Initial results from Egypt’s presidential election are not expected before Saturday, but observers are already hazarding guesses over who might emerge to lead the most populous Arab state through its rocky transition to democracy.
Voting ended Thursday, with a run-off election between the two top vote-getters scheduled in three weeks.
The four front-runners include two Islamists (the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi and ex- Brotherhood official Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh) and two secular candidates from the ousted Hosni Mubarak regime (former foreign minister Amr Moussa and ex-premier Ahmed Shafiq). Some Egypt-watchers expect the run-off to pit a single contender from the former camp with one from the latter.
“The two candidates who make it to the run-off will likely have very different agendas from one another,” said Prof. Yoram Meital, the chair of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University.
“One – either Mursi or Abol Fotouh – will talk about implementing Islamic law and taking much harder positions against Israel and America.
The other will have a more civilian agenda that calls for gradual, rather than drastic change.”
Meital noted that three of the presidential front-runners – Mursi, Abol Fotouh and Moussa – have called for Cairo to pursue closer ties with long-shunned regional players like Iran and the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip. And while Moussa was hardly a friend of Israel in his years as foreign minister and later Arab League chief, the sentiment now prevalent in Jerusalem can be summed up by the acronym ABI: Anyone But Islamists.
“The basic ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood is anti- Semitic, even before Israel was founded,” said Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt. “When Israel was founded in 1948, it started to become anti-Israel and sent a brigade along with Egyptian troops in a failed attempt to conquer Jerusalem.”
“Even if they don’t immediately violate the peace process – they have other worries like the economy, maintaining ties with the US – they will ultimately seek to implement Islamic law and try to harm Israel,” Mazel said.
“They will also try to come to the aid of Hamas, and will turn a blind eye to smuggling to Gaza from Sudan. These are serious threats to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.”
Most analysts agreed Shafiq, a former air force chief, is the keenest of the four front-runners to continue Mubarak’s policy of alliance with the United States and non-confrontation with Israel.
“Shafiq is more pro-peace than any other person now campaigning, and less ambiguous than even Moussa in his dislike for the Islamists who dominate parliament,” said Raymond Stock, an American translator and academic who lived in Egypt for two decades.
“Overall, Shafiq seems decent, intelligent, and not given to excess – though only time could tell, of course, how sensitive he would be to civil liberties,” said Stock, who has translated several books by Naguib Mahfouz and is writing a biography of the acclaimed Egyptian novelist. “He appears to be not only the ‘best for the Jews,’ but even more for all Egyptians too – for peace, moderation, and an end to the rampant chaos are in everyone’s interests.”
Stock said the next best choice for both Egypt and Israel would be Amr Moussa.
“Moussa is a dyed-in-thewool secularist, a natural pragmatist, and a seasoned diplomat and politician,” he said.
“His greatest drawback, however, is that very political skill, which might lead him to compromise too often with the Islamists in parliament, to whom he is committed to work with closely, given their majority.
They are not his natural allies, but he has nowhere else to go.”
One unknown quantity is the Salafis, hard-line Islamists who were the biggest surprise in parliamentary elections held earlier this year. Salafi groups – harassed and barred from organizing under Mubarak – took a quarter of all parliamentary seats, while the once-banned Brotherhood took another half. The main Salafi presidential candidate has been prevented from running (his mother had US citizenship, in contravention of election rules), and Mursi and Abol Fotouh are now vying for Salafi backing.
“The Salafis have largely backed the so-called ‘moderate’ Islamist alternative, Abol Futouh, who has sounded less and less liberal and more and more like the old Islamist he is as the vote drew near,” Stock said.
“There is little experience of democracy in Egypt, and even less with the centrist politics that arise in older democracies. This factor, and the participation of so many candidates, makes it all the harder to predict the results.”