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Who Will Be Egypt's Next President?

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Egyptian author Saad Al Hifnawy writes a short story in which Mubarak unjustly imprisons a young man. While incarcerated, he dreams of a revolution that overthrows the regime. Upon his release, he finds that the president has indeed stepped down, yet he cannot believe that his dream has come true and so believes he is still asleep.

Egyptians may wish to dream their way to a successful election result, picturing a winning candidate who can deliver "bread, freedom, and social justice" -- the demands chanted by the revolutionaries last year.

Many fear the consequences of majority rule in a country where the majority is highly religious and poorly educated. For example, depictions of each candidate include a representative symbol so as not to exclude the approximately 24 million illiterate voters. Critics anticipate that uninformed or manipulated voting may produce a leader incapable of guiding Egypt to political and economic stability.

Whom will the Egyptians choose as their next president? Voters selected among 13 candidates on May 23 and 24, with a runoff expected to follow on June 17 between the top two. Most Egyptians selected from one of these five frontrunners:

  • Amr Moussa was relegated to the toothless Arab League in 2001 when his popularity as foreign minister apparently challenged Mubarak's control, yet his status as a former internal threat does not erase his characterization as a felool, or supporter of the old regime. At 75, his extensive political career reassures voters who want a president with experience, and he appeals to Egyptians who benefitted under Mubarak, or who now fear the economic and domestic instability of the "new" Egypt. He has conducted the most sophisticated media campaign, but his aggressive approach alienated some voters during a televised debate with fellow candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, (see below).
  • A solidly felool candidate, Ahmed Shafiq represents a return to the military -- government cooperation and corruption -- of the Mubarak era, a power structure which remains essentially preserved under the current SCAF leadership. Appointed as Prime Minister during the revolution as one of Mubarak's last desperate acts to appease the protestors, he outlasted his boss but then served for only a month before stepping down under public pressure. Although opposed by Islamists and revolutionaries, he represents the top choice of the military.
  • Mohammed Mursi, candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party, represents the most socially and religiously conservative of the top candidates. The Brotherhood's strongman Khairat El-Shater was forced to drop out of the race due to his recent imprisonment; Mursi, his replacement, is known mockingly as the "spare tire" or stepney (a vestigial word from Egypt's colonization by the British). The Brotherhood appears desperate for power after 80 years of political ostracism. Winning the largest share of seats in November's parliamentary election demonstrates their popular appeal, or as some would put it, their ability to buy poor voters' support with money and food. Yet the Brothers tarnished their public image in recent months by initially denying that they would run a candidate and later reversing the decision, as well as appearing to cooperate with the unpopular SCAF.
  • Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, supported by the Salafist's Party of Light (Hizb al Nour), was influential in the Muslim Brotherhood until his acrimonious departure to run for president last year. A socially liberal Islamist, he surprisingly won the support of the ultra-conservative Salafists, the Brotherhood's primary rivals for the conservative Muslim vote. The Salafist party supports Aboul Fotouh to prevent the Brotherhood from dominating both parliament and the presidency. While some Salafists doubt his commitment to Islamist priorities, Aboul Fotouh's moderation also draws secular liberals, giving him a uniquely broad appeal.
  • Hamdeen Sabahi's supporters claim that he best represents the secular and egalitarian spirit of the revolution. Sabahi combines former President Nasser's egalitarian values and anti-Western stance with a long history of anti-regime activism. He has quickly gained popularity among voters who want neither a felool nor an Islamist president.

All of these candidates express support for Egypt's international commitments, such as the peace treaty with Israel, although Aboul Fotouh has said that he would put the treaty before a public referendum, and Sabahi has suggested the same.

In cities and towns, campaign posters of the top candidates crowd roadsides, adorn cars, and span streets. Nonetheless, upon leaving urban areas, posters of Mursi dominate, reflecting the strength of the Brotherhood in the countryside. A week before the election, Mursi supporters claimed to have created a human chain stretching from Aswan in the south of Egypt, to Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast.

Despite Egyptians' excitement at being able to choose their own president, one legacy of Mubarak's deeply affected the process. His banning of parties such as the Brotherhood, and enforced atrophy of other existing political parties, meant that the primary candidates, other than Mursi, did not represent official parties. Without party affiliations, the majority of voters had no existing loyalties, leaving many unsure of whom to vote for even as they headed to the polls. "I'll decide when I get there", said Azza Farouk, a teacher at a public middle school.

Author Saad Al Hifnawy (a Sabahi supporter) says he is not yet sure how to end the story of the young man who dreams of a better future for Egypt. Perhaps the ending will become clear after the election results are announced.