CAIRO: Millions of Egyptians head to the polls Wednesday for the first round of a presidential election, the first in the ancient nation’s history and the latest fruit of the Arab Spring.
Polling stations will stay open for two days in towns and cities across the country, as Egyptians decide who will succeed toppled President Hosni Mubarak following a troubled 15-month political transition period.
If the first round does not produce an outright winner, Egyptians will head to a final deciding round in mid-June to elect their next president out of the two candidates who secured the most votes in the first round.
But amid the excitement that has been generated by the poll – the first genuinely democratic presidential election in the nation’s history – there is also a deep sense of unease.
Depending on the result of the election, the Middle East’s most populous country could begin a journey into uncharted political territory.
A win for the Muslim Brotherhood – the hugely influential organization which now controls almost half of the new parliament – would cement its control over the country and send Egypt down the path of political Islam.
Its candidate, Mohammad Mursi, is not considered the main front-runner, but with the Brotherhood’s backing, he is likely to garner widespread support.
On the flipside, victory for Amr Moussa, the former Arab League chief, or Ahmad Shafiq, Mubarak’s last premier – an outcome desired by many voters who are tired of the revolutionary chaos and fearful of the Brotherhood – would be interpreted by many activists as a triumph for the old regime, perhaps setting the country on a course for further conflict.
Following an extended period of unrest over the past year – characterized by explosions of street violence, worsening security and resentment among some activists toward the country’s ruling Military Council – there is little sense that today’s election will usher in a halcyon new dawn.
“For me, this election is not a step toward the new era,” said Egyptian author Khaled al-Khamissi, adding that the real strides since last year’s uprising has been made in civil society, with the burgeoning influence of unions and rights groups.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that millions of Egyptians are anticipating the historic poll with relish.
In recent months, voters have flocked to town and city squares across the country to watch visiting candidates deliver campaign speeches and vie for much-needed votes. Streets and back-alleys have come alive with
hundreds of competing political posters, while two of the main candidates also locked horns in an unprecedented televised debate.
Egyptians are engaging in the kind of open political dialogue which was denied to them for decades. Where once people watched football amid the clatter of the Cairo tea houses, this year they have sat glued to TV screens watching debates from the new parliament.
A voter in Luxor, who went to a speech by left-wing candidate Hamdeen Sabahy in the southern tourist town last week, told The Daily Star he would be voting for Sabahy because he believed he could turn Egypt’s inequality around. “He will make me an owner of the land I have kept working in for a pittance,” said the man, a teacher called Yusri Yassin.
Last Friday, Islamist reformer Abdel-Moneim Abol Fotouh staged a rally in central Cairo attended by thousands of his followers. Ahmad Aymad, a 19-year-old student said he preferred Fotouh over Moussa because the ex-Foreign Minister was “too old.”
The following day, Moussa himself held a big-tent campaign meeting in Kafr al-Dawwar, a major industrial city in Egypt’s northern Delta region. “Amr Moussa understands the country,” said Adam Zaky Emad, a 50-year-old who attended the rally. “Amr Moussa wants a stronger Egypt.”
Across the country, the dynamism of Egypt’s presidential campaign, with its smorgasbord of actors from across the political spectrum, has been inspiring.
Yet the road ahead is dotted with potholes. First, and perhaps most worryingly, there is the looming presence of the Military Council.
After taking over power from Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s generals have presented a hopelessly muddled series of transitional plans. An original timetable to hand over power to civilian rule by as late as 2013 was only ditched following a deadly round of rioting in Cairo.
The generals then pledged to stand aside by no later than the end of this month – though given that the presidential election will likely go into a second round in mid-June, this too seems unworkable.
Bearing in mind the military’s historic role as the éminence grise of Egyptian politics, many activists wonder whether the generals will ever be willing to countenance relinquishing their stake in government to a purely civilian administration.
Such an eventuality would entail MPs acquiring oversight over national defense and military budgets, not to mention the retirement age of officers and an enormous array of clandestine economic interests.
Today’s election may be historic, but it is also fraught with other problems – among them the fact that a constitution outlining the new president’s powers has not yet been written due to protracted political wrangling.
After the poll itself, a winner such as Abol Fotouh may emerge, who is able to channel his “crossover” appeal among secularists and liberals to great effect; or one of the “revolutionary” underdogs, like Sabahy, could triumph, satisfying the demands of activists who helped spearhead the uprising. But given the enormous challenges ahead, Egypt’s new president will have a mountain to climb.