As Egyptians prepare to vote in the first presidential election since the end of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the old aphorism comes to mind: “Every nation has the government it deserves.” Egypt seems to be getting the presidential election it deserves—one reflecting the social and institutional weaknesses that have plagued the country for too long. There is confusion, suspicion, polarization. Conspiracy theories abound. And there is the mounting anxiety over the economy and public security. Increasingly, it seems, nervous citizens are pining for the stability—or at least the predictability—of Mubarak’s three decades in power.
Thirteen politicians are standing as candidates in the May 23−24 balloting. Scarcely a month before the polls were set to open, there was the shock of eleventh-hour candidacies announced by powerful Muslim Brotherhood financier Khairat El-Shater and Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s longtime intelligence chief; then came the dramatic last-second disqualifications of both men, and of popular Salafist preacher Hazem Abou Ismail, as well as of seven other hopefuls—all on technical grounds.
That basically leaves a three-way contest pitting Amr Moussa, the ex-foreign minister and former secretary general of the Arab League, against two Islamists; former senior Muslim Brotherhood official Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, and Mohammed Morsi, the official candidate of the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Moussa, who announced his bid as an independent within months of Mubarak’s fall, banks on his longstanding popularity as an outspoken critic of Israel and stature as an international statesman to overcome the baggage of his ties to the ousted former regime.
But the resounding victory of Islamists in the parliamentary voting held earlier this year seems to presage the election of an Islamist president. The question is: Who? Aboul Fotouh, running as an independent, casts himself as an Islamic liberal—who would appoint a Christian or a woman as vice president—but it is unclear how much he will ultimately appeal to either Islamists or liberals. The Muslim Brotherhood is putting its considerable machine at Morsi’s service. But even if he does emerge victorious, Egyptians cannot be entirely certain about what it will mean to have an Islamist president; the FJP downplays the old Brotherhood slogan of “Islam is the solution” in favor of emphasizing a “Renaissance Project” as its platform.
The top contenders are striving to entice the disparate elements of the voter blocs left adrift by candidate disqualifications. Fringe Islamists, like Mohamed Selim El-Awwa, seek to attract supporters of El-Shater and Abou Ismail. A notable factor in the race is the absence of a strong secularist candidate—or, one without connections to the former regime. Secularist candidates with revolutionary credentials, such as longtime activist and former parliamentarian Hamdeen Sabahi and human rights lawyer Khaled Ali, have been relegated to the fringes.
What the candidates have been saying on the campaign trail reflects the anxieties of a nervous nation. They highlight the economy, as well as the need for Egypt to resume its rightful regional leadership role. A common refrain—but not a major focus for any candidate—is a call for reassessing Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. The political pageant is unfolding as uncertainty lingers over the role of the future president, an office whose powers and limitations have yet to be defined. The Islamist-controlled parliament is overseeing the drafting of a new constitution by a one-hundred-person constituent assembly; yet an April court decision disbanded that committee, further confusing the transition process.
There is also the related question of what happens to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the generals who have run the country since giving Mubarak the final shove from power in February 2011. SCAF’s track record has been checkered, causing Egyptians to speculate whether the generals were actively devious or just plain incompetent. SCAF promises to hand over authority by July. Protests spiked in the run-up to the election, sending a message to the generals to keep their word.
Through the years, Egyptians became accustomed to elections—Mubarak faced voters five times—but they gained little experience in democracy. Little wonder then, that the democratic transition has been so muddled. It may be that the country will spend considerably more time at the crossroads, without moving decisively on issues ranging from the powers of the state to the role of Islam in society. Egypt’s next president will take the helm of a country on the cusp of a renaissance and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Whatever the outcome, the presidential election of 2012 is giving Egyptians the first real choice they have ever had to select one of their own to lead their country.
Ashraf Khalil is a journalist in Cairo who writes for the London Times and Foreign Policy. He was previously a correspondent in Baghdad and Jerusalem for the Los Angeles Times. He is the author ofLiberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation. He can be followed on Twitter at @ashrafkhalil.