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Egypt: a fateful choice ahead

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Robin Lustig | 09:51 UK time, Friday, 25 May 2012

It may well be that the most significant political event of the week was neither the euro-summit dinner in Brussels on Wednesday (nothing happened), nor the latest twist in the Leveson-BskyB-Hunt-Cameron saga yesterday (although that's still a story with mileage in it, so it's definitely worth keeping an eye on).

For my money, the first round of the presidential elections in Egypt should get top billing, simply because the potential ramifications are so far-reaching.

As of this morning (Friday), with about one-fifth of the votes counted, it looks as if the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, Mohammed Mursi, is in the lead, with the Mubarak-era prime minister Ahmed Shafiq in second place. But of course much can change in the coming hours.

Whoever finally emerges as president of Egypt will immediately become one of the most powerful figures -- no, make that the most powerful figure -- in the Arab world. If it is indeed Mr Mursi, he will eclipse the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the world's most influential Islamic political leader.

If it's Mr Shafiq, or the other leading secular candidate, Hamdeen Sabbahi, who seems to have done much better than many observers had expected, Egypt will be seen to have turned its back on the tide of Islamism that has swept across much of the region over the past 18 months.

Why does Egypt matter so much? Well, just look at the numbers: with a population of 81 million, it's considerably bigger than all the other Arab spring countries put together (Libya 6.3m; Tunisia 10.5m; Syria 20.4m; Yemen 24m).

But it goes far beyond that. Egypt has a history stretching back more than five millennia to the times of the pharoahs. Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo has long been regarded as the seat of Sunni Muslim orthodoxy. And every head of the Arab League since its inception in 1945, with one brief exception, has been an Egyptian.

Egypt under President Anwar Sadat was the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel. It has played a crucial role over many years in mediating between Israelis and Palestinians, and between the rival Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas. It is also, along with Saudi Arabia, the most important US Arab ally.

So Egypt does matter. But even when the results of these elections are confirmed -- and even when the second round run-off between the two leading candidates has taken place next month -- there will be huge doubts about the future direction of the country.

For one thing, the precise powers of the new president remain to be defined. Attempts to draw up a new, post-Mubarak constitution have not yet borne fruit -- and you can be sure that the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the newly-elected parliament, will want to make sure that its MPs count for much more than they did in the ineffectual Mubarak-era parliaments.

And then, of course, there's the army. They have grown used to having things their own way, first under Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, and then, post-revolution, as the country's interim rulers. So there's going to be a huge fight over how much power, whether overt or behind the scenes, the generals hang on to. (Remember Turkey, where for decades the military were the major hidden power, making and breaking governments almost at will.)

So what about the revolutionaries? Those hundreds of thousands of mainly young Egyptians who poured into Tahrir Square in Cairo early last year, forcing out Hosni Mubarak, and -- so they hoped -- ushering in a bright new dawn for their country.

It would be, to say the least, a poignant irony if the two leading candidates to be the first democratically-elected president in Egypt's history turn out to be a man of the Muslim Brotherhood, which played no part in the early days of the revolution, and a man called by his critics a "remnant" of the old order, much derided as a throw-back to the bad old days, and seen as epitomising everything the uprising was meant to be against.

To some, that would be the nightmare scenario, leading to a deeply divisive second round poll, in which the military, the old guard and the secular would line up against the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood.

There's a lot hanging on the next few weeks -- because the Egyptian revolution is not yet over.


  • Comment number 1.

    Egypt started its first free presidential election on Thursday after a first day of voting that passed off (mostly) calmly, apart from a stone-throwing attack on candidate Ahmed Shafiq, who was premier for a few days before Hosni Mubarak fell.
    The race broadly pits Islamist candidates against secular ones like Shafiq and Amr Moussa, the former Arab League chief who previously served as Mubarak's foreign minister.
    Turnout on Wednesday seemed lower than in an earlier parliamentary vote when Islamists swept up most seats. Long queues and a scorching sun deterred some voters & many govt workers will have delayed voting to Thursday, when they have a day off.
    Expressing the sentiments of many, Khaled Abdou, a 25-year-old engineer said that he came yesterday, found it very crowded so he came back today. He said he felt he had to participate in choosing the president as he hoped this will lead to stability & political change needed.
    More than 100 voters were already queuing at one Cairo voting station when the polls reopened at 8 am. The vote is a crucial stage in a turbulent army-led transition racked by protests, violence & political disputes. The generals who took charge when Mubarak was ousted on February 11, 2011, have promised to hand over to the new president by July 1.

  • Comment number 2.

    The army is still powerful - with its privileges & vast business interests; it makes common Egyptians nervous that the army is expected to wield influence for years to come. A tussle over who should write the constitution also means the new president will not know his own powers when he is elected. Whoever wins faces the daunting tasks of mending a broken economy & re-establishing security - both huge public concerns.
    The Muslim Brotherhood said its candidate, Mohamed Mursi, was ahead after Wednesday's voting. Moussa's campaign office also put Mursi in the lead with the former League chief second. Voters reveled in their new ability to influence a genuinely contested election after decades of rigged votes under Mubarak, a military man like all Egypt's previous presidents.
    Many Eyptians have not taken part in past elections because it was known who would be president. Mohamed Mustafa, an engineer in Cairo's Zamalek district, said it was the first time that results would be unknown. If, as expected, no one gets more than 50% vote, second round between top two candidates will be held on June 16 and 17. First-round results may be clear by Saturday, but an official announcement is not expected til Tuesday.
    Unusual: Voters found themselves waiting with candidates who made a point of not pushing to the front. Independent Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, was cheered on joining a Cairo queue. Mursi said after voting in the Nile Delta city of Zagazig that Egyptians would not accept anyone from Mubarak's "corrupt former regime."
    When Shafiq arrived to vote in Cairo, protesters hurled shoes and stones at him. "The coward is here. The criminal is here," they cried. "Down with military rule." Like Mubarak, Shafiq commanded the air force before joining the cabinet.
    The former prime minister, who was appointed days before Mubarak fell and who quit soon afterwards amid protests against him in Tahrir Square, is one of the most divisive candidates. He appeals to those who want a strongman to restore order, but others see him as embodying everything they want changed. Moussa left Mubarak's cabinet a decade before the uprising. At the Arab League, he built on his popularity with criticism of Israel & American intervention in the region. Yet some still brand him a remnant of the old order. For many of those who cannot stomach Islamists or Mubarak-era ministers, favorite is leftist Hamdeen Sabahy.
    Independent monitors noted minor infringements in Wednesday's voting, such as campaigning outside polling stations, but said they did not undermine its validity.

  • Comment number 3.

    Today's African Proverb sure made me think:
    “A drop of ink makes millions think”
    I think about the inked finger as Egyptians finally get a free vote & thereafter, often proudly hold aloft the finger inked.
    (Quote fromNetwork Africa listener Martin Manyiel Wugol in South Sudan.)

  • Comment number 4.

    Hamdeen Sabahi should have been the "no-brainer" choice to win. He has been a consistent critic of Mubarak's regime and served jail time for years. Shafiq was the prime minister after the revolution last year and an close associate of Mubarak as well as an air force general. Mursi is the MB candidate and would insure that the MB dominates Egypt with both executive and legislative branches under their control. Disappointment with the results of the first round are widespread in Cairo and other major cities of Egypt.

  • Comment number 5.

    'still a story with mileage in it, so it's definitely worth keeping an eye on'

    Eye-on wise, when it comes to how much of whose money is put on such things can be rather moot.

    So you pays... uniquely fund your money and yer takes what yer given: no choice.

    I was interested in this well-rated comment in the Telegraph:


    'So the candidates in Egypt who were against the imposition of sharia law are liberals, but the people in Europe and the US who are against the imposition of sharia law are islamophobic, right wing bigots?'

    There was also much other commentary across the politico-media estate in the last 24 hrs, from Jenny Jones' magical morphing party website to yes... matters of the Hunt... but, oddly, on many BBC Editor blogs (Robinson, Flanders), comments got sadly closed before those taking a break from work at the weekend could take a crack.

    There's 'speaking at the people', and 'wanting their views', but it seems limits do still apply.

    So kudos for keeping this one open, at least.

  • Comment number 6.

    We forget sometimes about the parishioners at Church of St. Mark & Pope Peter in Egypt’s second-largest city who are giving thanks that Ahmed Shafik, a former Mubarak-era PM & leading choice of Christians, did so well this week.
    They are also asking for divine assistance to make him victorious in the final showdown against Mohamed Morsi.
    23 parishioners were killed last year when a car bomb exploded. There are large blood-stained shards from the church’s façade, along with a shredded red dress and pictures of victims on the wall beneath a fresco of the open arms of Jesus.
    The blast took place just three weeks before the popular uprising that triggered the fall of long-time president Hosni Mubarak, and was believed to have been the work of extremist Salafists – a puritanical sect that follows the ways of the earliest Muslims & disdains other religions.
    Fear of such violence is why Christians across the country, as well as most secular Muslims, are relieved that it is no longer a forgone conclusion that Egypt’s first freely elected president will be an Islamist. When 70% of voters in the recent parliamentary election sent Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist Nour Party candidates to the People’s Assembly, there seemed little reason doubt there would be a MB mandate.

  • Comment number 7.

    Runoff June 16 & 17 will decides the victor. The results have global implications because Egypt is not just any Arab state; it sets the political and cultural standard for all the others. Saudi Arabia has the oil, but the land of the Nile has the population – approaching 83M + the history.
    Options: Mr. Morsi, a dour official of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Mr. Shafik. a retired general, former head of the air force & Mr. Mubarak’s pick to be PM at the time of last year’s popular uprising.
    Mr. Morsi espouses a speedy adoption of Islamic sharia law and a review of Egypt’s 30-year treaty with neighbouring Israel; Mr. Shafik – unapologetic about his role in the old regime – vows both to uphold the treaty & to halt the Islamists in their steps.
    It must have been a shock for Islamists who saw the vote for all of them amount to less than 50%, a major drop from the 70% garnered by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party and the Nour party in the parliamentary elections.
    Many who voted for the Brotherhood before said this week that they did not want the group to control the presidency as well. Impatient for economic progress, some criticized the amount of time spent by the assembly on issues such as the role of women, divorce and genital mutilation, and blamed the Brotherhood for setting such a slow agenda.
    Despite slipping, the Brotherhood still came out on top of the heap this week – there were 13 candidates in all – which stands as a testament to its depth and power. People were voting for the 84-year-old movement much more than for Mr. Morsi himself.

  • Comment number 8.

    Reasons why Egyptian voters should have voted for Hamdeen Sabahi: he opposed the Mubarak regime for many years despite the threats to his life; he is a secularist in a religiously divided country; he is considered pro-poor in a society wracked by poverty; he would welcome the formation of free labor unions in a country haunted by official violence against labor unions; and he is not a former military officer in a country dominated by the military and security forces. In short, Sabahi would vault Egypt into the era of modern nations and lead the Arab peoples from a progressive Egyptian leadership perch.

  • Comment number 9.

    The ONE good thing about democracy is not that you get to pick your choice of leader - BUT it is that you can get rid of duffers next time round! (Without the necessity of assassination!)

    We will not know if Egypt is democratic until the next elections!

    The self knowledge that a leader can be sacked helps to keep them under some sort of control. This is why two term systems are a reasonable way of doing things and four years is about long enough.

    Anyone know when the next Egyptian Presidential elections take place?

  • Comment number 10.

    In answer to my own question in 9 (managed to look it up)

    Two, four year terms.

    So we will know how democratic Egypt has become in 2016!

  • Comment number 11.

    It takes a day to start a revolution and a generation to establish a government.


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