Egypt presidential race boils down to 3 candidates (AP) Associated Press) By HAMZA HENDAWI, CAIRO, EGYPT 04/26/12 4:58 pm ET)
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CAIRO – Egypt´s presidential race is boiling down to a contest
between Hosni Mubarak´s former foreign minister and two Islamists
with strong bases of support after the election commission on
Thursday released the final list of 13 candidates.
None of the front-runners represents the largely liberal and secular
youth who drove the uprising that toppled Mubarak´s autocratic regime
14 months ago, dimming their hopes that the winner will bring
dramatic democratic change in the country.
Instead, what has emerged as the key question in next month´s vote to
choose the first president after nearly 30 years of rule by Mubarak
is whether the country of 85 million takes a turn toward religious
rule or remains a mainly secular state.
Divisions among supporters of each camp have left the race highly
unpredictable. Islamists showed their electoral power in
parliamentary elections late last year in which the Muslim
Brotherhood and members of the ultraconservative Salafi movement won
around 70 percent of the legislature´s seats. But in the presidential
race, their backers are split between the Brotherhood´s candidate,
Mohammed Morsi, and a more moderate Islamist, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh.
Former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa has emerged as the strongest
secular alternative. Moussa has distanced himself from the old regime
and gained acceptance from some liberal and secular factions, but he
remains mistrusted by some who see him as too close to his former
boss, Mubarak. Abolfotoh, who broke from the Muslim Brotherhood last
year, appeals not only to Islamists but also some liberals who find
Also hanging over the race is the military, which has ruled since
Mubarak´s fall on Feb. 11, 2011. It has promised to hand over power
to the election´s winner but many believe it is trying to carve out a
permanent role for itself in politics.
The liberal youth groups credited with Mubarak´s stunning ouster are
divided and weakened, victimized by a systematic campaign to
discredit them by the generals, the Islamists and a powerful state
and private propaganda machine that has sided with the military
against everyone else. The closest thing to their own candidate is
Khaled Ali, a rights lawyer who is little known to the public and
likely to end up among the ranks of the also-rans.
A potentially stormy campaign for the vote, scheduled for May 23-24,
now officially begins after weeks of confusion and dramatic lurches
in Egypt´s politics.
The Brotherhood, which already holds nearly half the seats in
parliament, reversed an earlier promise not to enter the race and
fielded a candidate. Mubarak´s former spy chief Omar Suleiman — seen
by many as too tainted to even consider running — also threw his hat
in the ring at the last minute. Then the military-appointed election
commission dropped a bombshell earlier this month by disqualifying 10
would-be candidates, including three who were seen as the most
powerful: the Brotherhood´s deputy leader Khairat el-Shater,
Suleiman, and a lawyer-turned-Islamic preacher, Hazem Abu Ismail, who
was popular among Salafis. The disqualifications raised court cases
and led to street protests.
The commission also disqualified Mubarak´s last prime minister, Ahmed
Shafiq, after parliament passed a law banning many former regime
figures from running. Then within 24 hours, the panel reversed itself
on Wednesday and allowed him to run after referring the law to the
constitutional court. Shafiq, a longtime friend of Mubarak, is not
viewed as among the front-runners.
The disqualifications had the heaviest impact on the Islamists.
Morsi was the Brotherhood´s second choice, winning him the derogatory
nickname of "the spare" among critics in the media. While he can
count on support from the Brotherhood´s core members and benefits
from the group´s well organized campaign machine, he is considered
less charismatic than el-Shater.
Abu Ismail´s exit from the race has left Salafis divided between
Morsi and Abolfotoh — and some could even turn to non-Islamist
Efforts are on the unify the ranks. On Wednesday, Morsi won the
endorsement of a powerful panel of mostly ultraconservative clerics.
Another influential body of Salafi clerics is also pondering whether
to throw its weight behind him. The second endorsement would be a
powerful boost to Morsi, but it doesn´t necessarily unify the vote
"Nothing can be taken for granted," said Mohammed Habib, a reform-
minded former senior member of the Brotherhood.
"There will be surprises and the direction of the Islamist vote
cannot be guaranteed even if heavyweight and influential clerics back
a certain candidate."
Many Salafis mistrust the Brotherhood, seeing it as too domineering.
Some also worry that the Brotherhood could clash with the military.
"The Islamist vote is split and that, unfortunately, could benefit
Amr Moussa," Kamal el-Helbawy, a one-time heavyweight Brotherhood
leader, told Al-Jazeera television Thursday.
Moussa is also boosted by support from Egyptians who worry that the
presidency would give too much power to Islamists who already have a
grip on parliament. A Brotherhood president could feel empowered
enough to introduce changes that overturn the remaining vestiges of
secularism in a society that has steadily moved toward the religious
right over the past 40 years.
Already, conservatives have seemed bolder. Parliament´s education
committee has voted to overturn a ban on female university students
taking exams while wearing the niqab, a radical version of Islamic
dress that covers the entire face and body except for a narrow slit
of the eyes. The ban was designed as a precaution against possible
fraud since the identity of the student could not be ascertained.
Some provincial universities have recently enforced a strict
segregation of the sexes in classrooms and extracurricular activities
like out-of-town trips. Pupils in some middle and high schools run by
Islamists shout religious chants during the routine morning assembly.
Threats by militants to disrupt pop concerts on some university
campuses have led to their cancellation.
Moussa has also been in the public eye for more than two decades,
first as Mubarak´s foreign minister from 1991 to 2001, then as head
of the Arab League until just after Mubarak´s fall. He was popular as
a foreign minister, and name recognition alone is a powerful tool in
a country where illiteracy is high, said Michael Hanna, an Egypt
expert from the New York-based Century Foundation.
"The picture provided by the results of the parliamentary elections
is incomplete and cannot be applied to the presidential election,"
Hanna said, referring to the Islamists´ sweep in the voting late last
If none of the 13 candidates wins more than 50 per cent of initial
the presidential election, a runoff will be held June 16-17 between
the two candidates who receive the most votes in the first round. A
winner will be declared on June 21. (© 2012 The Associated Press
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