No Frontrunner in Egypt’s First Free Presidential Election

Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, January 26, 2011 (Richter Frank-Jurgen)

Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, January 26, 2011 (Richter Frank-Jurgen)

As Egyptians prepare for the first free presidential vote in their lifetimes on Wednesday, it is difficult to predict who will soon lead the Arab country — and in which direction.

Opinion polls suggest a tight race between Amr Moussa, the septuagenarian former chairman of the Arab League, and moderate Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh.

However, former prime minister Ahmed Shafik also appears to do well. He was appointed as premier by President Hosni Mubarak in January of last year, less than two weeks before the longtime ruler of Egypt was forced to resign in the face of a large popular uprising.

Moussa, too, has ties to the old regime. He was Mubarak’s foreign minister for a decade but says he was fired for his criticism of Israel. That may be more of an attempt to delude Egypt’s masses among whom antisemitism is rife. Moussa profits from his image as an experienced and elder statesman at the same time, one who is able to restore stability to Egypt.

More than a year after Mubarak was ousted, Egypt’s economy is still in shambles. The next president will grapple with a budget deficit that is the size of 10 percent of gross domestic product and an economy that is hamstrung by subsidies and red tape.

Youth unemployment, one of the key ingredients of the revolt, remains stubbornly high. Uncertainty about Egypt’s future has spooked investors and tourists.

The prospect of a full Islamist takeover frightens Egypt’s urban youth and secularists who were among the ones to take to the streets of Alexandria and Cairo last year to demand regime change. The scenario seems rather less likely since the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate was disqualified from running in April. Islamists do command a majority in parliament.

The popularity of secularists Moussa and Shafi and conservative Aboul Fotouh probably stems from the Brotherhood’s perceived overreach.

The group vowed not to contest Egypt’s presidency before last month when it unexpectedly fielded a candidate. The Brothers said their decision came out of fear of the powerful Egyptian military refusing to relinquish power after the election.

The army has ruled Egypt since Mubarak’s resignation but judging from the polls — even if they are far from reliable — many Egyptians would rather have the military or remnants of the old regime in power than religious fanatics.

The Brotherhood’s power grab even infuriated puritanical Salafi Muslims who have thrown their support behind Aboul Fotouh in spite of his liberal leanings.

The physicist used to be a leading voice in the Muslim Brotherhood but broke all ties with the group when he decided to run for president in 2011. Now, he tries to portray himself as the outsider.

During a televised debate with his main rival this month, a first in Egyptian politics, Aboul Fotouh said, “I’d like to ask Mr Amr Moussa, as a member of the past regime that people revolted against, if he can become part of the solution?”

Neither candidate is expected to win a majority of the votes this week, necessitating a second round in June. Whoever ultimately emerges as the winner will have far less room for maneuver than Mubarak did. Parliament will weigh in on the formation of a government and the military is likely to push back whenever it sees its prerogatives under threat.

The army insists that it will hand power to the freely elected president July 1 and not have a role in national politics thereafter. Few expect the generals to simply surrender their position of power though. The Egyptian army has a clear stake in preserving its alliance with the United States which provides more than $1 billion in annual military aid and an even greater interest in protecting its business interests which may bring in billions more.