Egypt presidential face-off: Islamists vs. 'regime remnants'

Egypt's first free presidential election in modern times starts tomorrow, with the front-runners the Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Amr Moussa, a former longtime servant of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
People walk under a campaign election banner for Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood’s official candidate, in old Cairo on Tuesday, May 22.

Tomorrow, Egyptians will go to the polls to choose their president for the first time in modern history, but they are facing a choice of front-runners who represent some of the oldest forces in the state.

On one side is Amr Moussa, a long-time foreign minister under former President Hosni Mubarak. He casts himself as the anti-Islamist candidate, and a vote for experience and stability. On the other is Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a long-time member of the historic Egyptian opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. Though he was expelled last year, and has attempted to bridge the Islamist-secular polarization of Egyptian politics, in the minds of many Egyptians he is still Ikhwan.

Even a broader definition of "front-runners" doesn't broaden the spectrum: there is Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood’s official candidate, and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister.

“Most of the candidates are old figures. Yes, a number of them were not part of the regime, but they were part of the political establishment during the Mubarak era. … Yes, a number of them were in the opposition, yet it’s clear that we don’t have new, younger faces,” says an Egyptian blogger who goes by The Big Pharoah. “It’s pretty clear that the revolution still did not develop into political choices.”

A poll conducted this month by the University of Maryland found that Dr. Aboul Fotouh was leading, with 32 percent of respondents saying they favored him, while Mr. Moussa came in second with 28 percent. Mr. Shafiq garnered 14 percent and Mr. Morsi 8 percent.

In the capital, the candidates’ familiar faces seem to stare out from every wall, on campaign posters plastered all over the city, or banners fluttering in the breeze. On some posters belonging to Mr. Moussa, the word felool, a pejorative term referring to members of the previous regime, has been scrawled by passers-by.

In Cairo streets, on the metro, in taxis and cafes, it is difficult to escape the discussions and arguments over who to vote for. Some Egyptians are not disturbed by Moussa’s connections to Mubarak. After all, he left the regime a decade ago, pushed out when his popularity appeared to threaten his boss. He spent the next decade as leader of the Arab League, away from the growing power of Mubarak’s son Gamal, whose status as Mubarak’s assumed heir and reputation for corruption incited popular anger.

A steady hand?

Many of those who intend to vote for Moussa say they value his experience, which they say will enable him to start turning things around on day one in office. “He was in government for many years, so he knows how to get things done,” says Amr Ibrahim, an unemployed college graduate. Mr. Ibrahim said another reason he will vote for Moussa is to keep power from being concentrated in the hands of the Brotherhood, which took nearly half the parliamentary seats in recent elections, and reneged on its post-revolution pledge not to seek the presidency.

“We gave them parliament, and what have they done?” asks Mr. Ibrahim. “We don’t need another National Democratic Party,” he says, referring to Mubarak’s party, which dominated all branches of government. And his sentiment applies to Aboul Fotouh as well, though he is no longer part of the movement. “Aboul Fotouh is Ikhwan,” he says.

Yet despite his history with the Brotherhood, Aboul Fotouh’s inclusive rhetoric and moderate stances have won him a wide base of support. He was a reformer in the Brotherhood, and his differences with the organization on some issues (like accepting a Christian or woman as president) win him support among secularists. He delicately handles questions about implementing sharia, or Islamic law. Many prominent liberal and leftist revolutionary types are among his supporters, partly because he is the only front runner who can be considered a “revolutionary.”

Yet he lost some of this support when the most organized group of ultraconservative Islamists, known as salafis, endorsed him. Many experts see the endorsement as an attempt by salafis to counter the Brotherhood, but it also incited suspicion in some liberal and secular types who had considered supporting Aboul Fotouh.

The secularist revolutionary activists who don’t support Aboul Fotouh have few other choices. Some won’t vote at all. Others will make the pragmatic decision to support Moussa to counter Islamist candidates. Others are supporting Hamdeen Sabbahi, a leftist who adheres to the pan-Arabist ideology of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. His popularity has surged recently as he picked up support from liberal, leftist, and secular Egyptians who refuse to vote for an Islamist or felool candidate.

Choices for activists

“What choices do we have?” asks activist Alfred Raouf. Instead of choosing a candidate who represents their views, some feel forced to use the process of elimination, choosing the best of the worst, he says. “You keep excluding until you’re left with one.”

Some of those who had hoped the revolution would bring greater change say it may be easier to make up their minds in the second round. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, which will take place Wednesday and Thursday, then a runoff election will be held between the two candidates with the most votes.

Some activists say they would only vote for Moussa if he is in a runoff with Shafiq or Morsi. Others say they would vote for Aboul Fotouh for the same reason. Esraa Abdel Fattah, a well-known activist, says she would be “very, very disappointed” if the runoff is between Morsi and Shafiq, the most conservative Islamist and most pro-military and pro-Mubarak figures in the race. In that case, she says, “I cannot think that any of us [revolutionaries] can vote.”

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