x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Egyptians cast their votes on historic day

Vote in our poll: Egyptians wait patiently in long lines outside polling stations across the nation to freely choose their first president since last year's ousting of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.

An Egyptian woman votes during the first day of the presidential election.
An Egyptian woman votes during the first day of the presidential election.

CAIRO // Today, and tomorrow, the buzz that has scorched street corners, cafes and offices of Egypt for months will culminate in the country's first free elections for president.

The man who takes the helm at this political transition, from sixty years of autocratic rule by military men to a representative democracy, will forever stand as a symbol of the popular uprising that forced the abdication of President Hosni Mubarak.

"This is a foundational election in the creation of Egypt's first democratic government," said Lisa Anderson, a political-science professor and the president of the American University in Cairo (AUC). "Like any democratic government, it will be flawed. But what's important about this is the process of creating an accountable president and parliament … The biggest change is that Egyptians are realising they have a responsibility as citizens to elect a leader."

twitter: @bradleyhope in Cairo: "Zamalek polling station, where the elite say they are torn between Moussa, Aboul Fotouh and Sabahi"

The campaign ignited a nationwide debate about Egypt's future. Candidates have criss-crossed the country in past weeks in an unprecedented exercise in democracy. There have been countless media appearances and sponsored viewings of campaign videos in public squares.

The campaign hosted the Arab world's first televised presidential debate and, earlier this week, thousands of passionate supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood, created a chain of people that was said to reach 760 kilometres in length.

The thirteen candidates for the presidency each have a vision for the country's future, but the broader choice is how far to push the changes first demanded in Tahrir Square last year. Will Egypt embark on an Islamist project that gives religious principles the chance to influence governance? Will voters choose to return from the brink of revolutionary change, electing a member of the old regime? Or can a centrist path of reform be found to invigorate the economy, the politics and the future of Egyptians?

Five of the candidates have a shot at a significant portion of the vote: Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister of Egypt; Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the self-styled moderate Islamist doctor and former member of the Muslim Brotherhood; Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force commander who served as prime minister for a month amid the uprising; Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist politician and Nasserite; and Mr Morsi, the chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party.

twitter: @bradleyhope in Cairo:"Some hiccups. One man said wife waited 1.5 hours in Shubra, only to be told she wasn't on the list. Now struggling to vote."

On the periphery are eight others who are expected to grab only a sliver of the votes. They include a prominent judge, a former intelligence officer and an Islamic constitutional scholar, among others.

Recent polls have revealed an open race, with one candidate quickly surpassed by another. It is unlikely that one candidate will be able to obtain an outright majority. Without a majority, a run-off election on June 16 and 17 will follow.

But what is likely to be the most salient aspect of these elections is the revitalised atmosphere of the country.

Drinking coffee, spiced with ginger and made over a fire near his farm outside Abu Simbel on the southern edge of Egypt, Gameel Abd El Kadeer, 69, was still pondering his choice.

Mr El Kadeer is a Nubian who was forced to resettle after the Aswan High Dam flooded a huge portion of land and created Lake Nasser. He is still struggling with the state over whether he owns the patch of land he was given as compensation.

"Hamdeen Sabahi is the only one who spoke about the Nubians and our cause, but I might choose Amr Moussa because he is someone with experience," he said. "We can't just choose the one who helps our individual problems. This is about Egypt as a country."

Old alliances are fraying, too. For all its organisational strength and success in the parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood is facing criticism from within its core constituency.

twitter: @bradleyhope in Cairo:"One thing is clear about today: it's the first truly contested competition for the presidcy. Except for sham 2005 election, every vote was a yes/no."

Kamal El Helbawy, 73, who resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood earlier this year after the group reneged on its promise not to run a candidate for president, said he was supporting Mr Aboul Fotouh. Mr Aboul Fotouh was himself ousted from the Muslim Brotherhood last year for disobeying orders not to run for the presidency.

"The Muslim Brotherhood is dominated by conservatives now," said Mr El Helbawy. "They have lost track. I don't believe they are the ones to lead the country now."

Some of the activists who took part in the original uprising are boycotting the election. Moataza Salah Abd El Sabour, an actress who has worked as a paramedic at the protests since the first demonstration in Tahrir Square, said she will not vote because "we cannot have a fair election while the military is still in power".

"Nothing good will come out of this," she said. "We cannot trust the military to do this correctly. This is an institution that tortures and kills people in the streets."

Since the 1952 Free Officers revolution that ended the monarchy and British occupation, Egypt has been led by four military men and one civilian, who held his post for just eight days after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981.

Until 2005, every presidential election was a referendum on the leader in power, with the results always the same: an overwhelming yes to the status quo. The first multiparty election in 2005 was considered a sham brought about only to bolster the facade of democratic politics in Egypt. Mr Mubarak won 88.6 per cent of the votes in an election marred by allegations of ballot box tampering and intimidation of voters by the dominant National Democratic Party.

It took an 18-day uprising in January last year, where more than 800 people were killed during clashes with security forces, to end Mr Mubarak's 30-year rule and a planned succession by his son, Gamal. Egyptians of all stripes poured into the streets, risking their lives to demand change.

The last 16 months have been rocky, with protesters often clashing with the police and military out of fear that the revolution was being hijacked by the old guard. But the period also saw the first fair parliamentary elections, in which Islamists won nearly 70 per cent of the seats.


twitterFollow The National on @TheNationalUAE & Bradley Hope on @bradleyhope