Cairo, Egypt - What was unthinkable only 16 months ago has become the new reality in Egypt. The posters and billboards are displayed prominently along all major roadways. Young volunteers rush to hand pamphlets to hurried pedestrians. Pop songs blaring on the radio have an unusual choice of topic. Everywhere, the atmosphere is electric as Egyptians prepare to choose their first president since the toppling of their former dictator, Hosni Mubarak.
Felool candidates (remnants of the old regime):
- Amr Moussa: Mubarak's former foreign minister. Running on a platform of experience and restoration of stability to Egypt. Promises the political certainty that only a dictatorship can offer.
- Ahmed Shafiq: Mubarak's former prime minister. Favoured by SCAF, self-professed "law and order" candidate who pledges to crush future protests violently. Has had many shoes thrown at him by angry protesters and revolutionary youth.
Freedom and Justice Party (Muslim Brotherhood):
- Mohamed Morsi: Platform of democratic governance and Islamist politics. Hasn't impressed many outside of Muslim Brotherhood. Has only confronted SCAF in a self-serving way and is therefore not seen as completely trustworthy by revolutionary youth. Despite this, FJP won a "commanding share of seats" in last fall's parliamentary elections and still has a great deal of support shown by a human chain of supporters that stretched from Alexandria to Aswan.
- Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh: Former Muslim Brotherhood, but with a more moderate vision of Islamist politics. Connects with a wide swath of Egyptions from liberal Islamists to Salafis. Because of nationalistic tendencies, he also connects with liberals, leftists and Coptic Christians. Was one of only two candidates to have been in Tahrir Square on the first day of protests and has respect of revolutionary youth. As Head of Arab Medical Union and with his history of political activism since the 1970's (complete with imprisonments) he has grassroots support among the youth.
- Hamdeen Sabahi: "Dark horse" of the race with credentials among the revolutionary youth. No Islamic activist background - which could be a problem since 2/3 of voters supported Islamist candidates in parliamentary elections.
The general mood in Egypt clearly signifies that, for good or ill, the fate of the fragile revolution rests on the outcome of this election. For some Egyptians, this spells an opportunity to restore order to a country ravaged by the lack of security and economic stagnation in the shadow of its political crisis. For others, it is the only hope for the fulfillment of the revolution's promise for deliverance from decades of corruption and subjugation. Lurking somewhere in the background is the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt's self-proclaimed caretakers in the absence of a civilian president.
By most accounts, of the 13 official candidates for the presidency, four stand a legitimate chance of making it past the first round on Thursday and into a runoff of the two highest vote getters scheduled for next month. Of these, two are "remnants" of the old regime, or felool, running on a platform of experience and a restoration of stability to Egypt. Amr Moussa, Mubarak's erstwhile foreign minister, and Ahmed Shafiq, the fallen president's last appointed prime minister, represent a return to some revised version of the old order.
To varying degrees, both Mousa and Shafiq have managed to deflect the fact that their political "experience" came within the same regime that was overthrown by millions of Egyptians only one year ago, and have somehow managed to turn what was once a derogatory term into a badge of honour among their supporters. In a remarkably short period, felool has gone from signifying the corrupt survivors of the Mubarak era to the restoration of some lost greatness represented only in the political certainty that dictatorship offers.
Durability of authoritarianism
In fact, if the relative success of their campaigns has proven one thing thus far, it is the durability of authoritarianism. The massive state apparatus and patronage networks that have been mobilised in support of what would essentially be Mubarak 2.0 has demonstrated that a successful dictatorship is simply the illusion that one man rules. In effect, the mechanisms of control have remained intact, and in the bleakest scenario, the body is simply seeking to spawn a new head.
The fact that the SCAF appears to favour these candidates does not hurt either. Shafiq in particular has offered himself as the "law and order" candidate, pledging to crush future protests violently, while there is talk among many nervous Egyptians that his victory lap would entail a rounding up of all representatives of the political opposition, led by the Muslim Brotherhood.
There is even more widespread fear that the tentacles of the state apparatus might extend into the ballot boxes to aid one or both of these candidates, with a leading Muslim Brotherhood figure recently warning that up to five million votes could be forged. Regardless of whether such allegations could ever be proven, it is quite likely that a victory for Mousa or Shafiq would enflame the passions of all of Egypt's political factions and affirm the view held by most of the youth leaders who first set foot in Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011 that the revolution is far from complete. The resulting standoff is sure to be more confrontational than any up to this point, with the SCAF adamant to establish order under the new political arrangement and end the popular protest movement once and for all.
The three remaining presidential candidates who have made significant progress in their campaigns and would also represent genuine change from the old order emerged out of the dominant political movements within Egyptian society. Foremost among these is the Muslim Brotherhood, which has put the full force of its deeply rooted organisation behind its candidate, Mohamed Morsi. But while his victory would certainly signal a break from the past and the dawn of a new era built on democratic governance and the ascendancy of Islamic politics, the Muslim Brotherhood has made few friends outside of its own ranks, owing to a series of missteps over the past year.
Upon consolidating its gains through the establishment of the most effective political machine, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and proceeding to take a commanding share of seats in last fall's parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood carefully avoided the most difficult question facing the country: the transfer of power from the military to a civilian government. When it finally did confront the SCAF earlier this spring, it was only in the context of the FJP's desire to appoint the new government and dominate the committee tasked with rewriting the constitution. The self-serving nature of these decisions was not lost on the revolutionaries who had been consistent in their calls for an end to military rule, suffering frequent violent responses in the process, and becoming highly disillusioned with the staged political transition as a result.
Showdown: Muslim Brotherhood vs SCAF
As the Muslim Brotherhood used the ineffectual nature of the parliament as a pretext to field a presidential candidate after pledging not to do so, most other factions within the revolutionary movement scoffed at a solution that simply handed one group yet another seat of power.
Nevertheless, the Morsi campaign has gained considerable steam from the organisation's base and its traditional network of supporters that turned out in the millions to support the FJP's parliamentary bid. For weeks, election analysts have claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood's support has waned, but opponents would do well not to underestimate the reach of Morsi's campaign machine. Rallies across Egypt's more remote locales have generated impressive turnouts, and a human chain of supporters stretching from Alexandria to Aswan reportedly included tens of thousands of people.
But the prospect of a victory for a popular movement on the accord of the Muslim Brotherhood would be no guarantee for a smooth political transition. A Morsi presidency would alienate the remaining political factions and almost certainly set up a second showdown between the Muslim Brotherhood and the SCAF. Even before he reaches that point, if Morsi does enter the second round runoff, he will have a considerable mountain to climb to convince more than half of Egyptian voters that he is the consensus candidate and the representative of the revolution - a task that is sure to be made easier were he to face off against Mousa or Shafiq.
"One of only two candidates to have been in Tahrir Square on the first day of the protests... [Aboul Fotouh of the Muslim Brotherhood] has earned the respect and admiration of most of the revolutionary youth."
The candidate who has thus far demonstrated the greatest ability to unite Egyptian society's political trends and shown the most promise to deliver on the demands of the revolution is Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. As a former Muslim Brotherhood leader who promotes a more accommodating and less institutionally constrained vision of Islamic politics, he has connected with a vast swath of Egyptians, from liberal Islamists to Salafis, whose religious identity informs their political activism. As a political moderate and strong nationalist, Aboul Fotouh has also appealed to many liberals, leftists and Coptic Christians.
One of only two candidates to have been in Tahrir Square on the first day of the protests against the Mubarak regime, he has earned the respect and admiration of most of the revolutionary youth. Moreover, his record as head of the Arab Medical Union and his experience in political activism dating back to the mid-1970s (complete with several bouts of imprisonment under the prior regimes) have established Aboul Fotouh as a formidable candidate to represent the aspirations of the revolution in the difficult days ahead.
Aboul Fotouh's campaign has benefited from a vibrant corps of mostly young volunteers, numbering some 110,000 across the country, who have methodically built up support for him in the last year (he was one of the first to announce his candidacy in May 2011).
While Shafiq was receiving the George W Bush treatment in one of the final events of his campaign (ducking footwear flung by angry protesters), last Friday Aboul Fotouh held one of the most impressive campaign rallies to date. Before nearly 40,000 supporters at a youth club center in Cairo, Aboul Fotouh pledged that he was the only candidate to represent all currents of Egyptian society. Indeed, seated behind him on stage were over three dozen luminaries, including leading intellectuals, religious scholars, party leaders, youth activists and well-known artists.
One by one, representatives of the various groups, from former Muslim Brotherhood members to leaders of the Salafi al-Nur Party, leftist professors and famous actresses to symbols of the revolution like Wael Ghonim, spoke in enthusiastic support of their chosen candidate, while stressing that they were not there to offer unconditional backing to Aboul Fotouh. The era of the empty glorification of leaders was over, they proclaimed together. They professed that Aboul Fotouh would be a president to pave the way for the empowerment of the Egyptian people, providing them with the freedom and opportunity to work for the betterment of their nation.
But the consensus candidate mantra has not been without its detractors. Preventing Aboul Fotouh from gaining a definitive foothold in the lead up to the election have been doubts over the ability of any candidate to hold together such a delicate coalition of competing political agendas, a challenge in any country, let alone one undergoing such a volatile transition as Egypt. Others have expressed wariness of supporting a candidate with any background in Islamic activism, and have turned their attention instead to Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, who has made an impressive late charge to emerge as the dark horse in the race.
As the only other candidate with credentials among the revolutionary youth, Sabahi has posited himself as the hope of many voters disillusioned with the political process and the unraveling confrontation between the various political power centers, from the SCAF to the Muslim Brotherhood. But with the leftist nationalist Sabahi unable to appeal to the religious sentiments of Egyptian voters, it is unlikely that he can garner enough support to mount a formidable challenge, with over two-thirds of the Egyptian electorate having supported Islamist candidates in the parliamentary elections.
Regardless of who Egyptians vote for, the next chapter in the story of this revolution is sure to feature a critical showdown between the spirited men and women who have laid down their lives to deliver Egypt from the era of corruption, subjugation and authoritarianism - and the SCAF which has sought to stifle them at every turn. The real question emerging from this election is: will Egypt's next president stand with the military or with the people?
Abdullah Al-Arian is an Assistant Professor of History at Wayne State University, where he specialises in the modern Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.