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Old Wednesday, May 23, 2012
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Key moment in transition to democracy
May 23, 2012
By Wadah Khanfar

Earlier this month, millions of people throughout the Arab world viewed, for the first time, a tele-vised debate between two Egyptian presidential candidates when secularist Amr Mousa took on Islamist Abdul Moneim Abu Al Fotouh.

The debate, which lasted more than four hours, was unique in itself. This is because for many decades the Arab masses were accustomed to hearing one leader and one candidate. Today, they feel democracy has indeed been attained. They also feel that their next president, whoever he may be, will not be a gift from a merciful providence, or a leader for whom the nation must sacrifice its blood and soul.

Instead, they believe he will be an ordinary human being like them. He will be grilled and interrogated, and he may choose to give straight answers sometimes and be evasive on other occasions. In the end, they will choose him by their own free will and according to their own convictions.

From the standpoint of substance, the debate examined at length the vision of the two candidates on how to revive Egypt’s economy, health and education. More importantly, it also dealt with the relationship between religion and the state. While Mousa spoke about Islamic values such as justice and equality as the basis of legislation, Abu Al Fotouh spoke about the implementation of Sharia that would assure national harmony and freedom of religion.

As for their positions towards Israel, that part of the debate was controversial, to say the least. Whereas Mousa referred to Israel as an adversary, Abu Al Fotouh regarded it as an enemy.

Naturally, it is important to assess these positions within the context of the election campaigns. So even though Abu Al Fotouh described Israel as an enemy, that does not mean he would prepare for war if elected. It is certain that the priorities of the next president will not be ideological. Instead, he will be preoccupied by the economic needs of the state and its political interests.

Mousa, 76, presents himself as the experienced statesman who will deliver stability in the midst of an uncertain economic climate. Having worked as foreign minister under Hosni Mubarak and been secretary-general of the Arab League, he would be the preferred choice of the ruling military council, the intelligence agencies and large sections of the Egyptian bureaucracy.

Indeed, sizeable sections of the population see in him a guardian of economic stability. On the other hand, many others view him as an extension of the defunct regime and, therefore, he contradicts the spirit of the people’s revolution.

Abu Al Fotouh, 62, is renowned for his opposition to the Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak regimes, for which he was imprisoned. He presents himself as the candidate of the revolution, who is able to reach out to the youth and various political forces.

He promises not to take unilateral decisions, but instead work with a team of experts. This contrasts with Mousa, who appeared in the debate to be notably self-centred. It should be noted, though, that the latter has some Islamic credentials and enjoys reasonable support among the Salafists. In fact, key figures among the secularists, leftists and liberals have declared their support for him; a precedent not offered to any other. On this basis, Mousa could qualify for the second round.

The third candidate is Mohammad Mursi, 61, leader of the Freedom and Justice party and the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate. The Brotherhood is, without doubt, the largest political force in Egypt. Although Mursi entered the race for the presidency late, the numbers that attended his rallies in provinces throughout Egypt were astounding. Mursi’s supporters argue that Egypt needs a leader who has a strong party backing that would secure the stability of the country; and that his links to the Brotherhood will ensure a synergy between the presidency and the parliament.

On the other hand, his opponents point out that the Brotherhood’s control of the presidency, the government and the parliament would alienate the other parties at a time when the country needs a broad national base.

Ultimately, Mousa may win more votes than any other candidate in the first round; but he is not expected to win in the second round. It is highly unlikely that those who vote for Abu Al Fotouh and Mursi in the first round will vote for Mousa in the second. Instead, the Islamists voters would unite behind a single candidate who is recognisably Islamist, whether he is Mursi or Abu Al Fotouh.

Thus, it appears the next president of Egypt would be an Islamist. That will ensure a break from the past. Moreover, it will safeguard the transition toward democracy. However, if Mousa were to be elected, the revolutionary forces would suffer a huge setback. Not only this, the army would continue to predominate in one form or another. That may embroil Egypt in disputes and divert it from the transition toward democracy.

Wadah Khanfar is a former director-general of Al Jazeera network.
Courtesy: Guardian News & Media Ltd
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