Abdoul Fatouh v. Moussa v. Morsi v. Sabahi v. Shafiq: five vie for two runoff slots in unpredictable Egyptian race

Egyptians go to the polls today and tomorrow to cast votes in a presidential election unprecedented in not only Egypt, but the Middle East.

Since the disqualification of three of the top candidates just one month ago, the bumpy race has settled into a vibe that has electrified the 82 million citizens of the world’s largest Arab nation, the latest and, perhaps, greatest act in a drama that began with the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that led to the downfall of longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. 

Polls have shown any number of candidates in the lead, and two weeks ago, two of the presumed frontrunners, Amr Moussa (above, right) and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (above, left), sparred in Egypt’s first-ever presidential debate.  But they are not the only candidates with a chance to win the presidency.

The truth is that, for all the interest — both in Egypt and abroad — no one knows who will emerge as Egypt’s next president (which is in itself a fascinating statement on the success Egypt’s democratic transition).  The only safe prediction is that this week’s vote will result in no candidate winning over 50% of the vote, necessitating a runoff among the top two winners on June 16 and 17.

Any of the top five candidates could advance to the runoff — including also Mohammed Morsi, Hamdeen Sabahi and Ahmed Shafiq:

Moussa.  The secular Moussa served as former Egyptian foreign minister from 1991 to 2001 during the Mubarak era and as Secretary-General of the Arab League from 2001 until July 2011.  He is perceived as one of two likely frontrunners to advance after this week’s vote, and has run a campaign that presents Moussa as the technocrat with just enough experience in government to tackle some of Egypt’s pressing economic problems.

Support base: older voters, voters who favor stability, secular moderates, Christians.

Bottom line: I had once thought Moussa would be the strongest candidate and that he would inherit many of the supporters that Mohamed ElBaradei, the well-respected former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, would have attracted in the race. His ties to the old regime have been more crippling than I expected; cries of felool — ‘remnants’ (as in remnants of the Mubarak era) have dogged him in the streets and on the debate stage.  He’s still a frontrunner to make it to the runoff, and I think he’s well placed to thrive in a runoff.  It’s possible, however, some of his more reactionary supporters will vote Shafiq and more liberal supporters vote Sabahi, squeezing Moussa out in the first round.  

Aboul Fotouh.  Aboul Fotouh has been the more recent ‘frontrunner’ in the race — no one else benefitted more from the disqualifications last May by Egypt’s Presidential Elections Commission to disqualify the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Khairat al-Shater, and the Salafist candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail.  Aboul Fotouh, who was a member of the Brotherhood prior to running for president (he was kicked out, ironically, because the Brotherhood had decided not to support a candidate in the race), is the secretary-general of the Arab Medical League.  After Abu Ismail’s withdrawal, the Salafist Al-Nour party endorsed Aboul Fotouh, who has always been on the liberal wing of Egypt’s Islamist spectrum.

Support base: Salafists, moderate Islamists, Muslim Brotherhood supports, urban voters, young voters, voters who favor economic reforms, liberal reformers.

Bottom line: Aboul Fotouh has been, somewhat amazingly, able to be all things to all people.  Salafists support him, even though he’s less conservative than Morsi; liberal reformers, such as Google executive Wael Ghonim, support him over secular candidates, even though he’s still an Islamist.  In making the case that “we’re all Islamists,” he’s been able to wrap himself in the cloak of the Islamist parties, while running a campaign that focuses on Egypt’s economic performance and unemployment. Given his appeal, it’s difficult to know exactly how he would govern, but he certainly seems to fit the model of Turkey’s Islamist prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Morsi.  Morsi, the leader of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, was the Brotherhood’s ‘just in case’ candidate in the event of al-Shater’s disqualification.  The Brotherhood has made some strategic mistakes over the presidential race — it flipped its original position that it would not field a presidential candidate when Abu Ismail looked to be uniting all of Egypt’s Islamists behind his campaign.  Nonetheless, the Brotherhood won the greatest number of seats (235) in the January legislative elections, and seems to have the strongest political machine of any political group or party in Egypt.

Support base: rural voters, conservative Islamists, Muslim Brotherhood stalwarts.

Bottom line: Morsi has been in the shadows the entire campaign — first as an afterthought to al-Shater, then as the less compelling Islamist vis-a-vis Aboul Fotouh.  The Brotherhood has the strongest machine in Egypt, but its position would have been stronger if initially, it hadn’t dithered about whether it would field a candidate and secondly, if  it had not presented Morsi at the last minute as a second-best option. Its inability to accomplish much in Egypt’s parliament may also be narrowing enthusiasm for the Brotherhood. Furthermore, the Al-Nour party (which holds the second-largest number of seats with 121) has ironically backed the more liberal Aboul Fatouh, even though Morsi has been a more full-throated voice for sharia and Islamism in the campaign, denying Morsi the ability to unite Islamist supporters.

Sabahi. Sabahi, leader of the Dignity Party, is the only major candidate who is neither an Islamist nor tainted by participation in the Mubarak regime.  He’s taken a hard line against Israel, and against the United States, and presents himself as a leftist Arab nationalist in the mould of Egypt’s former president Gamal Abdel Nasser. 

Support base: liberal reformers, anti-Zionist voters, secular leftists, anti-Islamist voters, anti-felool voters, Christians

Bottom line: Sabahi is doing well among Egyptians living abroad, whose votes are already being counted.  It remains to be seen if Sabahi can do as well within Egypt’s borders.  Although Sabahi may have the toughest road to make it into a runoff, he would be well placed in a runoff — against Moussa or Shafiq, he will be the non-‘felool’ option untainted by the Mubarak era; against Aboul Fotouh or Morsi, he will be the ‘secular’ option, consolidating Christian support and Shafiq and Moussa supporters.  

Shafiq.  Shafiq was Mubarak’s final prime minister, but served previously as a long serving Air Force commander and civil aviation minister.  His campaign message has been that he can restore law and order to Egypt, which has led many to suspect he is the favorite of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. 

Support base: rural voters, anti-Islamist voters, voters who favor stability, pro-Mubarak voters.

Bottom line: Shafiq benefitted when the Commission disqualified Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s longtime intelligence chief and final vice president.  He will win former Suleiman supporters, pro-Mubarak reactionaries, voters who favor security, and he certainly seems like the SCAF’s preferred candidate. If he makes it to the runoff, it will be because voters, weary from tumultuous transition from Mubarak, with its sometimes jagged violence and unpredictable turnsfeel that Shafiq, and not Moussa, can turn the page from revolution and democratic experimentation into security and governance. 

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