Hours before polls opened in Egypt Wednesday for the first free elections in 60 years, many in Egypt — and indeed in the Arab world at large — made plain their sense that they are living through a historic moment.
“If only I were Egyptian and could vote,” mused Abd Al-Bari Atwan, editor of Arab-nationalist daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi. “More than 50 million Egyptian voters are heading to the polls to elect their first president following the success of their blessed peaceful revolution. They have toppled a corrupt dictatorial regime which has trampled them for over 40 years.”
Atwan’s sentiments may sound melodramatic, but they reflect a deep Arab sense that something dramatic has changed in the Middle East. If the parliamentary elections of late 2011 where religious parties swept 70% of the vote are any indication, Egypt’s next president will be an Islamist.
Judging by the results of the absentee votes in the presidential elections — announced country by country this week — one of two Islamist presidential candidates will win; completing Egypt’s transformation from a military autocracy to an Islamic democracy.
‘We are all Muslims. We pray, fast, and went on Haj. But the president must be competent and serve the nation. This is what upholds religion, not outward religiosity,’ Moussa tweeted on May 20
Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammad Mursi won 36% of the absentee ballots, followed by independent Islamist candidate Abd Al-Munim Abu-Fattouh with 27%. The two leading secular candidates, former foreign minister and Arab League chief Amr Moussa and former prime minister Ahmad Shafiq, won a mere 13% and 8% of the absentee vote, respectively.
About 140,000 Egyptians living abroad cast their votes earlier this week; a sample which, Muslim Brotherhood official Osama Yassin said, could not be a better indicator of the final results. No candidate is expected to win an absolute majority, leading Egypt to a second round of voting on June 16 and 17.
Still, a poll conducted by the Washington-based Brookings Institute May 4-10 revealed markedly different results than the absentee vote. In the Brookings poll, independent Islamist Abu-Fattouh received 32% of the vote, followed closely by Amr Moussa, with 28%. Muhammad Mursi, the clear winner of the absentee vote, lagged far behind with only 8%. If anything, the results indicate how unreliable polls are in the Egyptian context.
Nevertheless, Egypt’s Islamist representatives remained optimistic Tuesday. “Tomorrow is an unprecedented day in our nation’s history,” wrote Muslim Brotherhood parliament member Muhammad Baltagi on his Facebook page. “We owe this — after God — to the blood of the martyrs.”
Amr Moussa, desperately trying to win over the average religious voter, argued that Egypt’s president must be more than just a religious figurehead.
amid the platitudes and outbursts of unabated optimism, worrying signs of a grim future continue to emerge
“We are all Muslims. We pray, we fast, and we went on Haj [Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca]. But the president must be competent and serve the nation. This is what upholds religion, not outward religiosity,” Moussa tweeted on May 20.
“When they say ‘vote for this candidate and go to heaven’ or ‘don’t vote for the other and save yourself from hell,’ this evokes public mockery,” he added.
Egypt’s first round of elections on May 23 and 24 is accompanied by a new-found sense of responsibility. “The whole world will be watching us,” said Islamist MP Baltagi, “and we must rise to the challenge.”
Even the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) — suspected by many of planning electoral fraud to safeguard its vast economic interests — issued a flowery-worded statement Monday urging Egyptians to flock to the polls and stressing their political neutrality.
“The Supreme Council of Armed Forces remains equally distant from all presidential candidates,” read the statement. “We allow the Egyptian voter complete freedom of choice.”
But amid the platitudes and outbursts of unabated optimism, worrying signs of a grim future continue to emerge.
The fragmented Egyptian parliament failed on Monday to agree on a constitutional declaration, casting doubt on the exact prerogatives of the president and the parliament following the elections.
Some representatives of the youth movements who led the January 25 revolution are even calling for an election boycott.
‘The Supreme Council of Armed Forces remains equally distant from all presidential candidates,’ read a SCAF statement Monday
“How can we participate in elections completely controlled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces?” asked the activists in a statement issued Tuesday. They noted that six million Egyptian civil servants can be easily manipulated by the SCAF. For grassroots movements such as “The second revolution of rage” and “The alliance of revolutionary forces,” the next popular uprising is just around the corner.
But that view does not seem to be shared by most young Egyptians. The April 6 Movement, the best-known youth group to participate in the uprising, instead initiated a monitoring campaign for election fraud, titled “participate, vote, monitor, embarrass.”
According to one Egyptian security specialist, the military council will withdraw from political life following the elections, no later than July 1.
“If the presidential elections end in the first round, SCAF will turn over power next week,” retired general Sameh Seif Yazal told the Saudi-owned daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat Tuesday. “Field Marshal Tantawi will not be defense minister in the next government because he does not aspire to any other position, whatever it may be.”
Will the military really sit back through Egypt’s historic moment and enjoy the show? We are about to find out.
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