is for sure: Egyptians will make history on Wednesday and Thursday, as they first began doing on 25 January of last year.