Today, just as yesterday, millions of Egyptians are casting their vote in the first democratic presidential elections ever. Already since 5 am men and women are waiting in line in front of the polling stations. Around 8 am I have seen thousands of people quietly standing in lines of hundreds of meters, hoping to seal the change Egypt is going through since the revolution of beginning 2011. Since many weeks and even months Egyptians discuss these elections all the time and everywhere. The first question people asking each other in metro, taxi or teahouse was always: who are you going to vote for? Without doubt the most remarkable moment of the presidential campaign, was the debate, live on two commercial televisions, between the two top contenders, Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh. The actual debate lasted not less then four and a half hours. Until two o’clock at night. All pubs were packed with people cheering the debate as if it was the finale of the Champions League. It is very clear: Egyptians adore free elections and no-one is going to take this away from them anymore.
Although today is only the beginning of the presidential process – on 16-17 June there is the second round and on 30 June the transfer of power – some conclusions can already be drawn.
1. These elections are democratic because the outcome is totally unpredictable. Where three weeks ago everybody would have said that Moussa and Abul Fotouh would go to the second round, today it is impossible to make a prediction. There are five top candidates and every single one of them has the possibility to win.
(1) Amr Moussa (former foreign minister of Mubarak and former secretary-general of the Arab League) has started his campaign almost the day after Mubarak was ousted from office. Moussa is popular because he talks like the people in the street do. Some call him even populist. His advantage is his experience, his disadvantage his links to the old regime.
(2) Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh (former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, left to become presidential candidate) is also one of the first candidates. He promotes himself as someone who unifies people. Despite his conservative past, he is a progressive Muslim and an early supporter of the revolution. That’s the reason why many young revolutionaries are campaigning for him. Strange enough he also has the support of the Salafis, as they didn’t want to support the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, many Egyptians distrust Abul Futouh as they believe that ‘once MB always MB’.
(3) Mohamed Morsi (president of the Freedom and Justice Party from the MB) entered very late in the race. The candidate of the MB was initially Khairat Al Shater. But as he was kicked out of the race because of ‘legal reasons’, Morsi came in as the ‘reserve-candidate’. Morsi has no charisma at all. But he is backed by a formidable machine: the Muslim Brotherhood. I have seen towns change overnight from no Morsi into all Morsi.
(4) Ahmed Shafiq (last Prime Minister under Mubarak, general) had to wait long before getting the permission to run. The parliament voted a law that barred former ministers of Mubarak (last ten years) to run for president, but the Election Committee overruled that. He is the candidate of the Army and did an huge campaign in a short period of time. Because of the deteriorated security situation in Egypt, many people like his image of law and order.
(5) Hamdeen Sabahi (long time Nasserist and revolutionary) might become the biggest surprise of the elections. Until three weeks ago, one could hardly hear his name mentioned. Now half of the taxidrivers say they are going to vote for him. Most of all candidates, Sabahi embodies the revolution and secularism at the same time.
2. It is surprising but clear that three months after their huge victory in the parliamentary elections the Muslim Brotherhood is loosing ground. Many people who voted for the MB are now despising them. Why? First of all, there is disappointment. Egyptians voted for the MB because they were the most organised and stable factor after the revolution and thus the best guarantee to make Egypt moving forward again. Egyptians were that enthusiastic about the new parliament that they watched the live broadcasted plenary sessions every day. There they saw MB not doing what they had hoped for. Secondly, Egyptians are angry about one specific broken promise: that MB would never issue a presidential candidate. The moment Khairat Al-Shater announced his candidacy, the reaction of many people was very harsh: MB wants all the power and we will not let this happen. A Gallup poll confirms this tendency, saying that MB has lost one third of their support since February : http://www.gallup.com/poll/154706/Support-Islamists-Declines-Egypt-Election-Nears.aspx
3. In general, this campaign proved that the role of Islam in people’s life and convictions is much more complex than assumed. One could say that Egyptians are very religious, but don’t like someone to impose on them how to be religious. Moreover, the debate on how to combine Islam and democracy is far from ended, and is likely never to end. A great majority of Egyptians do support the article 2 of the constitution saying that ‘Islamic law (sharia) is the main source of legislation. At the same time they fiercely disagree on what the sharia exactly is and how to interpret it. For many this article 2 is what the ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’ was for the European Constitution. Nathan Brown, from Carnegie, has written a very good article about this : http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/05/15/egypt-and-islamic-sharia-guide-for-perplexed/argb
4. Not one candidate likes Israel, but the fiercest opponent is not an Islamist but the socialist-Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi. He openly said many times the peace-treaty should be thrown in the dustbin. One should also not forget that Amr Moussa became popular as foreign minister by being tough on Israel. If we can believe a study of Brookings, a huge majority see Israel and the United States as biggest threats. (http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2012/5/21%20egyptian%20elections%20poll%20telhami/egypt_poll_results.pdf) Obama has lost a lot of popularity, while Erdogan remains a hero. An old opinion poll of the BBC shows that only 10% of the Egyptians see the EU as a positive force. It is hard to say what the current perception of the EU is. But in general people have no idea what the EU is doing in Egypt; they even don’t know the EU is giving money to the country. Europe does have huge opportunities in the region, but a lot of work still needs to be done.
Whatever the results will be of this historic election, it is clear that from today on we can put Egypt on the list of the world’s democracies. And this is thanks and only thanks to all those brave revolutionaries who risked their life time and again on and around Tahrir Square. As Europe failed to support the revolution, it should use this new key moment and make sure the EU is finally the neighbour that Egypt deserves.