x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

No matter who wins Egypt's election, he is likely to disappoint

In Egypt, changing opinion poll findings show that voters make their choices on the basis iof politics, not ideology.

As Egypt's first democratic presidential election begins today, no one really knows who is going to win. Indications hint at Amr Moussa, the former secretary general of the Arab League, because his name recognition is hard to beat, his "vote for the candidate with experience" pitch appears to be working and, most importantly, the army does not seem to object to him.

But we need to take a wider view of what comes next. What are the most important variables in this election and what does it mean for not only the winner but also for the runner up?

The first variable is the army. Egyptian activists are in denial about the military's role, insisting that support for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is waning. They assume that ordinary Egyptians support the army but not Scaf.

Data from Gallup polls, gathered since the start of protests last year, indicate quite the contrary: nine out of 10 Egyptians support the army and make no distinction between it and Scaf. Moreover, Scaf as an institution that reaches across the country, and not just the city centres that are the hotbed of political activism, is well aware of the support it enjoys.

The generals still hold a great deal of power in Egypt and it is almost inconceivable that they would allow a candidate to win if he posed a threat to the military.

What does that mean for the presidential candidates? Behind the scenes, Scaf has already intervened to reject "objectionable" candidates. Mr Moussa's campaign has been very careful to avoid making an enemy of the military. The campaign of Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, has also sent signals that he would not confront the military if elected.

What also seems certain is that Hamdeen Sabahy, a Nasserite candidate who insists that Scaf should be held accountable for its performance during the interim period, does not have a chance of winning because of his confrontational platform.

Another variable in the political equation is the influence of Islamist parties. Political analysts were taken by surprise when the Muslim Brotherhood's political organ, the Freedom and Justice Party, and the Salafi Noor Party won a combined 70 per cent of seats in parliamentary elections. That has raised fears that Islamists were gaining ground, but it was always clear that no presidential candidate could afford to alienate Egyptians by reducing the role of religion in public life - every candidate accepts Article 2 of the constitution, which stipulates that Islam is a source of law.

But fears that Egyptians are overwhelmingly Islamist are unfounded. In July, 17 per cent of Egyptians expressed support for the Muslim Brotherhood; only 5 per cent supported Salafi groups. In February, those numbers had skyrocketed to 63 per cent and 37 per cent respectively, according to Gallup polls. Yet in April, in the first few weeks of the new parliament, support had dropped to 42 per cent and 25 per cent respectively, and is probably still in decline.

Expectations were high for the parliament to actually change the lives of ordinary Egyptians. Instead, the new parliamentarians have been defined by dubious politicking, such as trying to stack the constitutional assembly. While 62 per cent of Egyptians in February believed that the party that won the most seats in parliament - which proved to be the Freedom and Justice Party - should choose the drafters of Egypt's new constitution, that number dropped to 44 per cent in April. It shows that Egyptians do not consider their support to be unconditional.

Voters are not motivated by ideology, but by politics - left with few alternatives, many Egyptians chose to give the Islamists a chance. That goodwill has been squandered. While 62 per cent of Egyptians in February approved of a strong, influential Muslim Brotherhood presence in parliament, only 36 per cent said the same in April, according to the latest figures released by Gallup.

What does this mean for candidates? While religion is important for the overwhelming majority of Egyptians (whether Muslim or Christian), Islamists do not enjoy unconditional support. Egyptians make a distinction between Islam and Islamism, despite the best efforts of the Brotherhood and the Salafi movements.

No one knows who will win, but that's the wrong question. The next president will probably be a failure simply because the expectations of the Egyptian public are too immense for anyone to satisfy.

The past year shows that Egyptian voters are not automatons who will simply vote for a candidate based on empty slogans - candidates have to show that they can deliver on the key challenges facing Egypt. In that regard, no candidate has succeeded, but that also means it's an open field. Voters have given unlikely political forces a chance to prove themselves before, and they may do so again.

Dr HA Hellyer is a Cairo-based commentator formerly at Gallup, Warwick University and the Brookings Institution

On Twitter: @hahellyer