x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Egypt looks to the future with one eye on the past

Each of the 13 presidential election campaigns are evoking a bygone era and a vision for the future in a country that has lived under military men for the past 60 years.

CAIRO // Peering down on Egyptians from billboards are many of the faces of the 13 presidential candidates, each campaign evoking a bygone era and a vision for the future in a country that has lived under military men for the past 60 years.

It's an election that hinges on many issues: a more Islamic government or a secular one; a military leader or a civilian; a continuation of the revolutionary ideals born during the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in early 2011, or a retreat to what came before.

But it also reflects a debate about the history of the most populous nation in the Arab world and the five presidents who led it since independence from British rule in 1952.

Two of them, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, were military officials who took part in the Free Officers movement that overthrew the monarchy of King Farouk, but each tried to mould Egypt into a new republic with a starkly different ideology.

Nasser sought to bring justice to Egyptians by destroying the aristocracy and improving the lives of ordinary people through socialist ideas. He inspired a generation of Arabs with a nationalist project for the once dominated people of the region to rise up and unify.

Sadat changed directions, opening Egypt up to free-market reforms and crafting a foreign policy aligned with the West.

Hosni Mubarak, toppled amid a popular uprising last year that set the country on a new path, is considered an acolyte of Sadat. Mubarak in large part continued with Sadat's policies. The National Democratic Party that Mubarak chaired - and which is now disbanded - was created by Sadat.

The rise of businessmen politicians also began under his regime with Osman Ahmed Osman, a relative of Sadat's through marriage. He was the founder of one of the largest construction firms in the region, a prominent member of parliament and a government minister.

Several of the current presidential candidates served in some way or another under Mubarak and worked within the system that he presided over.

The Islamist political candidates - especially Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the moderate physician, and Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood member running on a campaign centred on an Egyptian "renaissance" of improving the economy and creating a system that spreads wealth more justly - are perhaps the only contenders to offer substantial new ideas. Islamists believe that Islamic principles and Sharia are the best tools to rule the country.

While the others say they have new ideas for Egypt, they identify themselves with those who have ruled before. Hamdeen Sabahi, for instance, says he is a Nasserist. His campaign is leftist, but it has also sought to tap into a portion of the population that longs for Egypt's return to the position of influence and dominance in the Arab world that it had under Nasser.

Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister, is seen as a devotee of Sadat's ideology: let the free market do its work and keep relations with the US strong.

Ahmed Shafiq, the former air force commander, portrays himself as a "strong hand" needed for a chaotic Egypt - an image that rings true with Egyptians who believe the uprisings should be a momentary aberration in the continuation of the succession of military leaders.

Egyptians are having to reach into their political memory, as much as they are searching for new ideas, when it comes to electing a president, said Mahmoud Rached, head of the human-rights division of the Arab League.

"One of the challenges of the revolution is that it came without a cultural revolution," he said. "This revolution came without ideas.

"Until now it was a military coup d'etat helped by the protesters. The question is do we continue with the ideas of Nasser, Sadat, or do we embrace the only people with a new project and a vision: the Islamists? The opportunity is deeper than it seems."

For many Egyptians, a key issue surrounding the choice of a president is whether to end the military succession. The country's first president, Mohammed Naguib, was a major general in the army. Nasser was a colonel; Sadat a captain; Mubarak a commander of the air force.

Sufi Abu Taleb, acting president for eight days after the assassination of Sadat in 1981, was Egypt's brief encounter with civilian rule.

Abdallah Al Ashaal, a political science professor and outside presidential candidate who told his supporters last week to vote for Mr Morsi, said a clean break was needed from the military mindset of governance in Egypt.

"The upbringing of a military officer is totally against democracy," he said. "It's not something in their culture. We need someone who understand the rights of people and politics."

Support for the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mr Morsi, or Mr Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the group, also raises historical questions.

The group has pushed for ideas in the past that are no longer part of their official agenda, such as creating a special religious body that would review new laws from parliament and imposing a stricter interpretation of Sharia.

In the end, the politics of memory are up against a range of variables: ideology, personality and a sense of uncertainty about what is needed to get the country back on track. The elections this week - and possibly a run-off planned for June 16 and 17 in case one candidate does not win an outright majority - will be one step towards determining what role the past continues to play in Egypt's political future.

bhope@thenational.ae

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