CAIRO -- Turmoil has prevailed in the 15 months since Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign after three decades of ruling Egypt with unchecked power.
The once-revered military’s role as guardian of the people’s revolt has faltered badly in the wake of security forces’ attacks on protesters and the ruling generals’ shrewd political maneuvering.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the conservative Islamist group that was outlawed for decades, has emerged as the country’s most organized political bloc, though its overzealous power plays have fueled a resurgence of its rival forces from the military and former regime. Meanwhile, the young revolutionaries who led the street protests against Mubarak have been relegated to the sidelines.
On Wednesday, Egyptians begin picking from among 13 candidates in the country’s first truly contested presidential election. The process ends with a winner in a runoff June 16 between the two top voter-getters.
How are Egypt’s 50 million eligible voters assessing the man they hope will guide the Arab world’s most populous nation through a minefield to democracy? Four Egyptians from different backgrounds, each representing an important constituency, explain how they’ll vote:
When Egyptians rose up against the Mubarak regime, 25-year-old Ali Salah was eager to join them, but he worried that he wouldn’t be able to cover his impoverished family’s bills if he took time off from work.
He came up with an idea: Take revolutionary slogans from Facebook, print them on cheap cotton T-shirts and sell them as souvenirs while he protested in Tahrir Square.
The enterprise was so successful that, more than a year later, Salah is still in the square, though he’s been forced to branch out now that sales of revolution memorabilia have plummeted. At his open-air booth, shirts with the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants now hang next to the ones that read, “The power of the people is stronger than the people in power.”
“Egyptians get bored with things that take a long time, and the revolution was taking a long time. So, now we sell SpongeBob,” Salah said, a note of embarrassment in his voice.
Salah is more patient than his customers – and he thinks the revolution is right on track. He belongs to the ultraconservative Salafist movement, and he couldn’t be happier with the political gains of fellow Islamists after their decades of persecution under the Mubarak regime.
An agent, Salah recalled, once visited his father to say that his son could avoid arrest if only he’d swear allegiance to Mubarak’s then-ruling National Democratic Party. Salah refused and suffered years of harassment and surveillance in return. The hounding only cemented his view that Islam was the only way to save Egypt from such a corrupt and oppressive system.
“Why is it that there’s a backlash when we ask for Islamic Shariah law? Because the old rulers, the remnants, know they’d never be able to steal from us again,” Salah said. “The revolution offered a chance for God’s law to be implemented.”
After his favorite presidential candidate, the fundamentalist cleric Hazem Abu Ismail, was ruled ineligible to run, Salah decided to cast his ballot for the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, to help keep the Islamist vote intact.