In Egypt’s first free ballot on 19 March, 77 per cent voted for reform to fast-track an election to return stability to the country
The Egyptian popular uprising that began in mid-January 2011 and resulted in the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak on 11 February, has undone decades of political apathy in the Arab world’s most populous state.
With the leader of almost 30 years gone, a power vacuum has emerged at the top of government. Egyptians must now decide how they want to be ruled and which parties, policies and personalities should fill this void.
In the country’s first free and fair ballot, Egyptians voted to amend the constitution in a referendum on 19 March. Some 77 per cent voted in favour of constitutional reform to fast-track an election that would return stability to the country. The changes included limiting presidential terms from six to four years and obliging the president to appoint a deputy within 30 days of election.
Ambitious schedule for Egyptian elections
Turnout among the 45 million eligible voters was 41 per cent – this compares with an official turnout of 22 per cent in the last presidential election held in 2005, although human rights groups at the time put the figure at closer to 10 per cent.
As a result of the referendum, parliamentary elections could now be held as early as September with presidential elections to follow before the end of 2011. The new parliament will then write a new constitution within six months and hold another referendum to approve it.
People want a populist leader who is strong, but can be brought down by the people. We need a strong personality
The schedule is highly ambitious for a country whose citizens have effectively been excluded from the politics for decades, with the president and government remaining in power regardless of the preferences of the people. The National Democratic Party and Muslim Brotherhood have long been the only organised political parties in Egypt. The former is tainted by its association with Mubarak and was on 16 March disbanded by the transitional government. The latter is heavily entrenched in Muslim ideology.
Critics say the tight election schedule does not allow enough time for new parties to form policies and mobilise support. However, the timetable has evolved out of necessity. Egypt’s economy relies on foreign direct investment and the country needs stability to make investors comfortable with long-term commitments.
As the figurehead of the country, attention is focusing on the presidential hopefuls and seven or eight individuals have articulated their intention to run for the presidency.
The secretary-general of the Cairo-based Arab League, Amr Moussa, has emerged as a credible contender with experience of governance, but without strong ties to the former regime. He has a high profile domestically and internationally and, unlike his main rival Mohamed ElBaradei, he never abandoned Egypt for an easier life abroad.
Democracy, for us, is a new concept. We have been ruled by dictators since the Pharoahs and this is the problem
Senior figure close to the interim government
Even before the January uprising, ElBaradei had been tipped as a potential future president of Egypt. After stepping down as the head of the Vienna-headquartered International Atomic Energy Agency and returning to Cairo in February 2010 following an absence of 12 years, the Nobel peace prize winner said he hoped to become an agent for change in the country. “Ninety-nine per cent of Egyptians want change, the poor and the rich, the young and the old,” ElBaradei declared in a provocative address 12 months before mass demonstrations forced Mubarak to resign.
Today, Moussa and ElBaradei are seen by many as the frontrunners.
“Most probably it will go down to ElBaradei and Moussa fighting against each other,” says a Cairo-based economist. “People might not want ElBaradei because he hasn’t stayed in the country – Amr Moussa is familiar.”
A Cairo-based entrepreneur who attended one of Amr Moussa’s speeches admits disappointment with the candidate, but is supportive nonetheless. “I was a little disappointed with Amr Moussa, to be honest … But I would [still] like to see Amr Moussa as president and ElBaradei as vice-president,” he says.
Both candidates will need to entrench their support and secure the backing of the masses. “Moussa and ElBaradei are huge figures, but only in intellectual middle-class circles and that’s only a very small strata of the population,” an Egyptian researcher says.
Others who have said they plan to contest the presidency include Hamdeen Sabahi, leader of the unregistered Al-Karama party and Ayman Nour, leader of the El-Ghad party, which is also not officially recognised. Hisham Batawisi, vice-president of the Court of Cassation, Magdi Hatata, ex-chief of staff of the Egyptian army and Buthaina Kamel, a journalist, have also said they hope to stand in the election.
Following the referendum approving constitutional changes, independent candidates wanting to contest the presidency have to collect 30,000 signatures from 15 provinces for their nomination to be accepted by the High Elections Commission, while party candidates only need their party to have at least one seat in parliament.
Essam Sharaf, the transitional prime minister who was appointed on 3 March, also has some backers. Although he has ties to the Mubarak regime through his previous role as transport minister, he was at the same time a vocal critic of the president.
“Sharaf is a figure who is currently extremely appealing for a lot of Egyptians. He is the right person at the right time. He was the person who kept this country on track following the departure of Mubarak. I think that he is a good manager of people,” says one Cairo-based researcher.
In spite of demands to limit the power of the executive, many Egyptians still want a strong leader – albeit one that can be unseated.
“People want a populist leader who is strong, but can be brought down by the people,” says the researcher. “We need a strong personality for president.” Another Cairo-based professional agrees: “People want a parliamentary system and a president with minimal executive power.”
A major characteristic of post-revolutionary Egypt is the lack of political ideologies and policies to have emerged, with neither the people demanding them nor those seeking election proposing them.
“The problem is that most Egyptians are not really politicised,” says an economist at one international bank in Cairo. “The majority of people are interested in personalities. A very small portion of the population needs policies.”
“It is because this is the first time that we are experiencing democracy,” says a local banker. “People are not sure what they should be saying and what they should be focusing on. We are not trained for this. But I think this will develop over time.”
In time, observers expect to see a shift towards the left, with a more liberal reform-minded system of government.
“Personalities will choose the next president due to a lack of political awareness. But I think by September, there will be [political] agendas coming through,” says one research analyst.
“All parties are going to adopt a more or less left-wing position. But I think they are going to be very cautious [with any changes to subsidies on food and energy]. These will be untouchable issues.”
As a fledgling democracy, Egypt has to rebuild its political system from scratch and this will inevitably take time.
“Nobody has policies yet or is ready to come out with a programme. The people are not educated politically,” says a senior figure close to the interim government. “Democracy, for us, is a new concept. We have been ruled by dictators since the Pharaohs and this is the problem. Some of the people that fight for democracy think that they will get everything and everyone will live happily ever after.”
The fear in the West is that, in the absence of clear-cut policies, religious groups may be seek to exploit the vacuum. While the Egyptian masses may not have an alliance to a political ideology or party, they tend to have clear religious allegiances.
The recent referendum exposed this. The issue that dominated the March ballot was Article 2, which states that Islam is the national religion. Many Coptic Christians voted against the amendments on the false premise that it would automatically revoke Article 2. Islamists, meanwhile, were able to use this to manipulate the electorate towards a ‘yes’ vote by telling them that failure to do so would be considered ‘haram’, or forbidden by Islamic law. In effect, religion hijacked what was intended to be a purely political debate. If concrete policies are not forthcoming, Egypt can expect to see religion also dominate the presidential and parliamentary elections.
High expectations from Egyptians
Whichever party and presidential candidate emerges victorious, they face a huge challenge in living up to the expectations of the people.
“They will need to repair the economy, restructure the government and restructure relations abroad,” says a source close to the government. “They are going to be held accountable for what they achieve. At the same time, the masses want everything. They want more money, they want to work less … it’s a dilemma.”
With their first taste of democracy, Egyptians are eager to see the benefits. “[We want] an ideal democratic model – like they now have in Turkey [and] Argentina – all have seen massive economic growth,” says the research analyst. “But I have my doubts about the people who will be leading the government… They won’t live up to people’s expectations.”
As Egypt looks to fashion a new democratic political system, it is unlikely to get everything right the first time. Indeed, tough times lie ahead. Until the elections happen, the country is likely to see little in the way of progress and investment, with the transitional government wary of taking radical decisions. But once the political landscape becomes clearer, optimism is high that Egypt will resume the strong economic growth it has enjoyed in recent years.
“This is like a painful injection,” says the government source. “It hurts right now, but you take it in the hope that it will do you good in the long-term.”