As voters take to the polls for the country’s historic presidential election, Egyptians are taking stands on divisive issues. Dan Ephron talks to relatives of Hosni Mubarak about their preferred candidate—and their thoughts on their cousin’s legacy.
Across Egypt, the first free presidential election getting underway today is forcing people to take a stand on some of their society’s most divisive issues—sometimes defying their own spouses or other family members.
Samira Ibrahim, 25, flashes the victory sign during a rally supporting women's rights in Cairo, Dec. 27, 2011. (Ahmed Ali / AP)
For Basheer Mubarak, it can feel like he’s standing against nearly his entire town. The 37-year-old technician lives in Kafr El-Maselha, the birth place of Hosni Mubarak, where cousins of the ousted dictator—Basheer included—fill several buildings along a city block.
Many of them pine for Mubarak’s return and back the candidate whose résumé most resembles his.
But not Basheer.
“What did he do for this country? It’s one big dump,” he says in the garage of his three-story building on Sadat Street, named for the autocrat, Anwar Sadat, who preceded Mubarak.
Presidential election pits Islamists against secularists.
Egyptians will be heading to the polls on Wednesday to vote for a new president, marking the final phase that began when Tahrir Square protesters helped oust Hosni Mubarak at the beginning of the Arab Spring. Since then, the nation, with a foundering economy, has had bumps with a military ruling council, which took over in the wake of the upheaval. The election pits Islamist against secularists and—for the first time in decades—is not predetermined. The candidates are competing to take over a country with difficult security issues, a great deal of divisiveness following the protests, and continuous claims of bribery. Voting will occur in more than 13,000 locations and last for two days.
In the upcoming Egyptian elections the country is choosing between Islamists and old Mubarak supporters. Francis Fukuyama on how the Facebook revolution of the Arab Spring has failed to deliver lasting political change. Join Fukuyama for a live chat on this Tuesday, May 22 at 11:30 AM EDT.
It is hard to know whom to root for in Wednesday’s presidential election in Egypt. Two of the leading candidates, Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq, were officials in the former Mubarak regime and are suspected of having ties to the military. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh is a self-proclaimed liberal Islamist who was expelled from the Muslim Brotherhood, but who is for some reason being endorsed by the ultra-conservative Salafis. Lagging behind these three is Mohamed Morsi, candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that came out of the starting blocks showing a moderate face but which has recently given out disturbing signals of a more conservative religious agenda. What is missing from this lineup of potentially electable candidates is a genuine liberal, that is, a candidate with no taint from the authoritarian past, and who does not advocate an Islamist agenda in some form. The candidate closest to this profile was Mohamed ElBaradei, the Noble Peace Prize-winning former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose sputtering campaign ended last January.
Campaign posters of Egyptian presidential candidates Mohammed Morsi (top) and Abdel Moneim Abul Fotuh in Cairo on Friday. (Mahmud Hams, AFP / Getty Images)
How did we come to this pass, where the two most powerful forces in the new Egypt either represent its authoritarian past, or else are Islamists of suspect liberal credentials? The Tahrir Square revolution of early last year was powered by angry young, middle-class Egyptians who used social media like Facebook and Twitter to organize their protests, spread word of regime atrocities, and build support for a democratic Egypt. At the time, there was much talk about how technology was empowering democracy and forcing open a closed society that could not prevent the flow of information.
And yet, this group of young activists, which can still be mobilized for street protests like the recent demonstrations in front of the Defense Ministry, has failed to turn itself into a meaningful player in post-Mubarak electoral politics. Granted, this group did not represent the vast bulk of Egyptians, who remain less educated, socially conservative, and rural. But surely a liberal, modernizing leader could have appealed to the hopes of many Egyptians for economic growth and political freedom, and placed at least within the top four presidential candidates?
We will have to await more information and analysis about the election, including the degree to which it was manipulated, before we can fully answer this question. It seems clear in retrospect that Mubarak’s ouster constituted much less of a revolution than met the eye; the military still remains a powerful institution unwilling to give up substantial power.
But part of the blame lies with Egypt’s liberals themselves. They could organize protests and demonstrations, and act with often reckless courage to challenge the old regime. But they could not go on to rally around a single candidate, and then engage in the slow, dull, grinding work of organizing a political party that could contest an election, district by district. Political parties exist in order to institutionalize political participation; those who were best at organizing, like the Muslim Brotherhood, have walked off with most of the marbles. Facebook, it seems, produces a sharp, blinding flash in the pan, but it does not generate enough heat over an extended period to warm the house.
Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, backed by hardliners and liberals alike, may be Egypt’s next president. Dan Ephron speaks to him.
He’s on the move again. Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh has finished one interview in a suite at the Movenpick hotel outside Cairo and now he’s squeezing his six-foot frame into a Volkswagen Passat to get to the next thing. A candidate for president, Abou el-Fotouh can’t afford billboard signs or television spots. His campaign doesn’t even have money for polling. So, alongside his rallies and speeches, the 60-year-old Islamist is doing as many radio and television interviews as he can fit into a day. “They don’t cost money and they give him a lot of exposure,” explains his media chief.
Khaled Desouki, AFP / Getty Images
For this one, he spends two hours in a cramped radio studio with co-hosts of a pop-music station. It’s not what you would expect from a guy with a prayer welt on his forehead. The music played in the interludes is western and loud. The hosts, both women, are wearing tight-fitting clothes and high heels. But Abou el-Fotouh manages to connect. “I’m a Libra,” he tells them in his introduction, a point he slips in between details about his former membership in the Moslem Brotherhood and his jail sentences during the reign of the previous regime. When one of the hosts identifies herself as a Christian and asks why her community has had to endure second-class status in Egypt, he sounds a decidedly liberal note. “Nations rise only if there is justice. Otherwise there will be no development.”
This week, Egyptians go to the polls to choose their first democratically-elected president from about a dozen candidates. Though they’ve had several other votes in the past year, this is the one that will largely determine the outcome of the country’s dramatic revolution 16 months ago. The young liberals who ousted longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak after 18 days of protests – the bloggers, the tweeters, even that widely-admired Google executive, Wael Ghonim -- have since been sidelined. In the cluster of frontrunners, the battle is now between Islamists and felouls – literally “remnants” of the old regime.
That sharp divide has allowed Abou el-Fotouh, a physician by training who is married to gynecologist, to stand out as a more nuanced character. He certainly is an Islamist. Abou el-Fotouh served for 25 years on the leadership body of Egypt’s Moslem Brotherhood – the oldest and most well-organized Islamic group in the region--before parting ways with the group last year.
But he is more liberal and less doctrinaire than the other Islamists in the race – he rejects initiatives to ban alcohol or impose the veil on women, for instance. His vision of Egypt as an Islamic democracy run by technocrats rather than ideologues has prompted comparisons to Turkey and created an aura around Abou el-Fotouh as Egypt’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It has also helped him win some disparate endorsements, from the arch-conservative Salafi party on one side of the political map and from Tahrir leftists on the other, including Ghonim himself. The latest polls show Abou el-Fotouh running neck-and-neck with Amr Moussa, who served for a decade as foreign minister under Mubarak and later as head of the Arab League. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the votes, a run-off will be held next month.
Sparked by a deep distrust of interim military rulers, the nation’s first free elections have been marred by deadly clashes in Cairo. Is another revolt on the way?
For three straight days, a spasm of violence has gripped Cairo, leaving 13 people dead and scores wounded. Egyptian authorities declared a curfew in parts of the city over the weekend and put large numbers of armored vehicles on the streets of several neighborhoods.
Protesters walk away from a cloud of tear gas during clashes with Army troops outside the defense ministry in Cairo on May 4. (Khaled Desouki / AFP-Getty Images)
On the surface, the protests are about the disqualification of a presidential candidate on technical grounds.
But even as the demonstrators held up posters of their banned candidate, the Salafi preacher Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, others described a broader reason for the protests: a rising fear that the military council which has ruled Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak more than a year ago will refuse to cede power to civilian leaders next month.
The council, known by its acronym SCAF (Supreme Council of Armed Forces), is assuring Egyptians that its rule will end on June 30, after the second round of presidential elections. Since SCAF assumed power 14 months ago, Egyptians have already elected two chambers of Parliament.
The presidential vote, which starts later this month, will largely determine the outcome of the Egyptian revolution.
Two Islamist candidates for president suspended their campaigns on Wednesday after armed ‘thugs’ attacked protesters in Cairo, leaving at least 11 dead and hundreds injured. Ursula Lindsey reports from Alexandria on turmoil—and full-on campaigning—surrounding Egypt’s first post-Mubarak campaign.
On a square facing the Mediterranean in Egypt’s northern city of Alexandria, thousands of 20-somethings await the arrival of presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh.
Official campaigning in Egypt’s first truly competitive presidential election, to be held on May 23, has just started. The mood at the gathering, which features mural painting and recitations of rap and poetry, is festive.
Under President Hosni Mubarak, there were no politics for students to practice, says Naima, a law student and campaign volunteer who is selling bright orange Abul Fotouh T-shirts, pins, and knapsacks. That’s why young Egyptians need to elect someone who supports the ideals of last year’s uprising, she says: “We need someone who gives us the freedom to speak.”
Abul Fotouh was long a vocal critic of the Mubarak regime and a moderate, senior member of the Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood. He left the organization last year when the group disagreed with his decision to run for president.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has since decided to field an official candidate, Mohammed Mursi. Other contenders in the elections include former Egyptian foreign minister and Arab League head Amr Moussa and Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmad Shafiq. Moussa, a liberal and a secularist, is the current frontrunner, but he is struggling to shed his ties to the former regime.
And no one here is willing to make predictions in a race that has already seen several twists and turns.
Can Mubarak’s former spymaster win power?
The 14 months since Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow have not been kind to those who yearn for a free Egypt. A military junta rules, Islamists dominate the Parliament, thousands languish in army jails, the economy careens toward insolvency, no one has been held accountable for the slaughter of more than 800 citizens during the country’s 2011 uprising—and now Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s spymaster and onetime deputy, is running for president. For many Egyptians, the general’s reappearance is a bitter reminder of the incompleteness of their revolution.
Illustration by Riccardo Vecchio
Politicians of all stripes warn that Suleiman’s candidacy is part of a plot to revive the dictatorship. The Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate has promised a new revolution if Suleiman wins on May 23, and the Parliament has passed a law that would bar Suleiman and other Mubarak-era notables from running (although it’s not clear if the junta will approve it or the courts will let it stand).
This is not the first time Egyptians have been consumed with Suleiman’s presidential prospects. Toward the end of Mubarak’s reign, when the leader’s unlovable son Gamal appeared poised to succeed him, many Egyptians thought Suleiman would make a fine alternative. He was, after all, a soldier in a country that lionized its military men, was untainted by the younger Mubarak’s neoliberalism, and—most important for those allergic to the Muslim Brotherhood—he hated Islamists.
But that was then. Suleiman used to warn that democracy would bring the Islamists to power, and recent parliamentary elections seem to have borne him out. But they also show how hopeless his candidacy is. Does he really think the voters who just packed the Parliament with Islamists are now going to elect a president who is political Islam’s sworn enemy?
Some fear that the ruling generals will rig the election in Suleiman’s favor. But it’s not clear that the junta wants him that badly, and given Egyptians’ newfound propensity to protest, the generals must know that such a scenario would end inauspiciously. Instead, Suleiman’s only chance is to exploit the discord that has emerged among the country’s political forces.
From Muslim extremists to Mubarak holdovers, candidates in the presidential election contend with a bitterness that makes the hope of the Arab Spring a distant memory, Alastair Beach reports.
As Mohammed’s taxi darted in and out of Cairo’s grinding riverside traffic, scores of fundamentalist Salafi Muslims weaved through the honking cars and chanted like triumphant soccer fans.
One group, crammed into the back of a pickup truck, waved placards featuring the face of Abu Ismail, the embattled presidential contender facing disqualification from next month’s poll.
The ultraconservative Salafi preacher, who has seared his campaign with lashings of anti-American rhetoric, has been poleaxed by recent claims that his late mother was a U.S. citizen.
The allegation is decidedly inconvenient, given that according to Egypt’s election law, candidates cannot register if they have foreign parents.
But after a week spent staving off a flurry of negative headlines, the radical preacher was thrown a lifeline earlier this week when a court ruled that Egypt’s authorities must provide proof of his mother’s nationality—effectively tossing the ball back into the election commission’s hands.
His supporters immediately took the streets of downtown Cairo in celebration, letting off fireworks and chanting their support for the preacher.
As protests continue and the military remains powerful, Egypt’s new Parliament opens for business—and Islamist parties dominate.
As Egypt’s newly elected Parliament convened for the first time on Monday, graphic designer Abeer Saad stood on a nearby street, part of a chain of protesters holding a long banner made of Egyptian flags sewn together. “We went to the street and asked people to write their demands on the flags,” explained Saad. “Now we’re here to bring those demands to the new Parliament.” The flags’ hand-written messages read: “A strong economy,” “To be respected as a citizen,” “Concern for the poor,” “Clean Egypt from corruption,” “A better life for my son.”
The Egyptian Parliament, which under Hosni Mubarak did little more than rubber-stamp laws proposed by the president, is now the country’s only democratically legitimate institution. It faces sky-high expectations, from eradicating corruption and police abuse and fixing Egypt’s stalled economy to selecting the committee that will write a new Constitution and overseeing the country’s transition from military to civilian rule.
The assembly is dominated by the political party of the once-banned Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood. Its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has 47 percent of seats. A new party representing ultra-orthodox Islamists holds another 28 percent.
The remaining quarter of Parliament is divided among liberal, secular leftists and independent members. A handful of women make up about 1 percent of the assembly. Very few parties—religious or secular—promoted them as candidates. “Women have been marginalized for a long time,” said Saad. But, said fellow protester Nagwa El Ashwal: “We will work with society and try to change the culture, to change how people look at women, to show women can do anything, that they can be in Parliament or run ministries.”
Aside from the low profile of women, the parliamentary elections were marred by many irregularities and by the widespread use of religion during campaigning. But local and international election observers have described them as a step forward and as generally valid.
Mohammed Beltagi, center, a Muslim Brotherhood member of Egypt's Parliament, arrives on Monday for the body's first session since the revolution (Khaled Desouki, AFP / Getty Images)
Egyptians went to the polls May 23–24 to pick a democratically elected president—not only the first election since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, but the first of its kind in the country's 5,000-year history.
Egypt’s high court ruled the Islamist Parliament must dissolve immediately. By Vivian Salama.
A Country in Turmoil
Dan Ephron on Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who may be Egypt’s next president.