Middle East

Egypt election: Will Egyptians respect the outcome?

An artist paints the faces of Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq and a combination of the faces of former president Hosni Mubarak and Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi in Cairo May 22, 2012
Image caption An artist puts the finishing touches to a mural depicting some of the candidates alongside faces from the old regime

When Egyptians enter the polling stations for the presidential elections, they will be choosing between an extraordinary range of options.

The choice they make will not just determine the country's immediate future - it will decide what sort of Egypt will be built on the foundations of last year's uprising against authoritarian rule.

Among the 13 candidates, there are some who would see themselves as guardians of the spirit of last year's Tahrir Square uprising, others who are Islamists, and one or two with roots in the old political system.

In many ways, those latter candidates are the most interesting.

Building a democracy

Amr Moussa was once Hosni Mubarak's foreign minister, although he was eventually sidelined - apparently for becoming too popular - and ended up running the Arab league.

He has experience which many older Egyptians find reassuring, but he is also able to argue that his relationship with the old regime was somewhat semi-detached.

Ahmed Shafiq, a retired air force general who briefly served as prime minister in the chaotic final days of Hosni Mubarak, does not have that luxury. A substantial vote for him would signal that many Egyptians are worried about the pace and direction of change.

But it would be extraordinary if the outcome of an uprising against the rule of Hosni Mubarak turned out to be the election of a politician with a clear link to him.

Believers in political Islam have a choice between Mohammed Mursi, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, and Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former party member now running as an independent.

Mr Mursi cannot be accused of relying on personal charisma for victory, but the Brotherhood is a well-organised and well-funded force in Egyptian life, with a discipline forged under long years of official persecution that stretched back well before the rule of Hosni Mubarak.

Dr Aboul Fotouh was for many years a senior member of the Brotherhood too - his departure because he wanted to run for president at a time when the Brotherhood's official policy was to not field a candidate now seems a little ironic.

He is seen as representing a liberal strand within Islamist thought, but he also has the backing of the fundamentalists of the Salafist movement.

It is hard to see anyone from the liberal wing of Egyptian politics competing with those four contenders - but the task of choosing a winner is only one element in building a democracy.

Army support?

A second major test will come almost immediately; will Egyptians respect the outcome of the elections even if they do not like it?

Liberals may well feel that they did not take the risk of taking to the streets last year to pave the way for the election of a follower of political Islam; Islamists in turn would be unhappy with a victory for someone they would regard as a representative of the old days.

Many Egyptians too wonder what sort of role the army plans for itself in this new society.

Does it - in spite of its protestations to the contrary - have a preferred candidate? Will it agree to work with the winner, whoever that might turn out to be?

The best hope is that the generals will be content to let democratic civilian politics flourish as long as their own direct interests are protected; that would mean a deal to keep the military budget secret (and large).

It would also mean protection for the vast economic assets of the military in everything from baking and banking to fuel distribution.

But I have met plenty of voters who still suspect that the army is a kind of hidden hand, controlling the entire process. Ask them for evidence, and they say simply that the history of Egypt over the last 60 years is evidence.

But for all the caveats, this is an exciting time in Egypt.

It will be fascinating to see if voters decide to consolidate the election of an Islamist majority to parliament last year with an Islamist president. Or whether they will instinctively choose someone who will act as a counterweight to that majority.

And there are all real signs of change which go beyond the rallies, posters and TV advertising campaigns of the main candidates.

Political jokes

A young cartoonist I met, Muhammad Salah, told me that satire and mockery - essential tools of free speech - were here to stay as part of Egyptian politics.

He draws generals who think they are Superman and sinister-looking goons from the security services.

He told me simply: "This is not about politicians giving us the right to do these things. We've claimed that right for ourselves in the revolution and whoever wins, it's not going to change."

And I got the same message even more strongly from Bassem Youssef - a handsome, charismatic heart surgeon who invented, and stars in, a type of topical satirical TV show that is very new to Egypt.

He says he is merely bringing to television the sort of subversive political jokes that Egyptians always made privately.

But popular TV satire is going to change Egypt's political culture, and Mr Youssef says whoever wins the presidency can expect to be targeted - whether they like it or not.

"I don't care if they're ready or not," he said. "The next president has to know that he's not coming as a pharaoh or king, but as an employee. If they're not ready... tough luck."

Egypt's elections may go into a second round if there is no clear winner in the first round, and we may not know the final results for nearly a month.

But the changes in the country's political atmosphere and the energy of the campaign so far are optimistic signs for the future, whoever wins.