Egypt’s Presidential Elections: And Then There Were Three

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Egyptian military police stand by as a protester holding a placard in support of Salafist presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail (portrait) takes part in a demonstration outside the building of the High Presidential Election Committee in Cairo on 17 April 2012. (Photo: AFP - Khaled Desouki)

By: Rana Mamdouh

Published Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The race for the Egyptian presidency has been narrowed down to three likely candidates after the High Elections Commission refused the appeals of 10 candidates, including three front-runners, that were disqualified from the elections last Saturday.

Cairo - Where will the votes of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Khairat al-Shater, Salafi Hazem Abu Ismail, and former spy chief Omar Suleiman now go?

The question is at the forefront of the Egyptian electorate’s minds following the High Elections Commission’s refusal of the applications of these three presidential candidates who had caused so much controversy.

They were joined in their dismissal by seven others, most prominently formerly jailed democracy activist Ayman Nour, the Ghad el-Thawra (Revolutionary Tomorrow) party’s candidate.

With the "big three" out of the way, there are now three remaining candidates most likely to capture the country’s top post, namely Amr Moussa, Abul Fotouh, and Hamdeen Sabahi.

Former Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa once enjoyed links to the Mubarak regime and promotes himself as a serious alternative to Omar Suleiman.

Moussa’s appeal is grounded in the fiery speeches he made against Israel during his time as Mubarak's foreign minister.

The popularity of moderate Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh has also risen.

A month ago, he was kicked out of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) for insisting on running for president.

As someone who is seen as part of the revolution, he will benefit from the Commission's decision to disqualify al-Shater.

The MB's alternative candidate and spokesperson Mohammed Mursi, head of the Freedom and Justice Party, lacks charisma and is largely unknown among Egyptian voters.

In contrast, supporters of Salafi candidate Abu Ismail are still backing him wholeheartedly.

Following the news of his impending disqualification, some had said they would vote for al-Shater to support the Islamist project that Abu Ismail represented.

But other supporters had not agreed, saying, “we will not sacrifice Abu Ismail for the sake of al-Shater.”

Some even threatened suicide bombings to avenge his disqualification and force the Commission to retract its decision.

Supporters of the Salafi sheikh commented on the issue on related Facebook pages.

One of them wrote: “By God we will carry out the biggest suicide missions for Sheikh Hazem Abu Ismail. The first suicide attack will be at the interior ministry.”

It is difficult to guess which candidate Salafi voters will back instead of Abu Ismail, said Dia Rashwan, an expert from the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

He explained that Abu Ismail’s support base mainly comes from two groups. The first is the Salafi movement. The second is composed of poorer social classes attracted to his down-to-earth personality.

But even the first group is not a single block. Some had already decided to vote for al-Shater as opposed to Abu Ismail.

With both disqualified, it is likely that they will choose between the two other major Islamist candidates – Abul Foutouh and Salim al-Awwa, another moderate Islamist.

The second group of voters is smaller and will be spread among the remaining candidates, including the two Islamists mentioned above.

Some voters will look to non-Islamists, including liberals, nationalists, and leftists.

A third group will probably not vote – in protest and resignation – due to the disqualification of their favorite candidate.

Still, according to Rashwan, some voters from the second group who currently support Abu Ismail – i.e. the poor and marginalized — will pick other Islamists as an expression of ideological and political continuity.

Others will vote for candidates promising to support their social and economic rights, like Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi.

There are also those who will probably vote for the candidate they believe will be able to run the state and reimpose security, like Amr Moussa.

Expert analysis does differ widely from opinion polls conducted by the official Al-Ahram Center in Egypt on a weekly basis.

The latest survey, conducted between 7-10 April, suggests that the two candidates who are likely to benefit the most from Suleiman's disqualification are Moussa and Mubarak's last prime minister Ahmad Shafiq.

Some voters' second choices have also been disqualified.

The survey shows that 25 percent of Abu Ismail voters considered al-Shater as their second choice, while 27 percent of al-Shater's supporters chose Abu Ismail as their backup candidate.

The statistics again point to the fact that the Islamist groups have never considered the alternative MB candidate, Muhamed Mursi, as a viable champion against Moussa and Abul Fotouh.

The third main option in the presidential elections now set for 23 and 24 May is Hamdeen Sabahi.

Experts see him as “the candidate of undecided voters,” and the best representative of the poor and the peasants, but his campaign suffers from a lack of funding.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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