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<p>Photo by David Hollier</p>

Photo by David Hollier

Islamist supporters in Tahrir Square

Voting With No Confidence In Egypt

With the much-awaited presidential elections looming, Egypt’s democratic transition seems to be descending into farce — and there’s no stability in sight.


The windows of Belady, a café inspired by the 'utopian' days of the Egyptian revolution, look directly onto Tahrir Square. Last Friday, April 13, four young Egyptian activists sat together on its top floor, gazing grimly out, as if they were under siege.

Outside, about 100,000 Islamists were crowded into the square, punching their fists in the air, thundering Allahu Akbar! (God is Great). A row of speakers on a stage in front railed against "remnants" of the regime, and vowed to defend Egypt's "unfinished" revolution.

“We are the minority,” muttered one activist, shaking her head.

"We are the minority," muttered one activist, shaking her head.

In the streets below, Egyptians kissed posters of the hugely popular Hazem Abu Ismail, the hardline Salafi presidential candidate, and coveted the square's hottest item, the Abu Ismail mask. Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Khairat al-Shater, displayed their allegiance more demurely, with necktags and hats. Festooned around the square were images of a third candidate — Egypt's former intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman — painted over garishly with Stars of David, suggesting Suleiman was a tool of the Israeli state. His supporters were not in the Square, but Suleiman has attracted surprisingly broad support from Egyptians tired of the post-revolutionary instability who want a strongman to take back control of the country.

Within 36 hours these three men, frontrunners in Egypt's upcoming presidential elections, weren't even in the race.

Ismail, the Salafi cleric known for his fiery, xenophobic sermons (including this one, where he lets his followers in on what 'Pepsi' stands for), was disqualified because his deceased mother had an American passport; the Brotherhood's Shater for a past criminal conviction; and Suleiman for failing to submit the necessary endorsements.

As is the case with virtually any decision made in Egypt nowadays, fingers have been pointed at Egypt's deep state. Khairat al-Shater, the Brotherhood's most powerful and well-known member, has been holding emotional press conferences, bellowing that his disqualification is a political decision that proves the Mubarak regime still controls the country. Salafi cleric Hazem Abu Ismail says he will fight the decision "until righteousness prevails", and vowed to teach members of the elections commission who disqualified him "a lesson they will never forget". His followers, who believe his mother's American identity papers are forged, have vowed to defend his honour, but, for now at least, their sit-in outside the commission looks more like the dregs of an Occupy protest than the makings of a fearsome rebellion. But that may change.

Certainly, there's good reason for suspicion: The elections commission is chaired by judges who were hand-picked by the former President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak.

Manipulated or not, these disqualifications are considered by many in Egypt's secular, pro-revolution community to be a rare win. The three leading candidates — two hardline Islamists and one widely-reviled figure from the old regime — were also the most divisive. A win for any of them may have further destabilised the country.

<p>Photo by Jess Hill</p>

Photo by Jess Hill

Tantawi/Mubarak - same story?

So who's leading the race now?

There are two new frontrunners: the former Egyptian foreign minister, Amr Moussa, and former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who, despite his long-term membership in the Brotherhood, is considered to be a moderate and popular with secular voters.

Then there's the Muslim Brotherhood's "back-up candidate", Mohammed Mursi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood's political group, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). In Mursi, the Brotherhood have found Egypt's answer to the US Republican candidate Mitt Romney: a man who can barely muster enthusiasm within his own party, let alone among the Egyptian population. "I believe he's a very good team worker, and a very good leader," Mohammad Soudan, a spokesman for the Brotherhood, told the Financial Times. "But maybe he's not as charismatic as Shater."

But does it matter if Mursi is charismatic or not? The FJP won some half the votes in the parliamentary elections a few months ago. Shouldn't an official endorsement from the Brotherhood be enough to sway the public?

In Mursi, the Brotherhood have found Egypt’s answer to the US Republican candidate Mitt Romney: a man that can barely muster enthusiasm within his own party, let alone the Egyptian population.

Opinions have changed since the parliamentary elections, says Yasmine Moataz Ahmed, a PhD candidate with Cambridge University. Ahmed just spent more than six months living with villagers in the rural area of Fayoum, 90 kilometres from Cairo. As in so many other villages across Egypt, the villagers she was living with voted for a Muslim Brotherhood member to represent them in parliament.

Now, however, many of them already are disappointed. "They had many things they wanted their parliament member to discuss in the parliament — issues relating to agriculture, for example — but he didn't do any of this," she says. In fact, when farmers from the village came to the Parliament to protest against a Mubarak-era agrarian policy, their MP literally turned his back on them. "Many of my research participants are now critical of the Muslim Brotherhood, and they want to vote for someone else who can bring them their rights."

A recent survey published by the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies backs up Yasmine Moataz Ahmed's anecdotal evidence about the Brotherhood's decline: 45 per cent of people who voted for the Brotherhood in parliamentary elections won't vote for it again in a new election. The Brotherhood's decision to renege on its promise not to field a presidential candidate factored highly in voters' disaffection with them. Exact poll numbers are notoriously hard to get in Egypt, but this surprisingly high number points to a trend many others are observing.

Namira Negm, a visiting professor in international law at the American University of Cairo, on sabbatical from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also says the failure of Brotherhood members to address Egypt's critical issues in parliament is turning urban Brotherhood voters off the party.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t want members of the parliament who can barely read and write to be part of the constitution.”

"You have a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in parliament, and she — it's a she — is speaking out against the law dealing with sexual harassment, because she doesn't think it's proper," says Negm. "Then they (the parliament) are dedicating all this time to discussing a ban on pornography on the Internet. Who cares about this? If they are in the parliament and putting this as a priority — forgetting there are many people out there who cannot find jobs, they cannot find food, they cannot even find gas for their cars — then there is something wrong here.

"Many people are saying okay, we are religious, we voted for them," says Negm, "but after what we see, I doubt I would vote for them again. They think, okay, what is the difference between the NDP (National Democratic Party, the former ruling party) and the Brotherhood? It's the same. We're not feeling that we are part of the process. The problems are increasing, not decreasing."

Their problems are not just increasing — they're threatening to derail the entire democratic transition. The constitutional assembly tasked with rewriting Egypt's constitution has, ironically, been ruled unconstitutional, after Islamists in the parliament stacked the 100-member panel with their own supporters. On the weekend, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and de facto ruler of Egypt, urged political leaders to finish the new constitution by June 30 — the day the army has promised to hand over power to civilian rule.

Former presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei, who tends to do much of his public communication these days via Twitter, tweeted, "Now the military council wants the revolution's constitution written in one month. Don't belittle the importance of the constitution. Egypt deserves better than this."

But Namira Negm disagrees. "The problem is not the duration. We can borrow from the 1952 constitution, which was so far the best constitution drafted in the history of Egypt. But we need people who are qualified enough to look into the problems, and who can try to draw a vision for this country for the coming 20 years," says Negm.

"I want people from every part of life — I want economists, I want human rights specialists, I want people who have a vision in every problem. I'm sorry, but I don't want members of the parliament who can barely read and write to be part of the constitution," she says, alluding to the 50 per cent quota of parliamentary seats that are allocated to workers and farmers.

But there's little indication of how this impasse will end, and the Egyptian street continues to boil. At the height of Cairo's peak hour on Thursday night, a group calling itself The Second Revolution of Rage blocked one of the city's main bridges over the Nile, calling for an end to military rule. A well-known Egyptian activist who tweets under the handle @Egyptocracy, wrote, "Big applause to so-called 'revolutionaries' for alienating what is left of public sympathy."

On Friday, April 20, Egypt's flagging revolutionaries will return to Tahrir Square. But they won't have it to themselves — Egypt's Islamist groups have declared their intention to protest, too, against the disqualification of their presidential candidates and the ruling generals they say are "hijacking" the revolution.

"I am very fearful about Friday [April 20]," Khaled Fahmy, a history professor at the American University in Cairo, told The National on Wednesday. "I fear it may prove to be more tense than any Friday demonstrations before. With these developments and new crises, I don't know how long society can maintain its stability."

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