Egyptians Vote Their Hopes and Fears as Historic Free Election Kicks Off


CAIRO – A highly charged mix of emotions ran through Cairo May 23 as many of Egypt’s 52 million eligible voters went to the polls in the country’s historic post-revolution presidential election.

The majority of voters were excited. Wearing smiles, their fingers dipped in purple ink, they strode from polling stations, mainly located in schools throughout the country. As they exited, many phoned friends and relatives to tell them how they voted, or how long they had to wait. In every neighborhood, hundreds of campaign banners hung from apartment blocks and overpasses. Election chatter floated up from cafes and out the windows of minibuses.

Along with enthusiasm, anxiety permeated the city. The liberals feared a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose party is already dominant in parliament. The revolutionaries feared a regime retrenchment. And in a country with a history of rigged elections, more than a few worried that the ruling generals might tamper with the election.

In spite of widespread, but relatively minor election law violations, there was an odd calm in many Cairo neighborhoods. Men and women waited in long lines, some for hours in the midday sun, eager to select a president from a wide-open race with as many as five viable candidates. It was clear that this election was nothing like the fixed spectacles that had kept President Hosni Mubarak in power for 30 years prior to his ouster in the winter 2011 revolution.

The voting took place in spare classrooms across the country. After presenting their national ID cards, voters received paper ballots printed with the names of the candidates, along with a symbol representing each one, to facilitate voting among the illiterate. Moderate Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh was represented by a horse, former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, a sun. The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was represented by the scales of justice.

Each polling station was overseen by a representative of the judiciary, who seemed to have absolute authority over proceedings in each local jurisdiction, along with observers from each party. Police and soldiers, some with assault rifles, stood guard outside each station. At one school in Cairo’s Giza neighborhood, dozens of women jostled with police after their entry to the poll was delayed.

Wednesday, May 23, was the first day of a two-day voting period in which voters can choose from 13 candidates. If no candidate wins more than half the votes, the top two candidates will proceed to a runoff slated for mid-June.

In the last several months, Egyptians also voted in a two-phase parliamentary election set up in the wake of the winter uprising.

Two Islamist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafi Nour party, dominated the parliamentary vote. But the presidential race has been fiercely contested, with no one candidate emerging as a clear frontrunner.

The candidate who most clearly embodies the ideological scrambling of the current campaign is Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood official running as a moderate independent. A medical doctor, he has assembled an unusual coalition, garnering the endorsement of the Salafis’ Nour Party, as well as those of prominent faces of the 2011 revolution, such as Google executive Wael Ghonim and leftist activist Wael Khalil.

While Aboul Fotouh’s candidacy has jumbled an already complex electoral calculus, it’s unclear if he can muster the votes to finish first or second. But many young members of the revolutionary camp see him as their best hope for a relatively progressive president.

One of those members was standing, reading his iPad while he waited to vote, in a line that wrapped around the wall of a local school in Cairo’s middle-class Mohandessin neighborhood. A graphic designer, Ahmed Fuad, 32, said he participated in the Tahrir Square uprising “from day one” and backed Aboul Fotouh because of his potential as a unifying figure. “A lot of liberals will vote for Aboul Fotouh, Salafis as well, maybe some young Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] will vote for him.”

Whoever wins the election, he said, would face pressure for reform from the protest movement. The protesters, he said, “will never stop. Any result, with any president, they will create havoc for them. They will never go back to silence.”

Not everyone shared Fuad’s zeal for revolution. Several voters interviewed outside polling centers expressed support for Ahmed Shafiq, a former Air Force commander appointed prime minister by Mubarak at the height of the revolution. Shafiq, who served just one month as prime minister, is perceived as the candidate most closely allied with the old regime.

Much of Shafiq’s support is thought to come from Egyptians who sat out the 2011 uprising. One of those voters was Amr El-Bourtuqali, 48, a manager in a tourism company who lives in Cairo’s Dokki neighborhood. Although he said he did not support the revolution, he said he was thrilled to vote in an open election. “It’s the first time that I’m a human being,” he said.

Like most Shafiq supporters, El-Bourtuqali said he believed the former prime minister would bring about a restoration of security and a return of foreign investment. He worried about the Muslim Brotherhood consolidating power. “I don’t want all the power to be under the Muslim Brotherhood, now they have the parliament and I don’t think it will be okay if they get the presidency.”

Concerns about the balance of power were also a common theme among supporters of Amr Moussa, the former secretary-general of the Arab League who is running as a centrist in the election and who is favored by the West.

Derided by much of the left as a regime holdover, Moussa has attracted some support among those looking for stability and opposed to the Islamists.

Mahmoud Rifai, 72, a retired engineer who emerged from a polling center in Cairo’s Giza neighborhood, said he backed Moussa because, “He is a well balanced man, he is a politician, and he is not an extremist. And he has a good chance among moderate people.”

Asked why he opposed political Islam, he said he worried about curbs on personal freedoms. “My daughter is veiled, and she has the right to be veiled on her own, but not to be pressured by such groups. I myself don’t approve of the veil but it’s a democratic right,” he said.

Yet despite the skepticism from some corners, the Muslim Brotherhood is still one of the oldest and most cohesive political organizations in the country. The Brotherhood says it wants to unify the country through pragmatic politics. Their political machine is expected to produce a strong showing for their candidate, Mohamed Morsi, a former member of parliament whose unsmiling face peers down from his campaign posters.

Meanwhile, longtime socialist opposition activist Hamdeen Sabahi has emerged as a possible dark-horse contender, campaigning on his revolutionary credentials. Positioning himself as a champion of the poor, he has also laid claim to the aura of charismatic former president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Outside a polling center in Giza, one of his supporters, recent college graduate Injie Ahmad, 21, said, “We feel that he could achieve exactly what the people want.”

Further to the left, prominent activist lawyer Khaled Ali has also attracted support among the revolutionary camp. However, he is thought to have little chance of winning.

Underneath the excitement and the jostling of the campaign, an undercurrent of political uncertainty remains. Egypt’s new constitution is still unwritten, meaning that the new president will step into a job without a description. The exact parameters of that job may also depend on the amount of power given up after the election by the ruling generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Another possible scenario is that two establishment candidates make the runoff, or a pro-regime candidate wins, and renewed opposition protests break out. Ahmad Fuad, the graphic designer who protested in Tahrir, said, “If it’s Moussa or Shafiq, I think it will be a problem, maybe people will go to the streets again. They [Moussa and Shafiq] are the regime.” Muslim Brotherhood officials have also said they “will not accept a candidate who belongs to the previous regime.”

In spite of these concerns, many Egyptians were happy simply to participate in an election whose outcome was not determined in advance. As Heinar Hisham, a 20-year-old student from the American University in Cairo put it in an interview outside a polling center, “Choosing your own president is a step forward for Egyptians. It hasn’t happened for a really long time.”

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