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Egypt's elections: A struggle between secularism and political Islam -- and how it may transform the Middle East

The main candidates, from left: Ahmed Shafiq, Mohammed Morsi, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahi.
The main candidates, from left: Ahmed Shafiq, Mohammed Morsi, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahi.

CAIRO -- The upcoming Egyptian elections have the potential to not only change Egypt, but the entire Middle East. There’s a strong possibility that decades of American policy in the region can be overturned.  The elections have huge implications for the United States and even bigger ones for Israel.  War and peace may be in the balance. 

Here in our Cairo bureau as I listen to the boats float by on the Nile blasting music as revelers enjoy the city before it’s clogged by voting with checkpoints, there’s talk that this could be a moment like 1979 in Iran, a possible 180-degree shift for the country and the Middle East.  I’ll start at what’s immediately coming up.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Egyptians go to polls to elect a new president.  First off, that’s big statement in itself.  Egypt hasn’t elected a truly democratic leader in its 5,000 years of recorded history.  This is the land of the pharaohs, the undisputed and often tyrannical God-kings.  Then it was the land of the Romans, sultans, Mamluks, Khedives, kings, European-dominated governments and finally military rulers. 

There are five main candidates who have a chance of winning the election.  Egypt has a presidential system.  The president runs the state.  Who the president is matters profoundly.  In no particular order, the candidates are:

Mohammed Mursi: Mursi is a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood.  The Muslim Brotherhood, or the Brotherhood for short, is an Islamic group founded in Egypt in 1928.  It has been pursuing a secret campaign to take over the government since its creation.  The Brotherhood wants a state that is modern, powerful, technologically advanced and Islamic.  The Brotherhood is not the Taliban.  It does not want to ban music and pull girls from school, but it does believe that Islam must be the core of politics and society.  The Brotherhood’s slogan has long been “Islam is the solution.”  In practice that means, if there’s poverty, the Brotherhood will look to Islamic principles of helping the poor to solve them.  The Muslim Prophet Mohammed was a big believer in charity and firmly established helping those in need as a basis of the religion. If there’s disease, the Brotherhood sees Islam and its traditions as having a solution to that too.  In questions of war and peace, the Brotherhood will study Islam and its history to determine if a potential conflict is just and warranted.  For the Brotherhood, Islam is always the solution.  It’s Islam uber alles.  The Brotherhood is a politically astute group.  It is calculating and slow moving, believing that the best way to gain power is by gradually winning political and social influence.  The Brotherhood is the grandfather of nearly all Islamic movements.  It is the mothership from which smaller, often more radical groups were born.  Hamas in Gaza, for example, is a faction of the Brotherhood.   The Brotherhood is also rich.  Its finances are murky and secretive.  The group has wealthy donors, especially in the Sunni Arab Gulf states. 

According to some estimates, the Brotherhood has a million activists in Egypt.  Mursi is the official brotherhood candidate, but would likely end up as the group’s “face man.”  Mursi is not charismatic.  He’s not a dynamic speaker.  He wasn’t the Brotherhood’s first choice.  The group initially wanted its powerful money man Khairat al-Shater, a business tycoon who manages the group’s wealth, to be its candidate, but he was disqualified on account of his prison record.  Egypt’s military-backed presidents, including Hosni Mubarak, imprisoned many Brotherhood members, seeing the group as its biggest existential threat.  Analysts say Shater, the Brotherhood’s supreme guide, and its leadership committee would end up being the real force behind Mursi, pulling the strings. Right after the revolution that toppled Mubarak, the Brotherhood said it would not present a candidate for president, but then broke its promise.  A Brotherhood victory would be a total about-face for Egypt.  Since the late president Anwar Sadat, Egypt has pursued a largely pro-American, Western-leaning policy.  Egypt has maintained a peace treaty with Israel since March 1979, following the Camp David accords. The Brotherhood has already threatened to cancel the peace treaty if the United States stops providing the $2.1 billion of military and development aid Egypt has received annually since 1982.  The Brotherhood now talks publicly about maintaining good relations with the United States, but at its core the group is not pro-American.  The Brotherhood is actively anti-Israel.  Egypt’s long-term relations with United States and short-term relations with Israel could be at risk if Mursi becomes president.  Egypt is the biggest country in the Middle East.  So goes Egypt, so goes the region.  A dramatic shift in Egypt’s alignment would have global implications.

Photoblog: Egypt prepares for the post-Mubarak presidential era

Abdel Monein Abu al-Fotouh.  Al-Fotouh was a member of the Muslm Brotherhood for decades.  He’s a devoted Islamist.  In fact, he was once of member of the even more radical Gamaa Islamiya (Islamic Group), the same organization of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind cleric imprisoned in the United States for masterminding the first attack on New York’s World Trade Center in 1993.  Al-Fotouh left the Gamaa Islamiya for the Brotherhood.  He then broke from the Brotherhood after the Tahrir Square revolution.  The Brotherhood promised at the time not to run a presidential candidate.  Al-Fotouh disagreed and launched his own campaign.  His disobedience to the Brotherhood’s orders infuriated group’s tightly controlled hierarchy and Al-Fotouh was expelled from the Brotherhood.  Since the revolution, Al-Fotouh has been trying to appeal to Egypt’s liberals and secularists.  He says he’s still a member of the Brotherhood at heart, but wants a state where religion doesn’t drive all policy.  It’s possible Al-Fotouh has a change of heart.  Many of the Tahrir Square revolutionaries are taking al-Fotouh at his word.  But is he really different, or just changing his tune to appeal to a broader base?   Al-Fotouh, like Mursi, speaks about maintaining good relations with world powers, including the United States.  During his campaign, however, Al-Fotouh called Israel “an enemy state.”  Al-Fotouh is also now backed by hardline Islamists known as Salafists who want to live in a society modeled on the life of the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century.  The Salafists – many of them still followers of al-Fotouh’s old group, the Gamaa Islamiya --  want to roll back rights for woman and Christians. Critics say al-Fotouh is trying to be a candidate for everyone, telling revolutionaries and secularists he’s become one of them, while also appealing hardcore Islamists. He has tried to appeal to Christians and women by promising that he will consider appointing one of them vice president should he win. A victory for al-Fotouh would be a win for Islamists.  Is he still member of the Muslim brotherhood in disguise?  Would he make peace with the Brotherhood and return to their fold if he became president?  Al-Fotouh likes to say Turkey is example Egypt could follow with an Islamist leader, but without Islamic fundamentalists deciding how people should live their daily lives.  Critics say its sounds good, but that Egyptian Islamists are much more radical than their Turkish counterparts and that it’s hard to imagine that after decades as a dedicated member of the Brotherhood that al-Fotouh could really have changed fundamentally.  The questions about al-Fotouh’s true beliefs are unlikely to become clear unless he wins the election. 

Video: A new role for women in post-Mubarak Egypt


Amer Moussa: Moussa is the 76-year-old former Egyptian foreign minister and secretary general of the Cairo-based Arab League.  He is a seasoned and internationally respected statesman.  He’s well known and generally popular in Washington.  Moussa is presenting himself as a steady hand, the candidate who can maintain Egypt’s international relations and not drive the country into isolation or deep into the fold of the Muslim world.  Moussa has said publicly he has no intention of changing or eradicating the Camp David accords with Israel.  He is dedicated to close ties with the United States.  Moussa’s main problem is his association with the former Mubarak regime.  Even though he wasn’t involved in the crackdown and killing of activists during the revolution, he was a key Mubarak associate for decades.  Critics call Moussa part of the “fulool,” a word that meansremnants.”  It is a disparaging term.  It is almost like rubbish or trash.  Critics say Moussa is just another fulool of the Mubarak regime that the revolution swept away.  Moussa’s biggest rivals are the Islamic candidates Mursi and al-Fotouh.  Moussa’s Islamist opponents have tried to depict him as a drinker who is close to Israel and the United StatesMoussa believes Egypt is at a crossroads and that voters can pick himto promote stability or Islamists to change the country’s course in a precarious new direction.

Ahmed Shafiq: Shafiq is the ultimate “fulool” candidate.  He was the last prime minister appointed by Mubarak.  Shafiq was, like Mubarak, an air force commander.  Shafiq still defends Mubarak.  Shafiq is presenting himself as “Mr. Security.”  After the revolution Egyptian police were discredited.  They were seen as the henchmen of the Mubarak regime.  For the past year, the police have largely been absent from the streets.  With the police gone, murder, rape, kidnappings, car-jackings and antiquities’ theft have all risen dramatically.  Shafiq says he’ll restore order in 24 hours.  He’s the strongman candidate.  His message appeals to some Egyptians fed up with the deteriorating security situation.  Critics say the revolution replaced one dictator in Mubarak and that electing Shafiq would simply be bringing in another one.

Hamdeen Sabahi.  Hamdeen Sabahi is popularist.  He appeals to the country’s poor.  Economically, Sabahi is a socialist who sees Egypt’s greatest strength as its legions of rural and urban poor.  Politically, Sabahi is a Nasserist, or a follower of the tradition of the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser.  Nasser was a champion of Arab unity and a believer in pan-Arab power.  Nasser firmly believed that if Arabs were to unite, they could become a powerful economic and political bloc that could break free of a Middle East many Egyptians see as dominated by American and Israeli interests.  Nasser was no friend of the United States.  He aligned Egypt with the communist Soviet Union and launched a failed war against Israel.  When Nasser died, his successor Anwar Sadat re-orientated Egypt’s economic and politics policies by building close ties with Washington and forging a peace treaty with Israel.  Sabahi’s victory could mean that Egypt’s four-decade-long Western orientation would shift again, reverting to a populist form of pan-Arabism.   Sabahi has had a recent surge in popularity and was recently supported by 400 famous Egyptian actors, artists, writers and journalists.

The likely outcome
What’s likely to happen?  None of the five candidates are likely to win an outright majority when voting closes at 8 p.m. Cairo time on Thursday evening.  To win, a candidate needs more than 50 percent of the votes.  It’s widely expected, however, that each of the five leading candidates will win between 10 to 30 percent of the vote.  Mursi for example could win 20-25 percent, Moussa might take another 20 percent, Al-Fotouh perhaps 20 percent and so on.  Since none of the candidates would have the more than the fifty percent needed for a victory, there would be a run-off. 

The run-off would work as follows:  The two candidates with the highest number of votes -- say Mursi with 25 percent and perhaps Moussa or al-Fotouh or Sabahi with another 20 percent or so – would face each other.  The run-off election would take place on June 16-17.  The winner of the runoff would become Egypt’s next president, starting his four-year term starting on June 30.  Once the new president assumes office, the military council – the leadership committee of generals that has been administering Egypt since the revolution – would dissolve.  Egypt’s first democratically elected president in its history would then run the country and its powerful, US-armed military.

Who’s winning?
Opinion polls have been all over the map.  Many polls put Moussa ahead.  The Brotherhood says Mursi is in the lead.  The polls do not seem reliable.  Political analysts I’ve spoken to believe Mursi, even though he’s uncharismatic, is likely to win enough votes to secure a place in the run-off.  After all, the Brotherhood has a million activists get out the vote, a grassroots support base that’s unmatched by any other candidate.  The run-off, according to some analysts, would therefore be between the Brotherhood’s Mursi and someone else.  It’s anyone’s guess who that someone else might be.  That’s when Egyptians’ will have to make an incredibly important choice.  Assuming Mursi is a candidate in the run-off, analysts say the tale of the tape might be like this.

If the run off is between the Brotherhood’s Mursi vs Amer Moussa or Ahmed Shafiq, analysts predict Mursi would win.  Moussa and Shafiq would simply be too “fulool,” not different enough from Mubarak.  It’s possible, however, the voters could have a change of heart and vote for the promise of stability over the certainty of change.  It’s very hard to predict. 

If the match up, however, is Mursi vs al-Fotouh or Sabahi, analysts say it’s likely Mursi would lose.  The Brotherhood already controls parliament and voters might fear giving the long-banned group too much power.  Again, no one really knows.  What’s certain is that this is a critical time for Egypt, the Arab world, Israel and the United States.  Egypt is at a crossroads.  The path Egyptians chose is important.  Egypt is the most populous Arab nation, the seat of Sunni Islamic doctrine and has tremendous political, religious and social influence on the rest of the region.  For better or worse, it will lead the rest of the Middle East by example.  So goes Egypt, so goes the region.

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Richard Engel is Chief Foreign Correspondent of NBC News