Quick Guide: The lowdown on Egypt's presidential frontrunners

Bassem Sabry, Sunday 20 May 2012

With days to go before Egypt goes to the polls in the country's first credible multi-candidate presidential elections, Bassem Sabry gives a rundown on what people in the street say for and against the main candidates

A man shows his ink stained finger after casting his vote at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Cairo November 28, 2011 (Photo: Reuters)

Less than one week remains before Egyptians take to the polls in their first ever — hopefully — free and fair presidential elections. Twelve remaining candidates have been battling it out for the votes of their fellow countrymen, with polls indicating that five candidates have the greatest pull on the votes, with two more genuinely influencing the national debate despite their lack of voter appeal.

Throughout this run up period, there have been countless “meet the candidate” televised sessions wherein one or more journalists or TV hosts grill their selected candidate (or a spokesperson) over his background and the questions of the hour. In addition, there has been an avalanche of newspaper reports, blog entries, social media coverage and conversations, public meetings with the candidates, open debates between voters and public figures regarding the vote, and so much more.

Most importantly, and momentously, there has been historic televised debate between rivals. For the first time ever in Egypt, and almost in the region, two front runners embarked on an epic three hour debate that has sent shockwaves throughout the country, the region and even the world. Whereas Mauritania staged the first ever such debate in the region in 2007, Egypt’s debate uniquely came amid the background of the Arab Spring and the promise of a true wave for human rights and democracy in the region. It presented a true and often heated contest between candidates over platforms and ideas, unlike Mauritania’s much calmer, more consensual debate.

 Popular arguments for and against each candidate 


As the national discussion continued to evolve over the past few weeks, the public remains largely undecided on their choice for president, yet “popular” arguments for and against each candidates have taken a more concrete form.

Here is a quick guide to what supporters of each candidate argue are the main reasons to vote for a given runner, along with what detractors argue are the main reasons for not voting for them.

This guide aims to present “the people’s arguments,” using “their own language,” and also to present the viewpoints of different Egyptian voter groups. The arguments presented are no way endorsed as fact. The following is but a summary of the public debate and does not represent the views of the writer or publisher.


Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh

Medical doctor, former hardline Islamist-turned-moderate/progressive, member of the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau between 1987 and 2009 when he was pushed out. Had to leave the Muslim Brotherhood in 2011 to run for the presidency, after the revolution.


Why people say you should vote for him

- Has the best chance of communicating progressive ideas in a society torn between liberal and conservative trends.

- Even when he was officially a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, he was significantly more progressive and liberal in his rhetoric and positions, and often called for the separation between organised religious work and political activities. He has remained generally consistent in his views throughout his mature political phase.

- Has the most reconciliatory approach and tone, speaks positively of all major local political factions and describes them all as patriotic, attempts to curb partisanship and religio-political divisions in politics and public debate.

- Loudly supports human and equal citizenship rights for all Egyptians.

- Has significantly progressive ideas on the arts, governance, and free speech in Egypt.

- A revolutionary candidate with strong pro-revolution credentials.

- Has the support of liberals, leftists and Salafists, proving society can rally around him as a consensus leader.

- Can lead the creation of a more progressive, enlightened and inclusive Islamic political project compared to that of the Salafists and even the Muslim Brotherhood, both of which have more traditional and literalist paradigms.

- An alternative for Islamists who do not want to vote for Mohamed Morsi so as not to further strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood’s dominance over the state.

- Of all “revolutionary” candidates, he has the best chance of winning, and one should vote pragmatically so as not to divide the revolutionary vote.

- Has a significantly well-developed presidential programme.

- By appealing to all segments of society, he will focus more on technocratic and consensual issues rather than divisive ones, which is what is needed in the post-revolution phase.

Why people say you should not vote for him

- He is secretly still a Muslim Brotherhood member, and his exit and clash with the Brotherhood is only an orchestrated “charade.”

- Is more conservative than he says he is, not really evolving far enough from his more conservative roots, and only pretending to be “liberal” so he can win the elections.

- Despite him saying he promised them nothing, he must have promised Salafists a conservative-leaning presidency, otherwise they wouldn’t have supported him.

- Has vague rhetoric oftentimes and on crucial issues.

- Is becoming more and more confrontational towards the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) at a time that, it is said, a more delicate approach to the issue is needed.

- Has an insufficiently sophisticated view of foreign policy.

- His programme has some unrealistic ideas and promises expenditures when there are insufficient resources for them.

- By appealing to all segments in society, he would very possibly disappoint at least one of them if his presidency is to become bold and far reaching anyway.


Ahmed Shafiq

Former army official, former minister of civil aviation, Mubarak’s last prime minister (appointed during the revolution but dismissed under pressure shortly after Mubarak stepped down).

Why people say you should vote for him

- He is an experienced leader, government official and executive, as exemplified in his perceived achievements in the Ministry of Civil Aviation and particularly the development of Cairo International Airport. Such experience is needed in the difficult phase ahead.

- A successful military man who can, reputably, bring order and security in the current environment of “chaos.”

- With his connections to SCAF, he will be best capable of handling the question of the military and its relation to political power in a delicate, non-confrontational manner.

- A well-styled gentleman, has an elegant and amiable aura: a positive image for Egypt locally and internationally.

- He has a pragmatic approach to dealing with the economic situation and stimulating the business community, with many in that community backing him.

- With his background, he can stand up to the Islamists and even be “tough” on them when needed; possibly even by dissolving this Islamist-dominated parliament if necessary.

- In rhetoric and official stances, he appears to be the most “progressive” or liberal candidate, it is said.

- Would bring back only what was good about the Mubarak days, most commonly said to be growth, openness, security and stability, while the negative aspects of the Mubarak days would not be repeated due to his different personality as well as due to the realities of the post-revolutionary environment.

- Is relatively familiar with the background workings of Egyptian foreign policy.

- No claims surrounding his alleged corruption have ever been decisively proven.

Why people say you should not vote for him

- He was one of Mubarak’s most trusted men, exemplified in being his choice for prime minister when the regime was falling apart, and it was claimed that he was Mubarak’s preferred heir. It would be like voting for Mubarak himself.

- While Amr Moussa's candidacy might be subject to some debate, voting for Shafiq would more decisively be a betrayal of the revolution, its ideals and the desire for change.

- He is surrounded by allegations of corruption (and some say they are “certain” of his corruption).

- He was a very strong member of the former regime and significantly involved in dealing with the revolution, and thus — it is argued — shares responsibility for much of the violence and bloodshed by the state against protesters.

- He is an unskilled public speaker, and very gaffe-prone.

- Does not show real presidential or leadership qualities (perhaps even displaying the opposite), and all claims of his “experience and capabilities” are highly exaggerated if not flat out false.

- Seems to appeal more to the upper and upper-middle classes, at least in the earlier parts of his campaign, and is out of touch with the poor and common man.

- Would more likely than others use the powers in the current Constitutional Declaration to dissolve parliament which, despite any claimed shortfalls, remains democratically elected.

- If he gets elected the country will sink into deep turmoil as protests and sit-ins (possibly even violent ones) will erupt, and such turmoil would further be exacerbated if Shafiq used force to deal with them. Even if supported, the country may not be capable of handling the turmoil resulting from his election.

- Those in the business community who are backing him must be doing so because they want to return to the economic corruption of the Mubarak days.

- He is SCAF’s preferred candidate, some say, and some allege the elections could be rigged to his favour.


Hamdeen Sabbahi

Long time pro-democracy and Nasserist (secular and Socialist-leaning) activist and politician who was jailed multiple times for his activism; journalist and newspaper founder; founder of the Nasserist Karama (Dignity) Party.

Why people say you should vote for him

- A long time anti-corruption and pro-democracy activist, has strong revolutionary credentials and paid the price of his courage and work more than once, proving his mettle beyond doubt.

- An honourable man who has no background of corruption. He is also very modest, down-to-earth, and connects strongly with ordinary Egyptians.

- Wants to return the positive sides of the Nasserist era (restore the “days of pride” of Egypt, and return to a more respected international profile), while acknowledging and promising to fight the negative sides (such as dictatorship, torture, militarisation, media manipulation).

- Gives priority to the rights of the oppressed and the poor; a strong focus on social justice.

- Does not come from the conservative camp, yet also knows how to delicately deal with Islamists.

- Will turn the presidency into a strong force for democracy, progressivism, promotion of cultural and societal diversity and human rights in the state, it is said.

- An acceptable compromise for those who want a liberal/secular-leaning candidate with some chance of winning yet who don’t want to vote for Moussa or Shafiq, or even Abul-Fotouh.

- Unlike Abul-Fotouh, who was part of the Muslim Brotherhood for decades, he was never part of any organised political group that is subject to strong controversy.

Why people say you should not vote for him

- His presidential programme was described by some as somewhat lacking in realism and in certain details, as well as being too much on-the-left to be suitable for the 2012 global economy.

- His personal technical knowledge of policy issues lacks some depth, it is said.

- The Nasserist experiment in general had more failures than benefits and plunged the country into a dark era of military dictatorship that remains in some form to this day. This era should not be referenced positively in any way.

- Has spoken with some apparent praise about violent dictators Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Some even argue he received funds from them. He also made controversial statements about Al-Qaeda that some find unacceptable.

- Does not seem to have a solid track record of sufficient professional accomplishments, with criticism of his achievements as a journalist or as a newspaper founder/editor. This puts in question his leadership capabilities, detractors argue.

- Is better suited to become a minister or a high ranking opposition figure than a president, one argument goes.

- Has limited scope and a simplistic paradigm with regards to foreign policy.


Amr Moussa

Career diplomat, former Egyptian foreign minister from 1991 to 2001, and former Arab League secretary-general until 2011.

Why people say you should vote for him

- Most experienced, charismatic and technocratic of all candidates; great public speaker and has a solid CV, supporters claim.

- The only real “statesman” among the runners, which is something that is direly needed at this critical juncture.

- Has the most complete and detailed presidential programme, people say.

- He is not a young man, and thus probably incapable of going for a second term, which will ensure that a new face will become president after his first term, furthering the democratic transition.

- Is a successful diplomat with strong local and international connections and is capable of immediately rising to the post, as well as arranging for local and international efforts to help Egypt out of its current economic crisis.

- Will not be confrontational with local and international political actors at this delicate time for Egypt, and will deal pragmatically with the question of SCAF while strengthening the office of the presidency, thus ensuring a smoother transition.

- Is a liberal politician who would maintain or improve Egypt’s socio-political and human rights condition.

- Was not a full member of the former regime, but rather a career diplomat who even fell out of favour with Mubarak, and thus cannot be properly considered one of the “remnants of the former regime” (feloul) and voting for him is sufficiently acceptable.

- Given his reputed strong ego, international reputation and his advanced age, he would strive to become a successful president as a proper closure for his career.

- Has a professional grasp of foreign policy.

- Will break the rising Islamist monopoly on power, and possibly help counterbalance their influence.

Why people say you should not vote for him

- He remains Mubarak’s longest serving foreign minister, is well-associated with the former regime and should be seen as a complete member of it; will not further the goals of the revolution, but even fight such goals.

- Was silent under Mubarak’s regime, never criticised it or Mubarak, and thus is complicit in all of its crimes.

- He was described as dictatorial during his tenure in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a trait he is likely to carry with him in his new post. He also displays signs of vanity and a Pharaoh-like attitude.

- Did not have real groundbreaking achievements as a foreign minister or as Arab League secretary-general. In fact, some describe his two tenures as “failed.”

- Is too old to have sufficient energy for the job of president.

- Very open-market oriented while the country, it is said, needs to move to the Left.

- Is rather more interested in becoming president rather than in becoming a good president, and will not work hard enough on ending SCAF’s presence in political power.

- Will be too hostile against the Islamist-led parliament, and might lead to, at best, a paralysed political phase, if not outright confrontational.


Mohamed Morsi

Engineering professor, former MP until 2005 and head of the Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary bloc at the time, member of the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau and current head of its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and “backup” candidate to now-disqualified runner Khairat Al-Shater.

Why people say you should vote for him

- Long history of political struggle against the Mubarak regime.

- Was selected (allegedly by the UN, though still unverified independently) as the “world’s best parliamentarian between 2000 and 2005” according to the FJP, as a testament to his political qualifications and calibre.

- Excelled academically and throughout his professional and political life.

- Most dedicated candidate to increasing the role of Islam and Islamic principles in politics in a conservative manner. Some thus argue it is an empowerment to the religion to vote for him, and perhaps even a duty.

- Has the weight of the entire Muslim Brotherhood and FJP behind him, with their technical, resource-based, on-the-ground, and international networks. He will bring an entire institution to the presidency, it is argued.

- Has an extensive presidential programme, one of the most developed and detailed.

- Will implement the hyped and soon-to-be-disclosed “Renaissance Project,” a group of reforms as well as infrastructural and economic projects being prepared for many years, that would ostensibly transform Egypt into a developed nation.

- He never intentionally sought the presidency, and would thus become a better president than any candidate who is driven by a desire for power or a feeling of self-entitlement.

- The Muslim Brotherhood, and thus Morsi, have conducted themselves pragmatically, between confrontation and cooperation with SCAF, and will manage the question of SCAF’s transition from direct power more delicately, the view goes.

- He and the Muslim Brotherhood will encourage a modern free economy and strong relations with the business community, and will focus on economic growth.

- The Muslim Brotherhood has extensive international connections and rising experience with foreign policy.

Why people say you should not vote for him

- Will not be an independent president, but will be under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide and the Guidance Bureau, who will be the real presidents. In fact, this was exemplified in him being pushed to become a candidate rather than seeking it out on his own accord, it is argued.

- Will further the dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood over all branches of the state, with such monopoly especially dangerous in a post-revolutionary Egypt in which political diversity should be encouraged.

- He is the most conservative of all the candidates, even speaking quasi-ambiguously about decriminalising female circumcision and leaving it as a “choice” for the girl’s family; has a less progressive stance on freedoms compared to other candidates, and will cater more to conservative groups to maintain a solid electoral base, it is speculated.

- Has used the most religious-based campaigning and rhetoric of all current candidates, which is furthering societal divisions and partisan enmity.

- Does not have strong “presidential appeal,” it is said, and is incapable of sufficiently rising up to the position, lacking the sufficient charismatic presence.

- The Muslim Brotherhood has overall been too pragmatic in dealing with SCAF and in approaching revolutionary issues, while this phase needs less pragmatism and greater willingness to confront SCAF when necessary and to unequivocally in support of revolutionary ideals.

- He is not strong in the polls and it would be better to vote for another Islamist-leaning candidate who has a stronger chance of winning, some say.

- For leftists, his and the Muslim Brotherhood’s platforms are economically too liberal.

- The Muslim Brotherhood’s political performance in parliament has been disappointing, some say, and Morsi’s performance is thus likely to disappoint as well. Some even go further and argue that a message of disapproval has to be sent to the Muslim Brotherhood by not voting for them in the presidential elections.


Mohamed Selim El-Awa

Moderate Islamic thinker, lawyer, has strong connections with most Islamist movements yet remains independent of them.

Why people say you should vote for him

- He is an enlightened and well-credentialed legal mind as well as an Islamic and political philosopher who can blend modernism and moderate Islam into a successful and truly-needed combination.

- He can fight against the potential rise of extremist Islamist political currents, the argument goes.

- He is his own man, expresses his own beliefs regardless of any backlash or political calculation, and such brave honesty is a welcome characteristic in a leader.

- Is pro-revolution, yet unafraid to criticise protesters when he feels he should, some say.

- Is well connected to all political and social forces, especially Islamists, and would be a good mediator between all of these actors in this delicate phase.

- Has good relations with SCAF, and would handle the question of SCAF and politics more pragmatically.

Why people say you should vote for him

- He is a shapeshifter, continuously trying to steer a middle course, not taking sides when it is needed of him, say detractors.

- Often employs vague rhetoric on political and religious issues.

- Has one of the least sufficiently developed presidential programmes.

- Has no real chance of winning. Voting for him would be squandering a vote, one argument goes.

- Has made comments described as incendiary during delicate times of sectarian tension, dissenters say.

- Has close ties to Iran and Shia political forces, and is accused of being secretly Shia himself.

- He failed to stand up to SCAF and criticise them on multiple occasions, and often failed to show sufficient solidarity with protesters after the revolution when it was expected of him.

- Has an underdeveloped platform on foreign policy.


Khaled Ali

Human rights and labour lawyer, activist, and often dubbed the “Revolution’s Candidate.”

Why people say you should vote for him

- He is the youngest candidate to ever run for the position in Egypt, at 40 years old. He would thus bring fresh ideas and real energy into the job, and would inspire a country whose population is predominantly young, the argument goes.

- Has an impeccable activist background, no hint of corruption, a strong history of working for the underprivileged, and a willingness to challenge authority and corruption.

- The only candidate that truly represents the revolution and its ideas, it is said.

- Even if he doesn’t win, which is most likely, a decent vote would give him a strong platform to build a new and unique political movement.

- Will give strong focus to human rights and social justice as a president.

- Since his candidacy was a citizens’ initiative, a win or a strong percentage of votes would further empower citizens and encourage them to go after their own similar political projects.

- He hails from the “civil state” camp, being the opposite of the Islamist camp, and will fight to promote freedoms and diversity in Egypt, it is said.

Why people say you should not vote for him

- He is, as of yet, insufficiently experienced or qualified for the role, and is perhaps too young.

- He has no chance of winning, and voting for him would be wasting a chance to pragmatically impact on the direction of the country, it is said.

- His presidential programme is insufficiently developed.

- He is too far on the left in a local and international economic environment needing pragmatic solutions closer to the centre, it is argued.

- He is, at the moment, better suited for the role of minister or opposition figure.


Boycotting the elections altogether

Why people say you should boycott the vote

- None of the candidates with a real chance of winning properly represent the revolution, some allege.

- Of the candidates with a real chance of winning, near all represent the ideas and ideals of one select voting group, instead of all groups.

- Voting would give further credibility to SCAF at a time in which one should continue to confront it, or at least deny it this increase in legitimacy, it is said.

- Under current conditions and SCAF rule, electoral fraud is widely expected, some allege. In fact, the results of the elections have probably been preset towards a candidate preferred by SCAF.

Why people say you should not boycott the vote

- Voting is the only pragmatic way of finalising SCAF’s transition from power, as well as to further weaken their political hold by having a popularly elected president who has the legitimacy to challenge them, it is said.

- An overwhelming majority will vote anyway, rendering the boycotting percentage negligible (as was the case during parliamentary elections); not voting will mean losing a chance to impact on the direction of the country.

- For many, one particular candidate or another (depending on the voter group) truly deserves to become president, and thus people should vote.

- The country needs a civilian-based and stable government so as to get out of its current economic, security and political crises, one argument goes.

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