Egypt’s election: It’s all up for grabs

Analysis: Just days before presidential balloting is set to begin, a clear front-runner has yet to emerge.

Election rallies (photo credit: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)
Election rallies
(photo credit: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)
With Egypt’s presidential elections just two days away, the only certainty is surprise.
The crop of viable candidates is down to a handful, but how to identify a favorite is anyone’s guess.
The latest poll from the state-run Al-Ahram Center, released Sunday, found ex-foreign minister Amr Moussa leading the pack with 31 percent, down 10% from a week ago. Ex-prime minister Ahmed Shafiq remained in second place at 23%, while the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi jumped into third, barely edging his Islamist rival Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh with roughly 15% apiece.
By contrast, the independent newspaper Al-Masry al-Youm found last week that a plurality of Egyptians remain undecided, with the rest putting Shafiq just ahead of Moussa.
Still a different picture emerges from the initial results of absentee ballots.
Results from 15 embassies and consulates worldwide place Abol Fotouh, a former Brotherhood leader, on top with nearly 12,000 votes. Hamdeen Sabahy, a leftist nationalist in the mold of former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, came in a surprise second with some 8,000 votes, with Moussa just behind and Mursi and Shafiq bringing up the rear.
Each set of results should be viewed with a critical eye: the first because the survey was state-run, the second because Egypt is an exceedingly difficult place in which to poll.
Surveys there are notoriously unreliable, due to the country’s immense size and population and because Egyptians retain a built-in reluctance to reveal honest opinions to anyone appearing to wield authority.
As for the initial voting figures, they don’t include some of the largest expatriate communities, like Saudi Arabia, where results are expected Thursday at the earliest. The kingdom has the world’s largest Egyptian expat population at 1.5 million, followed by Kuwait (where the Islamists Abol Fotouh and Mursi came out on top) and the United Arab Emirates (where Egyptians opted for the nationalists Sabahi and Moussa).
Presidential balloting will take place Wednesday and Thursday, with a run-off election between the two leading vote-getters next month.
Many Egypt-watchers greeted Shafiq’s high polling numbers with surprise. Islamists and youth revolutionaries alike have derided the former premier as a “remnant” of the old Hosni Mubarak regime, and Shafiq lacks the anti- American and anti-Israel credentials his rival Moussa accumulated over decades as a minister and Arab League chief.
Still, in recent weeks, Shafiq has managed to win important backers as a symbol of the relative stability of the Mubarak era.
“I think he may be the army’s candidate, and that of members of Mubarak’s party,” Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, told The Jerusalem Post.
“That’s no joke – we’re talking about two or three million people – in government offices, in the governorates and municipalities,” Mazel said. “Also, the Copts have apparently thrown their weight behind him – that’s another 10 million. It looks like he’s got a real chance.”
But just as Shafiq appears to have the wind at his back, so do Mursi and Abol Fotouh.
On Thursday, the Brotherhood organized a 760-kilometer- long chain of Mursi supporters across the country in what the group billed as the longest human chain ever, and over the weekend, two major Salafi groups held thousands- strong rallies for Abol Fotouh.
One major wild card is the Salafis, ultra-hard-line Islamists who took a quarter of the seats in parliamentary elections earlier this year (the Brotherhood took another half). The national election board last month disqualified the Salafis’ main presidential candidate, and the Brotherhood and Abol Fotouh are now scrambling for every last Salafi vote. Mursi is the Brotherhood’s second-choice candidate after its original contender Khairat Shater, who was disqualified over a legal conviction. Critics say Mursi lacks Shater’s charisma, but the backing of the group’s highly disciplined nationwide network makes him a formidable candidate with ever-growing clout.
As for Abol Fotouh, his big-tent support base extends far beyond Islamists to influential leftist and relatively liberal groups, and even some Coptic Christians. The candidate’s economics adviser is Samer Atallah, a Christian economist educated at Berkeley and McGill, and he has also won the backing of Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who symbolized the tech-savvy youth who toppled Mubarak in a popular revolt last year. In all, some 100,000 people are registered as volunteers for the 60-year-old’s campaign.
Three candidates – Shafiq, Mursi and Abol Fotouh – are said to be riding waves of support, while Moussa still leads in official polling. But voting is a zero-sum game: A vote cast for one candidate always comes at the expense of another. In a country where polling is of limited utility, so, too, are predictions. Only after the election results are in will the world know who will hold the principal position in the Arab world’s most pivotal state.