Egyptians went to the polls this week to vote in the first presidential election since the revolution last year. If all goes according to plan, the winner will be the first freely elected president in Egypt’s history, and the standard bearer for a new era of politics in the Middle East.
In short, this is a big deal!
We won’t know the official results for a few more days, and there will likely be a runoff election between the top two candidates.
In the meantime, we asked resident Egyptian political junkie Tarek Dawoud (seriously – just look at his Facebook feed – all that stuff in Arabic is about the elections!) to tell us about the candidates, who he’s supporting, and what this means for Egypt.
Update: Unofficial results show a likely runoff between Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, a veteran of the Mubarak regime. More here.
First off, what’s your perception of how Egyptian citizens are feeling about this big decision?
There is excitement, definitely. And apprehension as well. Things have gone wrong for so long people are having a hard time believing that it’s all going to work out.
What happened last year in the parliamentary elections has people feeling anxious. And it was the same thing with the revolution. People kept saying: “Mubarak is going to come back.”
But there is also this overwhelming sense of excitement, especially in these past few days leading up to the election. The videos of protesters being run over by security cars during the revolution; this kind of thing is starting to bubble up again among my friends. People are feeling gratitude for the revolution and for those who died.
For my father back home in Egypt this is a huge moment. There has never been a free and fair presidential election, ever.
What is it like for you to be an expatriate participating in this event? What are your own feelings about this election?
I am very, very happy, very hopeful. I tend to be more on the optimistic side. I am worried that my candidate might not win. Of course I would like him to. But whether my candidate wins or not I am happy that this is happening. I think it is amazing.
There was an option for expatriate Egyptians to vote. What was that like for Egyptians living in the Seattle area?
It was fun. It was an honor to be a part of it.
Under the Mubarak government we weren’t even allowed to vote, but this time we had two options: either to walk into the embassy or consulate or to mail a vote in. We don’t have a consulate here in Seattle, so we voted by mail.
I was part of an effort to guide people in voting. We set up little stations at mosques and at Microsoft. I went to Northgate because there are a lot of Arabs and Muslims there. We gave people information about how to vote. We didn’t tell them what to vote and we didn’t take their ballots. We just wanted to encourage people to do it.
There are 13 candidates up for election. Which of the candidates do you think are the major players and what do they represent to you?
There are five top candidates:
Mohamed Morsi is a Muslim Brotherhood candidate who I expect will get the highest number of votes.
He is not an intellectual leader and was never recognized as a leader within the Brotherhood itself. He was the backup candidate, which is frustrating to me.
The Brotherhood actually appointed a guy called Khairat al-Shater but he was disqualified because he was in jail during Mubarak’s time and never got clearance to reinstate his political rights.
I think Morsi is inept, but I still think he is going to get the highest votes in the primary because of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ability to mobilize people. He will probably get 35% of the vote, which will be enough to get him to runoffs.
The next is a guy called Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh. He is more of a liberal Islamist candidate, more of a centrist.
He is an ex-Brotherhood guy but is also liberal, meaning that he is very much for well-established civil rights.
He doesn’t have a machine behind him like the Brotherhood or the candidates of the old regime, but he has the approval of a lot of young people from the revolution.
I am rooting for him. I think he is a very decent guy, a very upstanding guy and a straight talker.
I really like his vision. He is very positive, very inclusive. He has people from the left and the right with him. He tried to seek the endorsement of Copts, the endorsement of liberal thinkers and of Islamic scholars.
I think that’s the spirit we need now, especially for the next four years when we are writing the constitution.
The third is Amr Moussa, a former Foreign minister. He is a very sharp guy. Of the five he obviously has the most foreign diplomacy experience. His main problem is that he is counted as part of the old regime. He has a lot of support from former regime allies. A lot of businessmen and people who were benefiting under Mubarak are supporting him.
Ahmed Shafiq is a former general in the air force and member of the Mubarak cabinet. He is also perceived by many people as a candidate that will resurrect the old again.
Shafiq is considered to be a part of the old regime.
You wonder why anyone would vote for him? It’s because there is a sizable portion of the population, 15-20% in my estimate, who are longing for the old days. They feel that there has been too much instability. Some of them psychologically just believe that Egyptians are not ready for democracy and we need a strong man and army guy to whip us into shape. He and Moussa are competing for the same pool of people who long for a stable Egypt resembling Mubarak’s time.
Luckily any vote that Shafiq takes is just taking from that pool and doesn’t harm my candidate.
The fifth is socialist, leftist, pan-Arab candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi.
Like the guy (Aboul Fotouh) I am supporting, Sabahi is a long time advocate and activist. He was very famous for standing up to [Anwar] Sadat back when he was president. Both Fotouh and Sabahi have a lot of sympathy from young voters who think of them as old-time rebels who are still carrying the torch. Sabahi gets the votes of those young revolutionary voters who are afraid of Aboul Fotouh because of his Islamist background.
What candidate do you think most represents the values that drove the revolution of last year?
That would be Aboul Fotouh and Sabahi. They were both in Tahrir Square. Aboul Fatouh was there on January 25th at the first demonstration that launched the whole revolution.
They are both revolutionary figures, they are both very principled. Neither has ever been part of the regime and they have never been known to be corrupt or take money or anything like that. Both have very humble beginnings and have populist appeal.
What are some of the biggest issues that are driving voters. Have the goals changed since the revolution?
The overall objectives haven’t changed but the question of security has been added. For the revolution, people were chanting in the streets for a decent living, freedom and justice. Those are still basically the three main problems for anybody who is going to take on leading Egypt. They are going to have to build a better healthcare system, a better education system, create jobs, improve the economy and address police brutality.
But the biggest issue driving voters is the economy.
Egypt wasn’t in a good economic position before the revolution. There was an official 9% unemployment rate and an unofficial 15% unemployment rate. Tourism has decreased along with foreign investment and people want somebody who can create projects, who can make the country get up on its feet again.
But the issue of security is new. During the revolution Mubarak sent the army to the streets and the Minister of the Interior told the police to withdraw. Since then the police have not come back in force on the street. There has been a rise in lawlessness overall, or at least a perceived lawlessness. Nobody can actually measure it, but people feel less safe. There are more stories of people being hijacked on the highway. Things like that are becoming more common.
The third [issue] is going to be the writing of the constitution. That is actually the biggest problem in my opinion.
Can you explain to me how the procedures for writing the constitution will go?
The process was decided under a referendum last March, and it has been making very slow progress. We decided that we would elect parliament first, the president second, and then while the president was being elected, the parliament would form a constitutional assembly of 100 people who would write the constitution. Once they had consensus among them, they would put it to the people to vote.
But parliament elections were delayed so the parliament just got in power about four months ago. Then the Muslim Brotherhood and the the ultra-conservative Salafists got greedy and passed a bunch of regulations about how to form the new constitutional assembly.
They made the assembly dominated only by people that they are okay with, excluding any outspoken liberal advocates. It was pretty shady and they pressed on despite the fact that of the 100 people in their appointed assembly, 40 or so resigned in protest.
Their process showed no respect for consensus whatsoever. Fortunately, a lawyer sued them for what they were doing and won.
Now they are trying to form a more consensus-based constitutional assembly. But now, there won’t be a constitution ready by the time a president is elected so that the people can immediately define his powers. Instead, the president is going to be there without a constitution. He will only have a small constitutional declaration that gives him significant powers. It’s a carry-over similar to what Mubarak had. It’s a concern.
I have heard reference to the high illiteracy rate in Egypt. How does the parliament plan to include those populations in the constitutional process?
The illiteracy issue is interesting and is brought up in many contexts. There is 30-40% illiteracy rate in Egypt overall, although it is higher for women than it is for men.
The people on the right, the Islamists, say the revolution is predominantly illiterate. They worry that they are going to be exploited by pro-Mubarak elements to vote against the Islamist candidates.
On the flip side, the liberals say: “Oh no, these poor ignorant folks, the Islamists will come up to them with their beards and tell them that God wants them to vote Islamist.”
Frankly, I think both sides are being elitist. I give the illiterate population a lot more credit than that.
I do think that illiteracy can cause poor decisions. However, I think that the majority of people in Egypt will be voting for what they think is right for the country. And they are not just motivated by Islamist rhetoric or bags of rice or whatever. They are actually thinking this through.
Which candidate do you think would mean the most change to Egypt?
I think all of them have potential to change it. But Foutouh, in my opinion, will change it most positively, that’s why I like him. I think Sabahi would also lead to an overall positive direction.
I think Morsi will have the worst impact. There is a lot of good relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and Gulf countries and I think he will cater a lot to the Gulf countries rather than to the best interests of Egypt. I also think he will be a puppet for other people in the Brotherhood.
The two symbols of the former regime, Moussa and Shafiq, may try to return Egypt to Mubarak’s time. But I think that, with the spirit of revolution in the people, they would just end up with more turmoil. If either one of them tries to employ old policies people will come on the streets again.
I think any of the five will change the face of Egypt. I am just hoping for positive change.
Update: Results show Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, a veteran of the Mubarak regime, will go on to the runoff election. Does this mean Egyptians want a return to pre-revolution days?
A straightforward reading of the results is that basically 7 out of every 10 voters voted for the revolution or anti-regime candidates (Morsi, Sabahy, Abol-Fotouh). The main problem is, the regime enthusiasts rallied in the last month or so behind Shafiq (and were able to secure him 24% out if a possible 30%), whereas the revolutionary voices were too divided. You can see that if Sabahy and Abol-Fotouh combined forces they’d overtake Morsi, not just Shafiq.
A lesson for the future… I just hope we learn it. Already people are pointing fingers at each other and repeating the old adages of “our people are stupid.” I’m hoping the denial will wear off. As one activist said, ultimately, the people DID give the revolution candidates enough votes to win, but their leadership divided them.
Tarek Dawoud is a community activist in Seattle. A computer engineer graduate of Cairo University’s Computer Engineer department, Tarek came to the United States from Egypt in early 2001 to work in the software industry. He is an active volunteer in the Seattle Muslim community and is part of the Seattle Globalist Advisory Group.
This interview was edited for length.