Arriving in Cairo after a two-year hiatus, one feels things have dramatically changed: obviously a revolution happened and a historic poll is about to take place. And it doesn’t take long to realize it on the ground.
Take the airport: several camera tripods, two large boxes with large Reuters stickers slapped on top, a senior CNN correspondent waiting at passport control and five heavily locked crates marked “Carter Center” rolling on the luggage conveyor belt, signaling the arrival of election observers. Take the press center where accreditations to cover the election are delivered: a machine gun-wielding soldier is posted right in the midst of government employees and queuing foreign correspondents. Is the soldier here to protect us? No, the press center is located on the first floor of the national television building — a prime target in every revolution.
Then come the usual cab driver conversations: all about the revolution that was and the election that will be in a few days’ time. A mixed bag of excitement and concern over the future: that Mubarak’s ouster was long-overdue and good riddance, that the poll could be rigged, that the economy won’t improve. Talking to people, I hear diverging and often contradictory analyses. That is probably a good sign in what could emerge as a fledging democracy past the first openly contested — and let’s hope free and fair — election in the country’s history.
Some say that Ahmed Shafiq actually stands a fair chance even though he belongs to the much-reviled Mubarak’s era, during which he briefly served as prime minister. Because he is a former senior commander of the Egyptian air forces he somehow inspires trust to those who favor security and stability. And precisely because he is former military man, his many detractors fear he could be secretly supported by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which could in turn rig the election.
Amr Moussa, also affiliated to the former regime, is a top contestant according to opinion polls. Though somehow estranged back in 2001, he was sacked by Mubarak and appointed to head the Arab League. To this day, people remember Shaaban Abdel Rahim’s popular song back in 2000 “I hate Israel but I love Amr Moussa” — which some believe (including the New York Times) actually prompted Hosni Mubarak to kick out Moussa, who was openly critical of Israel, from his foreign minister post.
Virtually every presidential hopeful has at some stage mentioned they would revisit but not revoke the Camp David Accord, though based on my conversations, it is the economy that really matters to Egyptians.
Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh is neck-and-neck in the polls with Moussa. The former Muslim Brother-turned-moderate (whatever that actually means) has managed to rally a wide array of Egyptians behind his candidacy: from Salafis to liberals and even Copts! But in the liberal camp, supporters worry the vote could be split between at least three candidates: Moussa, Shafik and Hamdeen Sabbahi, a Nasserite, paving the way for an Islamist win.
Do Egyptians actually look at opinion polls? Yes, some say they do, but others warn they are not reliable as they are often published by centers affiliated to the state or by newspapers that are not neutral, not to mention the samples they rely on that seem far from representative in numbers, geographic distribution and socio-economic background.
Egyptians have widely relied on television to make their choice. And although there was only one presidential debate between Abdul-Fotouh and Moussa, every candidate has been interviewed at length — sometimes for hours on end — on various TV channels, a medium of choice in Egypt where illiteracy runs high.
Egyptians, it seems, prefer to base their judgment on the candidate’s history, character, charisma and morality. That’s where Moussa would lose to Shafiq, or the Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Mursi to Abul-Fotouh. Enters Sabbahi, a Nasserist who has vowed to reconcile socialism and capitalism and gained a strong following among artists and intellectuals, including renowned writer Alaa al-Asawany. An Egyptian writer — and convinced Nasserist — proudly told me that Sabbahi had won a majority of votes in Sweden among Egyptian expatriates. I retorted that based on exit polls, Abul-Fotouh led in Iceland and Norway and Musri in Saudi Arabia.
What is intriguing is that most young Egyptians I have talked to so far, those that gathered on Tahrir square and led the revolution, those that are absent from the Islamist-dominated parliament, said they would abstain or rather “boycott” the vote — a telling choice of words. They have a few days to change their minds…
Sophie Claudet, Europe and Middle East correspondent for Al-Monitor, is covering the Egyptian election on location in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter: @sophieinparis