Egyptians will head to the polls Monday and Tuesday to elect a new president for the second time in three years. The ballot comes on the heels of a tumultuous year that saw the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi after just one year in office.
Millions of Egyptians took to streets on 30 June 2013 asking for the removal of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood group from office. The army, led by then-Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, now the favoured presidential runner, intervened 3 July, deciding to oust Morsi, appoint the head of the High Constitutional Court as interim president, and devise a new political roadmap for the country.
The removal of Morsi, however, was not without a bloody price. Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters gathered in massive, defiant and fiery sit-ins in Cairo and Giza, vowing to regain what they called "the legitimacy of a freely elected president" and "eliminate the 30 June military coup which usurped power."
The army, alongside the police forces, intervened again. On 14 August 2013, the Brotherhood sit-ins were crushed by force, leaving around 600 dead and thousands injured. Hundreds of leading officials of the Brotherhood and activists allied with it have also been detained and referred to trials. Some estimate that between 17,000 and 20,000 have been put in prison since August 2013. Other Brotherhood stalwarts and sympathisers opted to flee the country, choosing Qatar, Turkey and Britain as the three main favourite destinations.
Meanwhile, a violent Islamist insurgency, led by the so-called Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM), erupted in the Sinai Peninsula. The group, widely believed to be allied with the Muslim Brotherhood and its Gaza offshoot Hamas, mounted a series of bloody attacks against army and police forces and installations in several Egyptian cities, leaving hundreds dead and several buildings demolished.
Worse, when the school season opened in September 2013, campuses of several Egyptian universities turned into a violent battleground between police forces and hundreds of pro-Brotherhood students.
Aside from a year of bloody unrest, the country also paid a heavy political price. Although most non-Islamist political forces approved removing Morsi from office, a considerable number of them voiced fierce criticism of the forced dispersal of Brotherhood sit-ins, warning that rejecting reconciliation with the group could push the country into civil war.
Mohamed ElBaradei, a high-profile ex-UN diplomat who founded the secular Constitution (Al-Dostour) Party and who was chosen by the National Salvation Front — which helped lead opposition to Morsi — to be part of the interim authority and assigned by Interim President Adly Mansour to be vice president for international affairs, resigned, arguing that "the bloody dispersal of the sit-ins violates my moral values."
A negative Western reaction to events also complicated matters. The United States, Egypt's long-time strategic ally and patron, decided to suspend $1.3 billion in annual military assistance. The Obama administration, spurred a Western media hostile to the post-Morsi interim authorities in Egypt, went further to stipulate that for US assistance to resume the military-backed government must espouse "inclusive democracy and respect human rights."
With presidential polls scheduled to be held Monday and Tuesday, and parliamentary elections also expected within the coming few months, Egypt remains bitterly divided. This is nowhere clearer than in the split of local political forces into staunchly rival camps on the eve of the presidential polls.
Traditional forces, including old-guard political parties like the liberal Al-Wafd, the leftist National Unionist Progressive Party (Tagammu) and the Arab Nasserist party, decided to rally behind El-Sisi, who stepped down in March as defence minister and army chief to stand in presidential polls. Remnants of ousted president Hosni Mubarak's defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) also joined forces, announcing their support for El-Sisi. These forces, united by a deep abhorrence of the Islamist ideology of Muslim Brotherhood, view El-Sisi as a patriotic hero and a saviour who will heal the country's deep political wounds and regain stability and security. These forces also take the West, especially the Obama administration, to task for conspiring against Egypt and other Arab world countries by helping the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions reach power, sowing the seeds of internal divisions and disrupting national armies, as has been the case in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya, in favour of Israel.
Young political parties, which came into being after former authoritarian president Mubarak was overthrown in 2011's uprising, took a different position, opting to favour of Hamdeen Sabahi, a 59-year-old leftist icon who is El-Sisi's only rival in the coming presidential polls. Political parties and revolutionary movements dominated by youth, such as the Constitution Party, the Justice Party, the Revolutionary Socialists, and the Popular Egyptian Current movement, declared their support for Sabahi.
The Tamarod (Rebel) youth movement, which masterminded the ouster of Morsi, has been politically divided. A number of its high-profile leaders who participated in drafting Egypt's new constitution decided to take Sabahi's side, while the movement's founder, Mahmoud Badr, decided to ally with El-Sisi.
Islamist forces were not an exception to political divisions. The ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party, which had allied with the Muslim Brotherhood under the Morsi regime, opted to support the post-30 June political roadmap. Chairman of the Nour Party, Younis Makhyoun, said last week that the party categorically supports El-Sisi.
Aside from the above El-Sisi and Sabahi factions, a third camp emerged. It is being led by the 6 April Youth Movement that called for boycotting this week's presidential vote. The movement described the vote as a "farce," arguing that it does not want Egypt to fall either under military rule or the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The pro-Sabahi and boycott camps have strong suspicions that El-Sisi in power will bring Egypt back to Mubarak-style authoritarian rule, manipulated by the army and police. They also expect that under El-Sisi the coming parliament will be dominated by NDP stalwarts and business tycoons.
Most political analysts agree that the above political divisions coupled with bloody confrontations with Islamist militants in Sinai and elsewhere in Egypt are just a few of the challenges facing the coming president. According to Salah Eissa, a prominent historian and chief editor of the weekly Al-Qahira newspaper, the vote might be touted by Western circles and some local media as a foregone conclusion in favour of El-Sisi, but "regardless of who will be the winner, the coming president with find himself facing serious challenges: a severely divided nation, a defiant Islamist insurgency, a highly unruly population, and a badly battered economy."
El-Sisi's campaign believes that "the conclusion of this week's presidential election is the first of these big challenges."
"The coming election," argued Eissa, "is not just a matter of a vote for El-Sisi or Sabahi, but it is mainly a matter of how many Egyptians will turn out to vote." Eissa agrees that turnout is El-Sisi's — rather than Sabahi's — "greatest concern."
Although results of the voting of Egyptian expats might have offered an early signal that El-Sisi will sweep the vote in a landslide victory, his campaign warns that the overwhelming sense of his pending victory might dissuade millions of Egyptians from participating in the vote. The last thing El-Sisi's campaign wants is a turnout lower than either of the two rounds of 2012's presidential poll.
"El-Sisi's campaign believes that the final deafening blow to Morsi's legitimacy will mainly come from a huge turnout surpassing the one registered in 2012 when Morsi narrowly won the vote," said Eissa.
According to official statistics, in the first round of the presidential poll held in May 2012 as many as 23.6 million (or 46.4 per cent) eligible voters participated in the vote. Morsi clinched around 5.7 million votes (or 24.7 per cent).
In the final round, held in June 2012, turnout increased, hitting as high as 26.4 million (or 51.8 per cent). Morsi got 13.2 million votes (or 51.7 per cent), winning the ballot by a very thin margin with his rival, Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, getting 12.3 million votes (or 48.2 per cent).
Now, said Eissa, El-Sisi's campaign is desperately seeking a turnout as high as 30 million (or at least more than 50 per cent). "They believe that this figure is necessary not only to legitimise the 30 June Revolution, but also to kill any Brotherhood hopes about restoring Morsi's legitimacy," said Eissa.
Wahid Abdel-Meguid, an analyst who is in charge of Sabahi's political platform, agrees that there must be a turnout exceeding 52 per cent "in order to have the legitimacy of the coming president based on strong foundations."
El-Sisi's campaign was encouraged by the fact that not only did El-Sisi get around 95 per cent of the vote of Egyptian expats last week, but also a record number of Egyptians participated in the ballot. In a meeting with leaders of political parties last week, El-Sisi urged Egyptians turn out in record millions to participate in the vote. El-Sisi, according to one of the participants, did not seem overly worried about voter turnout.
Mohamed Al-Said Idris, an Al-Ahram political analyst, agrees that the legitimacy of the incoming president will primarily depend on a record turnout. But, Idris argued: "As long as the polls are held in a democratic way and with foreign monitoring legitimising the process, the issue of turnout must not become a thorn in the side of the coming president."
Al-Said believes that the incoming president will be required face two daunting challenges: restoring stability, in terms of wiping out the Muslim Brotherhood, and reinvigorating the economy. "I think things have greatly improved in the last few months in terms of security conditions, but the new president has to build on this by creating a united front against the Muslim Brotherhood, and fighting the last pockets of terrorism in Sinai and elsewhere," said Idris, adding that "These are two pre-conditions for the economy to improve and for the state to move forward."
Al-Said agrees that El-Sisi is much better placed than Sabahi to get the country out of its political and economic crisis. "His long experience as a former army general, his good relations with Arab oil-rich Gulf countries, and his moderate political views all pave the way for him to tackle the country's challenges," said Al-Said.
Abdel-Meguid, Sabahi's political advisor, disagrees. "El-Sisi might be an expert on security conditions, but the fact that he is a former military man makes it difficult for him to be on good terms with revolutionary youth movements who are highly sceptical of army generals, and to build a national front necessary to move the country forward."
According to Egypt's post-30 June political roadmap, parliamentary elections must follow presidential polls with procedures to this end to begin ahead of 18 July. Two new electoral laws, including deciding to increase the number of seats of parliament from 508 to 630, have been drafted and put to a national dialogue Saturday. The two laws state that 480 seats (80 per cent) will be elected via the individual candidacy system, while the remaining 120 seats (20 per cent) will be contested by party lists. The president is authorised by the 2014 Constitution to name 30 MPs.