CAIRO – For Egyptians used to infrequent and fixed elections, the past 14 months have been a rollicking ride on a democracy roller-coaster: They have voted for a constitutional referendum, went back to the polls for a three-stage parliamentary poll and in two weeks vote for president.
By most accounts the voting has been the freest and fairest the country has ever known, but for ordinary Egyptians election fatigue is setting in just as the candidates for the country’s most powerful post are engaged in intense campaigning.
“Didn’t we just vote for parliament?” asks one shopkeeper in Cairo, who requested to not publish his name. “I think countries shouldn’t have elections so close to one another. Right now, we have too many other things to worry about than a president.”
Ardent campaigning is under way and the discourse on-line from activists and pundits in the country is often virulent. On Thursday, the top two candidates – Amr Moussa, Egypt's former foreign minister and the former head of the Arab League, and Islamic moderate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh – will square off in the country's first-ever televised presidential debate.
But most of Egypt seems to be anxious for an end to an election cycle that began in March 2011 and crested with multiple parliamentary votes over last November, December and January.
Even the May 23-24 elections might not signal the end: If no candidate wins a majority, it will be back to the voting booths for Egyptians on June 16-17 for a run-off vote.
Many feel that even though the elections have created the foundation for a new, democratic constitution and a parliament dominated by Islamists – an unthinkable result before the revolution that topped president Hosni Mubarak – the political upheavals have done almost nothing to change their daily lives. They are skeptical about their nascent democracy’s ability to bring an end to Egypt’s political turmoil.
“We all believe in democracy and the future of Egypt. But right now it’s just hard to see how our voting will make a difference. My friends and family will vote, and we will help the revolution, but there really is too much politics and not much change in Egypt,” says Sameh Saleh, a cafe owner in Cairo’s Garden City area.
He says he is voting for the moderate Islamist Aboul Fotouh. “We need change and we need to talk and get things done. I think he can do that,” he explains.
But Aboul Fotouh’s candidacy has been met with skepticism on-line and in the streets, with many conservative Islamists arguing that he is not doing enough to promote religion. Others argue he lacks the backbone to battle the military regime currently in power.
The fatigue has been exacerbated by confusion and chaos.
Egypt’s elections commission barred the candidacies of many of the front runners because they were disqualified under a complicated system of rules. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Kheirat Al-Shater was out because he had served time in prison, the Salafists’ Hazem Abu Ismail was ejected because his mother holds a US passport and Omar Suleiman was removed because of his association with the Mubarak regime.
Seven B-list candidates, including one-time opposition leader Ayman Nour, were also barred from the race.
More upheavals came on Wednesday after a low-level provincial administrative court ruled in favor of a lawsuit calling for the presidential vote to be suspended, although legal experts said the order would probably be reversed, because the suit was based on a technicality.
With the constituent assembly writing Egypt’s new constitution only starting to get down to business, the powers of Egypt’s next president, whoever he is, have yet to be defined. The constitution-writing process itself has been discredited in the eyes of many because Islamists are in control of the process.
Meanwhile, on the streets disorder and violence have become the norm, some of it fomented by the interim military rulers. Feeling sidelined, the April 6th movement, the young, secular and liberal youth that launched Egypt’s revolution, has taken to the streets to press their case through protests. It distrusts both the interim military for fear it will not cede power to the democratic government in the making and the Islamists out of concern they will use their election victories to impose religious strictures.
Earlier this month, at least 20 people were killed when vigilantes believed backed by the army ambushed demonstrators protesting the disqualification of so many presidential candidate outside the Defense Ministry headquarters.
Political analyst Hossam Said, who writes regularly for local media, argues that Aboul Fotouh encapsulates the ongoing battle between activists, the average Egyptian and the military.
“What we are witnessing is a combination of too much politics, protests and the military. People I have spoken with regularly say that they are fed up with how the military and the activists are fighting, and believe the middle man, in this case Aboul Fotouh, has been pushed away,” Said explains.
Polls provide some evidence of the fatigue. One released by the Pew Research Center in New York this week found that while Egyptians are more satisfied with the way things are going in the country than under Mubarak, the proportion who say they believe the country is headed in the right direction is falling.
The latest survey, taken in March and April, fond that 53% were satisfied, down from 65% in 2011. Less than half of Egyptians say things have improved in the country since Mubarak was forced from office.
“The people are frustrated and drained in many ways. They believe that the military and the protesters are not allowing democracy to take hold in the country, even after a referendum last year and then parliamentary elections. They might not have lost hope in democracy, but it could get that way,” says Said.
A gap between the protestors and the great mass of Egyptians has developed since the early, heady of the giant rallies at Tahrir Square. Parliamentary elections and opinion polls have shown that the great majority of Egyptians want a greater role for Islam in Egypt and consider the economy, law and order, and a “fair” judiciary among their top priorities. The Pew Survey found only 24% are concerned about a “civilian-controlled” military, a major concern of the protestors.
“We voted and yet these protesters continue to demand they get what they want and are not letting the people have a say,” continued the Cairo shopkeeper, who asked that he not be named.
Some activists are beginning to understand where they went wrong in the months following Mubarak’s abdication in February 2011, when the military came to power. One of these activists is Salem Hassan, who says that even though he participates in all major protests he believes the movement must look at alternative ways of changing the future of Egypt.
“I talk to so many people on a daily basis who tell me they are fed up with the activists and the protests, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, yet we all still continue the same tactics. We don’t take the ideas of the revolution to the people and start to get people to vote,” he argues.
For him, and many Egyptians, the future of Egypt depends on participation and democratic acceptance.
“We are all frustrated, that is obvious, so we have to make sure we all, not just the Brotherhood and the liberals, but all Egyptians, don’t become angry at the system of voting,” he says. “We, as activists, can do a lot to help people understand our goals and why what we say is important.”