Bloomberg News

Egyptians Stress Over Vote in Landmark Presidential Race

May 22, 2012

With his face taking up the entire front page of a four-page insert in a state-run newspaper, the advertisement for Islamist hopeful Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh is one example of the last-minute efforts to win over voters in Egypt’s presidential race.

With the so-called “period of silence” barring campaigning into its second day ahead of the vote set to begin tomorrow, no clear-cut favorite has emerged in polls to see which of the 13 candidates may become the country’s first elected president since Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year.

The election, which pits Islamists against secularists, including former officials from the Mubarak era, comes as the country faces its slowest economic growth rate in a decade. For Egyptians such as Shaaban Mohamed, the race is defined as much by the promise of a new start as it is clouded by the political tensions lingering almost 16 months after the popular uprising against Mubarak.

“I’m worried about who to vote for,” said Mohamed, a 31- year-old barber in Cairo. “If I choose wrong, I could be giving my vote to a fool or a fanatic. That’s not the legacy I want to leave for my children.”

Opinion polls have offered conflicting views of who is leading a race that has seen personal attacks in a country where, until last year, criticizing the president led to swift reprisals.

Brotherhood Bid

A weekly survey by the semi-official Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies has put former Arab League chief Amre Moussa, who also served as foreign minister, in first place. At the same time, other polls have given the top spot to Aboul-Fotouh or to Ahmed Shafik, who briefly served as Mubarak’s last premier. With no candidate scoring above 50 percent in any of the polls, the election is likely to be decided by a run-off in mid-June between the two leading candidates.

Aboul-Fotouh’s ad in the May 19 edition of Akhbar al-Youm underscores the energy -- and money -- candidates have put into the contest, which has also featured the country’s first presidential debate. Mohamed Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, held 25 concurrent rallies across the country via live link-up on the last official day of campaigning, in a final show of force aimed at giving the Islamist movement a shot at the presidency after it swept the parliamentary elections months earlier. The Ahram poll showed him gaining ground ahead of the election.

‘Bulk Votes’ Challenged

The front page of the state-run Al-Gomhouria newspaper yesterday featured a top headline about the start of the “period of silence” ahead of the vote. The paper’s back page, however, was filled with an ad for Shafik.

Aboul-Fotouh’s campaign, joined by backers of presidential contender Khalid Ali, filed an appeal with the country’s election commission yesterday over the results of what they said were bulk votes mailed in to the Egyptian embassy and consulate in Saudi Arabia, the state-run Al-Ahram Gate website reported.

The complaints were the latest twist in an acrimonious race in which several would-be candidates were disqualified by the election board. Secularists and Islamists have portrayed the contest as a test of whether Egypt will move ahead into the future or be thrust back into the past.

The Brotherhood and other groups have accused Moussa and Shafik of being “remnants” of an ousted regime who are seeking to revive its power. In reply, Shafik told the official Middle East News Agency on May 20 that what the “extremists have offered is nothing more than an attempt to drag Egypt into the past.”

Political Bickering

The campaign allegations on both sides highlight the tensions that have built up in the country ahead of the race. Efforts to revive the economy have been hobbled by bickering between the parliament and the government appointed by Egypt’s military rulers. The lack of political consensus, a precondition set by the International Monetary Fund before approving a requested $3.2 billion loan, has meant that the financing has been stalled since January.

Analysts such as Eurasia Group’s Hani Sabra believe a win by Moussa would help draw in investment and boost currently weak investor confidence in the economy.

“A Moussa victory, the most likely result, would also be the most stabilizing outcome,” Sabra said in a report yesterday, adding that he is disliked by both the military and the Islamists.

“However, Moussa is a diplomat, a known commodity, and he does not arouse passionate hatred,” Sabra said. “He would likely succeed in bridging the gap between the competing powers. Furthermore, his victory would demonstrate that neither the military nor the Islamists have a monopoly on power.”

Presidential Powers

With a new constitution yet to be drafted, the issue of determining the incoming head of state’s powers is still being debated between the various political groups, with no clear resolution in sight.

“As Egyptians increasingly dream of ending the transitional period and realizing stability through electing the new president, the electoral scene looks very complicated and grave,” lawmaker Moustafa el-Naggar wrote in Al Masry Al Youm newspaper yesterday.

While candidates linked to Mubarak’s rule are finding support on the back of deteriorating security conditions, the Muslim Brotherhood has a solid base of voters on which it can depend, el-Naggar said. Meanwhile, “the camp of those candidates affiliated with the revolution is fractured,” he said. “All attempts to unite revolutionary candidates have failed.”

The uncertainty that has built since the uprising, and the significance of the vote, are reflected in comments by some of the more than 50 million eligible voters in Egypt.

Regional Resonance

“We spent 30 years under Mubarak and if he and his sons had continued, we would have turned into Somalia, with people starving,” said 46-year-old Mona Youssef, a housewife. “We can’t afford to make any more mistakes.”

The vote, while not the first in the region since the so- called Arab Spring protests, holds particular resonance because of Egypt’s size and cultural significance in the Arab world, where it sometimes referred to as “Um al-Dounya,” or mother of the world. Many Egyptians believe that their country’s prestige diminished under Mubarak, even as oil-rich Gulf nations used their wealth to secure diplomatic influence in the Middle East.

“It’s embarrassing when Qatar replaced its desert with skyscrapers and we’re still falling into potholes in roads that were paved last week,” said coffee shop worker Nader el- Desouki, 27. “This is our chance to show that Egypt truly is the mother of the world, if we just choose correctly,” he said. “The problem is, with these candidates, we’re not choosing based on who is best, but on who’s the best of a bad lot.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo at teltablawy@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden in Dubai at barden@bloomberg.net


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