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The front-runners in Egypt’s presidential elections are former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, left, and the moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh.
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The first round of presidential elections is set for May 23-24. If no one wins a majority, a runoff will be held June 16-17.

Presidential Elections in Egypt

Egyptians will mark the next phase in their country’s political transition next week, when they return to the polls to vote for a president. Given Egypt’s precarious situation and the near total domination by Islamists of the new parliament, the stakes of this contest are particularly high. The winner will have to deal with an ailing economy, restore security to the Egyptian street and shape the country’s relations with the West and Israel.

Chaotic Campaign

The run-up to the presidential elections has been marred by confusion and disarray, with the list of candidates changing almost daily and civilian political leaders engaged in an ongoing struggle for power with the ruling generals. Intermittent violence has cast a further shadow over the upcoming vote.

Wary of provoking fear that it was accumulating too much power, the Muslim Brotherhood initially vowed not to field its own candidate for president. In a major reversal, the Islamist group then announced in early April that it was joining the fray. The entry of Khairat al-Shater, deputy to the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide and the group’s chief financier, upended the race, raising the possibility that the Brotherhood would gain control of all branches of Egypt’s political system.

Al-Shater’s candidacy, however, was short-lived. The presidential election commission decided on April 14 to disqualify ten candidates on various technical grounds, among them al-Shater and two other leading contenders, former Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman and the representative of the ultraconservative Salafists, Hazem Abu Ismail.

Abu Ismail’s supporters responded to the disqualification by organizing a sit-in near the Defense Ministry in Cairo. Their encampment became the site of repeated clashes with security forces and unidentified assailants, leaving at least 13 people dead and hundreds injured.

The Muslim Brotherhood swiftly turned to backup nominee Mohammed Morsi, the chairman of the group’s Freedom and Justice Party. Morsi is one of 13 candidates included in the final list of contenders released by the election commission. Other front-runners on the list include former Arab League chief and Mubarak-era Foreign Minister Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former leader of the Brotherhood who was expelled from the group and is running as a moderate Islamist.

Also on the roster is Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister to serve under deposed President Hosni Mubarak. In another sign of the disarray surrounding the upcoming elections, the commission first excluded Shafiq under a law banning top officials of Mubarak, only to reinstate his candidacy a day later.

A Two-Horse Race

As campaigning got officially under way on April 30, a poll showed the field narrowing to a two-horse race. Leading the pack with 41.1 percent support is Amr Moussa, followed by Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, with 27.3 percent. Thus, the elections seem to be shaping up as a choice between two very different visions for Egypt.

The 76-year-old Moussa, who benefits from strong name recognition, represents the secular, old elite of Egypt. On the campaign trail, he says his years of experience in politics and government are precisely what Egypt needs in this time of economic and social crisis. “I can start from minute one as president,” Moussa says.

Moussa’s experience is also his vulnerability, since critics view him as a remnant of the ousted Mubarak regime. Other Egyptians, however, fondly remember his tough line on Israel as foreign minister. As a presidential candidate, Moussa has pledged to adhere to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, but has also said it needs to be revised to allow greater Egyptian control of the Sinai Peninsula.

Aboul Fotouh, 60, has emerged as the leading Islamist candidate after securing the support of the Salafists. A physician who founded a militant Islamist student movement in the 1970s and was jailed for years under Hosni Mubarak, he is known for his charisma and calls for national unity.

Aboul Fotouh has attempted to garner the support of secular and non-Muslim Egyptians by presenting himself as a pragmatist with a pluralistic view of Islam. He has promised to protect human rights and freedoms and says he opposes imposing Islamic law on Egypt’s Christian population.

At the same time, Aboul Fotouh shares the Brotherhood’s goal of establishing a sharia-based legal system. And on foreign policy, he echoes the views of Brotherhood hardliners, describing 9/11 as a conspiracy and refusing to recognize Israel.

The two front-runners participated in a televised debate on May 10, in which they said they would review Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, a country Aboul Fotouh described as an enemy and Moussa called an adversary.

Daunting Task

The first round of elections is set for May 23-24. If no candidate wins a majority, a runoff will be held June 16-17 between the top two vote-getters.

Whoever takes the reins in July, when the ruling generals have promised to hand over power, will face a daunting task. Egypt’s economic woes, rampant lawlessness and the status of the military in the country’s new political system are all issues that require immediate attention.