CAIRO: Egypt’s presidential election, set to be the freest the country has ever had, began for citizens abroad Friday after a caustic televised debate between two candidates that produced no clear favorite to lead the most populous Arab nation.
Egyptians who overthrew President Hosni Mubarak as uprisings hit the Arab world last year are savoring the spectacle of politicians competing for their votes. The streets are abuzz with arguments over who is the best man to tackle poverty and corruption and uphold their new-found freedoms.
With no obvious winner for now, the fewer than 1 million expatriates registered to vote in consulates between May 11 and 17 may help swing the election. Recent polls suggest the race is wide open, with many citizens yet to make up their minds.
Expatriates who have registered to vote are a minority among the 6 to 8 million Egyptians who live abroad, mostly in Europe, North America and Gulf Arab states, according to official figures cited by local media.
In France, Abd al-Aal Shady, 55, an agriculture engineer living in Paris, said he had voted for the leftist Hamdeen Sabahy.
“He is the black horse of this presidential election because he is the most famous to have fought the former government since he was a student,” Shady said. “If [Amr] Moussa wins, it is catastrophic for the people. It leads to a second revolution.”
Hundreds of Egyptians queued in front of their embassy in the Saudi capital Riyadh to cast their votes.
“For the first time in my life, I take part in elections, and I don’t know how it will end or who will win,” said one of them, Mahy Samir.
In Rome, Aiman Younes, 45, a pizza maker, said he had voted for Abol Fotouh because he deemed him honest. “I think it will get better. We are going through some difficulties but I hope things will improve, we just need a bit of time,” Younes said.
“Egypt is not used to this sort of thing. Slowly people will get used to it. I want the new president to focus on helping poor people, and making sure everyone has enough to eat.”
Gihan Defi, 36, a housewife with three children in Rome, said she had cast her ballot for Moussa.
“We don’t want to fight, we just want things to be settled, and for peace in the country,” she said.
In Cairo’s nargileh cafes and on Twitter, Egyptians swapped impressions of Thursday night’s unprecedented televised standoff between Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh and Moussa, a former foreign minister under Mubarak.
“If you didn’t enjoy the debate like me, remember that if someone told you a couple of years ago that there would be a presidential debate, you would have thought it was a sci-fi movie,” tweeted Mohammad Diab.
The disorganized build-up to the first-round vote on May 23 and 24 has been marred by deadly street clashes in Cairo and lingering suspicions that the generals now in charge will try to manage democracy from behind the scenes after formally handing over to civilians by July 1.
Egypt has never had a genuinely contested presidential election. But several candidates were disqualified last month and two recent court verdicts have challenged regulations for the vote, deepening the impression of a chaotic and fragile political transition towards a more democratic future.
A supreme administrative court was due Saturday to view the state’s appeal against one of the court rulings which demanded earlier the postponement of the election.
Egypt’s democratic experiment is being closely watched by long-time ally the United States and neighboring Israel, both unnerved by the sweeping success of Islamists who were long repressed by Mubarak but who now dominate parliament.
Liberal and left-wing activists who helped topple Mubarak have struggled to translate their success on the streets into a prominent role in politics. The presidential campaign is mostly a contest between Islamists and Mubarak-era figures. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, a run-off between the two top-placed contenders will take place in June.
Policy paralysis and political bickering have drained some of the optimism that greeted Mubarak’s ousting in February 2011.
The Moussa-Abol Fotouh debate lasted more than four hours and may have entrenched the impression that they are the main contenders. The two independent TV stations that aired it said they had been invited because they topped recent opinion polls.
But many viewers complained of an irritable and negative tone in their exchanges that may hand votes to other candidates, such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Mursi, Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmad Shafiq, and Sabahy, the leftist.
“Moussa attacks but doesn’t answer questions. He should have proven with examples that he wasn’t part of the old regime,” advertising company employee Mostafa Mohammad said.