The last stretch
In six days Egypt elects a president in the first free election for a head of state in its history. Alone, the vote will not restore stability, writes Khaled Dawoud
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Near Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo a passerby walks past a graffiti that shows in Arabic the date "30/6" which refers to when power will be handed over by the military council. The work reflects the concerns of many that next week's presidential elections will reproduce a regime similar to the one the revolutionaries overthrew last year
Cairo's skyline has changed. Hundreds of billboards placed on the roofs of buildings exhort Egyptians to vote for one of the 13 candidates competing in the country's first ever open presidential elections whose results will not be known until the ballots are counted.
After several contradictory court rulings, mixed signals from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and demands the poll be postponed, turnout in the upcoming elections, due to be held on 23 and 24 May, is expected to be high, around 60 to 70 per cent of the 50 million eligible voters.
The costly billboards are not equally distributed among the candidates. The majority have been booked by the well-funded campaigns of Mubarak-era foreign minister and former Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa, Mubarak's last prime minister Ahmed Shafik, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Mursi and Muslim Brotherhood dissident Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh. Hamdeen Sabahi, who identifies himself as a Nasserist, also maintains a billboard presence, as Mohamed Selim El-Awwa, an independent Islamist thinker, and Khaled Ali, the youngest candidate on the list, a labour and human rights lawyer.
Two opinion polls released this week, by the Cabinet Information and Decision Support Centre (IDSC) and independent pollsters Nazra, show Shafik and Moussa running neck and neck on 16 per cent or else Shafik slightly ahead of Moussa, followed by Abul-Fotouh on nine per cent, Mursi on six per cent and Sabahi with five per cent. Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies gives Moussa a solid 40.8 per cent lead, followed by Shafik on 19.9 per cent, Abul-Fotouh with 17.8 per cent, Mursi on 9.4 per cent and Sabahi with seven per cent. The IDSC and Nazra polls showed between 37 and 40 per cent of Egyptians remain undecided. Al-Ahram's poll showed a much lower 15 per cent of respondents had yet to make up their mind.
The accuracy of the polls will soon be tested against the results. The first returns will be from expatriate Egyptians. The week long window in which they voted ends today. Counting will take place at embassies and consulates on Friday and Saturday with the results expected on Sunday. Figures released yesterday by the Foreign Ministry suggest more than 300,000 Egyptians voted abroad, with the highest turnout being in the oil-rich Gulf states. Egyptians in the United States and Europe voted in far smaller numbers. The Muslim Brotherhood has already claimed its candidate leads in the overseas poll.
Poll results are likely to disappoint the millions of Egyptians who took part in the 25 January Revolution against Mubarak's regime. Across social media, but particularly on Facebook and Twitter, campaigns have been launched in an attempt to convince Egyptians not to vote for either Shafik or Moussa.
"Vote for Shafik and you vote for the regime we sacrificed our blood to be rid of," wrote Monem Al-Mohammadi on his Facebook page. One post on Facebook urged its readers to steal the ID cards of their parents if the latter intended to vote for either Shafik or Moussa.
Moussa has been struggling to fend off charges that as Egypt's foreign minister he was a Mubarak loyalist for a decade, and remained loyal to his former boss during the 10 years he spent at the helm of the Arab League. His age is also thought to be a problem: at 76 he is unlikely to appeal to many younger voters. Yet for many Egyptians Moussa is the candidate of experience, particularly on an international level.
"Moussa is the only one who knows what a president is and what government meetings are. He is respected worldwide," says government employee Mohamed Tharwat.
Shafik has survived attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood dominated parliament to bar him from running but efforts to discredit him continue. The Wasat Party's deputy leader Essam Sultan this week accused Shafik of involvement in the sale of land to Mubarak's two sons at a fraction of its market value. Shafik denied the charges, firing back that Sultan had worked as an agent for the now dissolved State Security apparatus. Shafik said Sultan had been used by Mubarak's security apparatus to get close to the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El-Baradei, and foment differences between the one time presidential candidate and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Supporters of the 25 January Revolution accuse SCAF of indirectly backing former Mubarak regime politicians in an attempt to preserve their own status. Egypt's de facto rulers, some say, have deliberately allowed the security and economic situation to deteriorate in the hope that worsening conditions will turn voters against the revolution, and with it demands to build a true democracy in which all institutions, including the military, will be held accountable. While El-Baradei had been the key candidate for this camp, revolutionaries are now calling on Egyptians to vote for Abul-Fotouh, Sabahi or Ali.
Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, has been making progress in recent opinion polls, though he is still trailing. Aware that the Brotherhood is facing a popular backlash over its attempts to control all institutions of the state despite earlier promises, Mursi's supporters have been resorting to creative methods of campaigning. Young veiled women ride women's carriages on the underground campaigning for Mursi. Today, between 4-6pm, the Brotherhood's candidate will lead a flotilla on the River Nile, distributing copies of the Brotherhood's revival project, the candidate's not so-detailed plan to improve the economy and tackle unemployment.
In recent interviews Mursi has been keen to deny that if elected his loyalty would be to the Muslim Brotherhood's supreme guide, Mohamed Badie, rather than the people of Egypt. Mursi has also been accused of seeing to use religion to manipulate voters. On Monday influential Islamic preacher Sheikh Ahmed El-Mahalawi announced from the pulpit of his mosque in Alexandria that "anyone who does not vote for Mursi is a sinner". The Brotherhood's online page features a fatwa stating that voting for Moussa or Shafik "is against Sharia".
Liberal and leftist figures, including MPs, have denounced the Brotherhood's constant attempts to exploit religion to attract voters. When, on Tuesday, MP Amr Hamzawy demanded a clear ban on the use of mosques to campaign for presidential candidate few doubted his criticisms were aimed at the Brotherhood.
The campaign of Abul-Fotouh, the candidate some leftist parties announced they would support because of his comparatively moderate positions on women and Christians, seems to be losing ground.
"His positions are unclear. He's trying to be all things to all people, Islamists and liberals," says lawyer and human rights activist Nahed Abul-Komsan. "It's making him lose support from all sides."
Early opinion polls suggested that a run-off vote between Moussa and Abul-Fotouh was the most likely outcome of the first round poll. The strong showing in recent weeks by Shafik and Mursi could change that.
Whatever the result, though, no one is suggesting simply electing a president will solve Egypt's problems. The constitution remains unwritten and no one knows under what conditions SCAF will voluntarily relinquish power without holding on to its privileged status. The economy and security situation continue to deteriorate, and the chances of any result being announced without accompanying allegations of vote rigging are nil.