Egyptian Presidential Elections: The Undecided Decide

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Battered by a prolonged transition, voters have felt the pinch of a worsening economy. It’s the first priority for many as political and sometimes religious affiliations fade in the background. (Illustration: Nidal el-Khairy)

By: Sarah El Sirgany

Published Tuesday, May 22, 2012

For the first time in its presidential era, Egypt heads to the ballot boxes on Wednesday without knowing the name of the winner ahead of time.

Cairo - In a crowded government office in the densely populated neighborhood of Ain Shams, an eastern suburb of Cairo, a cashier in a small room was casually asking her sweating clients who they were voting for. She was advocating Khaled Ali, a labor rights lawyer with little chance in the election due to underfunding and his late entry into the race.

As the conversation, similar to many taking place across the country, flowed, a lawyer trying to finish his papers gasped in disbelief. The cashier said she had initially supported the ex-intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who was disqualified from the race last month.

The unlikely switch from Suleiman, a face of the hated security machine, to what the media call a “revolutionary candidate” revealed a break from the traditional mapping of voters. Egypt’s first presidential elections after Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down in February 2011 were supposed to be a showdown between the remnants of the former regime and the revolutionaries, both the Islamists and the liberals.

With many undecided voters narrowing down their choices to candidates from contradictory camps, the lines on that map are not that clear; they overlap and crisscross and are infused with other factors: mainly the economic and security elements in the candidates’ platforms, or at least their perceived ability to improve people’s daily lives.

According to a poll by the Baseera Center, the percentage of undecided voters has gone down from 54 percent last month to 33 in the week preceding the election. While critics don’t see these polls as reliable – questioning the methodology and the credibility of those involved – the indecisiveness was reflected in every conversation in Cairo, in its crowded underground metro and on the screens of the numerous politicized TV stations.

Candidates have picked up on that, and in the last days before the campaigning ban was enforced, they were trying to court these undecided voters, knowing full-well the confusions arising in their affiliations and preferences.

A Presidential Brotherhood

Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh, the former Muslim Brotherhood member who developed a centralist campaign targeting moderate Islamists and liberals, was seen as courting the ultraconservative vote after the Salafi al-Nour Party announced its support for him.

“Abul-Fotouh is the only candidate who has something to lose. He’s losing undecided voters. He’s losing the people who think he’s too Islamist,” said Mirette F. Mabrouk, a nonresident fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “You can’t be all things to all people.”

“Abul-Fotouh isn’t a liberal with Islamist tendencies. He’s an Islamist who understands how liberal minds work,” she added.

Amr Moussa, the former head of the Arab League and Egypt’s foreign minister for 10 years prior, capitalized on that. Moussa, who portrayed himself as more appealing to the liberal, mainstream Egyptians, picked on Abul-Fotouh’s more conservative statements in a televised debate on May 10.

Moussa repeatedly said he rejected the use of religion in politics. In a jab at Abul-Fotouh and Mohammed Mursi, the Brotherhood candidate, a Moussa supporter said in a press conference this week that he rejected the way candidates affiliate themselves to religion “as if others are not [Muslims].”

“Talking from quantity and popularity calculations, liberals aren't such a big constituency. They are more prestigious than anything else,” explained Khalil al-Anani, a scholar of Middle Eastern Politics at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. In Abul-Fotouh’s case for example, the Salafi vote, especially their networks in rural areas, would make up for the lost liberals.

At the other end of the spectrum, Mursi was emphasizing his commitment to applying Sharia (Islamic law) in a bid to court the conservative vote. At a Cairo rally last Sunday, prominent Salafi cleric, Sheikh Mohamed Abdel-Maqsood, endorsed Mursi before thousands of Muslim Brothers and Sisters and members of the group’s political arm the Freedom and Justice Party. He hailed Mursi for taking pride in Sharia.

“Abul-Fotouh is losing voters from both sides,” said Abdullah el-Sharqawy, a 26-year-old Mursi campaigner and son of veteran Brotherhood leader Sadeq el-Sharqawy. Liberals don’t see Abul-Fotouh as liberal enough and Islamists don’t see him as conservative enough, he added. “Abul-Fotouh is clear in his stance of not introducing himself as an Islamist candidate.”

The Brotherhood, which presented itself as a moderate voice in comparison to the Salafis, emphasized the exact opposite about Mursi. Egypt wants an Islamist president, Sharqawy argued, “Mursi is the Islamist candidate.”

Candidates like Mursi with a solid base don’t need to change their discourse to sway voters at the last minute; they need to “mobilize” and “energize” their supporters, explained Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab policy at Georgetown University, unlike Abul-Fotouh who has a wider, less solid base.

Battling to get his voice heard over the loud speakers that echoed through Downtown Cairo to thousands of enthusiastic supporters on Sunday night, Sharqawy explained that the organizational structure, which enabled the group to win the majority of parliament seats, would work in its favor in the presidential elections.

“We go down to the street, take in people’s criticism and then sell them our [Renaissance project],” the young telecom engineer said.

It’s this organizational structure and vast human resources that fuel concerns about the strength of the Brotherhood and Islamist candidates. Media and analysts, critical of the group’s performance in parliament and skeptic about its intentions and proclaimed relative moderation, were feeding two trends – the fuloul and revolutionaries.

Mubarak’s Men

One stream that is avoiding Islamist candidates opted for the candidates affiliated with the Mubarak regime – known as fuloul (remnants) – namely Moussa and Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister appointed by Mubarak. Both were thought to be backed by the military and perceived with serious chances of winning, according to polls – Moussa more than Shafik.

Leading up to the vote, Moussa was courting a more inclusive audience than Shafik, who remained relatively faithful to an anti-revolution audience. The seasoned diplomat has been flirting with a politically conservative audience – pro-revolution as an abstract concept, but against street protests that hinder the yearned-for stability.

On Sunday, the last day of campaigning, Moussa held a press conference for a number of representatives of groups and movements, with ‘revolution’ in their title but with little if no presence on the scene. Shehata, who attended the conference, said Moussa wasn’t doing a good job of distancing himself from the fuloul label towards a more progressive outlook.

Whether that would help or not remains unclear; the religious and political affiliations of that politically conservative bloc, or the “coach party”, are not defined.

People’s Choice

Part of the anti-Islamist stream was backing Hamdeen Sabahi and Khaled Ali as the revolutionary side of the coin, despite faring low in the polls.

A Copt mother of four in Helwan said she was leaning towards Ali as she watched one of his rallies. She didn’t want to vote for any Islamist candidates. “I voted for the FJP in the parliamentary elections. They didn’t do anything,” she said, refusing to have her name published. Seeing Ali’s low chances of success, she said she was considering Shafik.

The unlikely combination of choices was common at that rally in the industrial town south of Cairo. Some of the 300 factory workers, civil servants and residents that showed up that night saw no contradiction between Ali and Shafik, who recently said he would leave it to the army to quell dissent.

“Shafik is a strong man, who can steer the country to stability. Like Ali, he’s also from the people,” said Sayed Ibrahim, a 42-year-old employee at the Ministry of Finance.

Battered by a prolonged transition, voters have felt the pinch of a worsening economy. It’s the first priority for many as political and sometimes religious affiliations fade in the background. Voters’ views on what constitutes “a strong man” that could fix the economy and put a happy ending to a bumpy and deadly transition will inform their decision, regardless of other affiliations.

“That’s a sign of the times. People are not voting [according to] ideological platforms; people are voting on emotive terms...It’s completely understandable,” said Mabrouk who explained that the decision would reflect “what people want for this country and what they are afraid of.”

Three days before the vote, Mahmoud Adel, a driver, was still undecided. He took his two daughters to Ali’s rally in a bid to find a candidate that can make a change in his daily life; increase his income and secure access to affordable electricity and drinking water. He said he’ll make up his mind by the time he casts the ballot. “It doesn’t matter who wins as long as he can make these things a reality.”


In a very short time Egyptians will learn that the choice (?) between two or more the same is not a choice. USA "elections" is a good example.

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