Egypt Elections: Look Who's Holding Court Now

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A boy looks at his father as he reads his ballot before casting his vote at a polling station during presidential elections in Cairo 23 May 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

By: Mohammad Khawly, Yousef Abdel Rahman

Published Thursday, May 24, 2012

As the first round of presidential elections is concluded, there is still fierce competition between the candidates. The deciding factor in the victory of Egypt’s new leader could well lie in the hands of three unlikely segments of society: the Sufis, the low-income groups, and the cautious unpoliticized “couch party.”

The Sway Of The Sufis

Cairo - Although the sheikhs of the Sufi communities said they would announce which presidential candidate they would all support, they later reneged. They decided to keep a distance from all candidates in order “to preserve their independence.”

This is the same position taken by Al-Azhar [the highest Islamic authority in Egypt], which likely influenced the Sufi sheikhs. Similarly, the Ashraf [descendants of Muhammad] Society announced, “we are a 1200 year old institution and it is wrong for such an ancient institution to stand behind one candidate.”

Sufi sheikhs laid down several conditions for their disciples to follow when choosing a presidential candidate. Among them is the condition that “the candidate not be an extremist Muslim who has previously taken a hostile position towards the Sufi communities.”

The candidate has to have vision and an understanding of politics and law, and to be well-informed on his duties and the rights of his people, supporting freedom, justice and equality.

Another condition is that the candidate should be able to restore Egyptian-Iranian relations as soon as he becomes president.

They are not concerned with the party or political affiliation of the candidate. His program and ideas should include a perceptive view of the current Egyptian situation and its future, particularly the situation for Sufis.

The Sufis also make it a condition that their presidential candidate should have a real and immediate plan for addressing the current security and moral chaos.

They also want the candidate to treat Egyptian Copts and Muslims equally, build a modern civil state and put an end to sectarian differences among Muslims.

The candidates are aware of the importance of the Sufi vote. There are now around 15 million Sufis in Egypt and they could sway the pendulum in favor of the candidate who gains their support.

This became more true after the reconciliation of the two main currents in the Sufi movement, the Reform Front, headed by Sheikh Alaa al-Din Abul Azayem, and the group headed by Sheikh Abdul Hadi Al-Qasabi, the president of the Supreme Council of Sufi Movements.

This is why candidates like Ahmed Shafik, Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh and Hamdeen Sabahi visited Sufi sheikhs and explained their programs to them, asking for their support.

The Sufi leaders clearly became divided between Shafik and Moussa, after they had hinted at the beginning of the election season that they supported Abul-Fotouh. However, fears were raised that he might have given guarantees to the Salafi movement, which would threaten the civil state.

Sabahi also has his share of Sufi votes. What is known as the General Alliance of Sufi Movements announced its support for him, maintaining that they took this decision “after several sessions and consultations with most of the members of the alliance.”

They found that he fulfilled most of the conditions they had set out for choosing a candidate, primarily that he does not belong to or support the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafis.

However, a number of Sufi sheikhs quickly denied such an alliance. The sheikh of the Radwaniyah movement in Luxor, Zayn al-Abidin Ahmad Radwan said, “We have a general sheikdom which includes all the Sufi sects. It supports only one candidate, Ahmed Shafik, because he is of good character, open hearted and serious about work. He is the righteous son of Sufism.”

Sheikh Alaa Al-Din Abu Al-Azayem, one of the grand imams of Sufism and the founder of the Egyptian Liberation Party, which supports the alliance of the three Sufi parties, also announced that Shafik is “the best to lead Egypt.”

It is also expected that some Sufi votes will go to Amr Moussa. Sheikh of the Rifai movement, Tariq al-Rifai, said that he would support Moussa because “he can control the next phase with an iron fist, like a dictator.”

This is also the position of Sheikh Mustafa Al-Hashimi, the head of the Hashimiyya Shadhiliyya movement, who announced his support for Moussa as president because “he is the man for this period.”

Representation For The Poor

Low-income Egyptians are first and foremost looking for a president who understands their situation and can improve their living conditions.

“We want a president who is one of us,” is a statement that is often repeated by residents of low-income neighborhoods and informal settlements (slums) in Egypt.

These people are viewed by the Egyptian presidential candidates as a huge voting bloc.

Poverty in Egypt affects over 25 percent of the population, according the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. Many residents of these areas see elections, whether parliamentary or presidential, as an opportunity to make some money from candidates in return for votes.

It is clear that support among residents of the low-income neighborhoods and slums is divided between four candidates, Ahmed Shafik, Amr Moussa, Hamdeen Sabahi and Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) candidate, Mohammed Mursi, is utterly despised in most low-income neighborhoods.

When Al-Akhbar toured several of these areas, the overwhelming majority of voters said they reject Mursi. “They [the MB] want to gobble up the whole country,” says young man Mohammed Zaatar, who lives in the shanty town of Duwaika in west Cairo.

He adds: “The MB cares only about its own interests and they lied when they said they would not field a presidential candidate.” He decides, “My vote will go to Hamdeen (Sabahi), God willing. We want new faces.”

Zaatar’s view of the MB candidate is common in these areas. But there are others who believe that the MB was “oppressed throughout its history and that it has a right to nominate a presidential candidate that represents it,” as Mamdouh Mustafa, a resident of the low-income neighborhood of Ain Shams, put it.

“There is great fear that a figure from the old regime might become president, decide to dissolve the parliament and throw the Muslim Brothers in prison again. A MB president will at least maintain stability and will not clash with the parliament.”

In al-Marj low-income neighborhood in north Cairo, the election posters of the MB candidate are widely available but customers at cafes express their preferences for Moussa or Shafik.

This area is dominated by a family-based system whereby members of each family abide, for the most part, by the decision of their elder.

There are many Shafik supporters in the Sayeda Zeinab neighborhood. Ibrahim Hassan, a store owner, says: “Shafik will restore security, we’ve had enough protests and sit-ins.” Here there is also a lot of advertising for the MB candidate, Mursi. Residents say it is because there are a lot of MB members in their neighborhood.

In al-Hussein neighborhood there is advertizing for several candidates. Mohamed Ahmed, a young man from the area says: “Aboul-Fotouh is an Islamist man and he is on good terms with everybody. We need a president who has good relations with all the political currents.”

In the same neighborhood, a large cross-section of residents support Sabahi. Furniture seller Shaaban Abdel Rahim says: “Hamdeen is like us... what he says make sense.”

The MB’s organizational capacity would allow one to think that all low-income neighborhoods back their candidate, because posters and banners of support are present in every street in these areas.

But this “apparent” capacity did not actually influence residents of these areas, as most posters were torn up or anti-MB graffiti was written on them such as “the MB are liars.” In many instances people even wrote obscene expressions on the banners.

Nasser Abdel Tawwab, who lives in Manshiyet Nasser in west Cairo, summarizes the demands of low-income neighborhoods and slum residents as “housing and a decent job,” adding “people here are poor, they need a roof to protect them.”

As for the “decent job” Nasser is talking about, he explains it is “a job that guarantees a decent income allowing every citizen to provide his children with education and healthcare.”

The Couch Party: Egypt’s Silent Onlookers

While pre-election polls are disagreeing on who is leading Egypt’s presidential race, they all agree that a large segment of voters have remained undecided until the very last moment.

As millions of people converged in public squares across the country during the Egyptian revolution, there were many others sitting at home infront of their television sets watching the events unfold. They did not chant with the demonstrators or oppose them. They remained cautiously neutral.

This group became known as the "couch party," or the "silent majority," as some writers and researchers labeled them.

Former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman once referred to them in an interview with an Egyptian newspaper, saying: "The couch party will not allow the country to be hijacked."

Public opinion polls showed that the biggest single group of voters has not yet decided which presidential candidate they will choose.

These eligible voters have refused to participate in any of the presidential candidates' rallies. Public opinion polls estimated the undecided segment to be between 30 and 40 percent of those surveyed, hence becoming the "hidden electoral force in Egypt."

Media expert Yasser Abdel Aziz profiled members of the couch party as follows: "They usually don't believe in a specific ideology; they don't engage in any political organizations, and normally belong to the older generation."

Abdel Aziz added that couch party members build their orientations on the basis of "stability and cautious neutrality, which usually favors elements of the former regime."

They are also indifferent to issues related to dictatorship or inheritance of power, he said.

Muhammad Bureik, a strategic studies researcher at Britain's University of Reading, expects what sociologists call the "militarization of Egyptian society," specifically among non-civilian segments, to support a candidate with a military background.

He also spoke about the "substantial existence of ready-made voting blocs for the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis."

Another analyst, Muhammad Saffar, director of the Intercultural Dialogue and Studies Center at Cairo University, sees the couch party as "a large and negative mass divided into two categories."

The first includes those "with very limited awareness, who are absorbed in their family life and personal world. They don't want to know anything about what is happening and believe that whatever happens does not affect them."

Saffar described the second couch party category as those with awareness of developments but completely lacking willpower.

"They feel despair and frustration, believing that 'everything is useless.' They think there is no need for them to interfere in what is happening," he explained.

He added that both these groups support "stability and desire a certain standard of living that they do not wish to compromise."

Saffar blames the "military regime since 1952 for reducing Egyptians to sub-human levels in terms of thought and livelihood."

He said that principles, idealism, and the idea of equality are considered too much of a "luxury for people whose children eat out of garbage bins and live in shacks."

Saffar said there is a problem of disparity between the revolutionary elite and ordinary people over the concept of civil freedom that the first group is demanding.

Prominent political sociologist Ammar Ali Hassan said that the authorities' "soft call to the couch party to take to the streets to oppose the revolution and rebels seems more significant" as the time to hand over power approaches.

"I don't believe it is useful to antagonize the couch party against the 'critical mass,' which refuses to accept the status quo and does not want to deviate from the revolution," Hassan says.

"The so-called silent majority proved that it is with the revolution, even if it disagreed with some of the rebels in determining the way in which to complete it."

Hassan supported his argument by recalling the post-revolution parliamentary elections "when the people rejected the remnants of the former ruling National Party at the ballot boxes."

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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