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.
While he disagrees with the Brotherhood on doctrine and couldn’t really defend the group’s many broken promises, Salah said the end goal of an Islamic state justified the “political games” that he says the Islamists are forced to play for now.
His months of selling T-shirts in the square have earned him friends, even “brothers,” from among the rival liberal camps, Salah said, but their hysterics over Islamists taking power make them sound like sore losers.
“If Egyptians had voted for a majority of liberals in Parliament, we’d keep quiet. But they didn’t – they voted for Islamists,” Salah said. “Why don’t we respect the will of the people?”
Marcelino Youssef, a 45-year-old electrician, was just a boy when he first heard fellow villagers single him out because of his religion: “Don’t play with him – he’s Christian.”
Youssef said the discrimination continued in high school, where he and other Coptic Christians were asked to leave during religion class, and in his service to the military, when Muslim conscripts refused to eat with him in the mess hall.
There was no letup in the slights related to his faith, he said, until the day he joined the protests in Tahrir Square and stood alongside Egyptians of all backgrounds to demand Mubarak’s fall He cherishes a photograph that shows a close-up of his hand, tattooed with a cross, as he poured water so that Muslim protesters could wash before praying.
“I was crying. I finally felt that I was close to achieving a dream,” Youssef recalled. “Imagine someone who’s been in prison for years for no reason and then he’s told that, tomorrow, he’ll be free.”
But that long-awaited euphoria evaporated in a matter of weeks.
The security vacuum after the fall of the regime ushered in a wave of attacks on the vulnerable Copts. Extremists torched and besieged churches, and violence came from the state, too. Youssef was among hundreds who were wounded when security forces attacked a peaceful Christian protest; an army personnel carrier crushed his foot as it rampaged through the crowd.
Then came the power grab by the Islamists, whose messages of national unity gave way to talk of turning Egypt into an Islamist state, with no clear role defined for the Coptic minority, which traces its roots to the first century.
Youssef said he found no true allies of the Copts among the leading presidential candidates, so, grudgingly, he plans to cast his ballot for Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister, as the lesser of evils. He prefers a couple of the more liberal and revolutionary candidates, he said, but he doesn’t think they stand a chance against the Islamists.
“They had a strategy all along: They called it ‘participating,’ but it was really ‘taking over,’ ” Youssef said. “Truly, I wouldn’t even care if the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme leader himself became president, on one condition: that we and the Muslims are equal.”
Picking a president, Youssef said, is an easy choice compared with the greater dilemma he and other Copts face as they come to grips with a new Islamist ruling elite. He’s so worried for the future of his 9-year-old son, his only child, that he entered the U.S. green card lottery even though it pains him to consider leaving Egypt.
“I’m in a state of internal conflict,” Youssef said. “Shall I leave all this now and run away to give my son the opportunity to taste freedom? Then again, I’m an activist and a fighter, and if people like me leave, what happens to the rest?”
The bustle of Cairo is two hours and a world away from Kamal Abdel Mohsen’s farming village, where children plunge into the Nile to cool off on summer days and the loudest sounds are the lowing of water buffalo and the clucking of chickens.
The setting is serene, but life for Abdel Mohsen, 72, has been far from easy. He reared 10 children – six girls and four boys – on the farm, growing just enough corn, wheat and peaches to keep them fed. Sitting in his one-room, mud-brick house on a recent afternoon, he described his decades of swinging an ax with one or another of his children perched atop his broad shoulders.
He married off his daughters to local men and scrimped to send his sons for higher education, but Egypt’s chronic unemployment rendered their hard-won diplomas worthless.
After all these years, Abdel Mohsen said, they’re still sharecroppers, stuck with policies left over from the Mubarak regime that favor wealthy, typically nonresident landowners over those who work the fields. To his mind, the last friend of Egypt’s vast agrarian class was the late Arab nationalist President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who died in office in 1970.
“Gamal helped us rent the land as cheaply as possible, or he gave it to us, and he protected our rights,” Abdel Mohsen said. “But Mubarak reversed all the farming laws, and now we pay a much higher price.”
Although the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions are said to enjoy broad grass-roots support among rural Egyptians, that’s not the case in Abdel Mohsen’s village in Qalyoubia province. Local farmers recall the lawless days of an Islamist insurgency that swept the country in the 1980s, and they worry about the seemingly limitless ambitions of the Brotherhood, whose campaign posters are scarce in the village.
“They can’t even handle the Parliament and now they want the presidency?” Abdel Mohsen complained.
While he supported the revolution’s goals, Abdel Mohsen said, he remains a solid backer of the interim military rulers, whom he credits with keeping the crisis from spiraling into a bloody civil war like those that emerged from the Libyan and Syrian uprisings. He said Egypt needed a firm hand for the transition to civilian rule.
So his vote is going to the former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, partly as an anti-Islamist stance, partly because Moussa has ancestral roots in a nearby village and partly out of a lack of better options.
“He’s ours; he belongs to us. The nearest are the best, right?” Abdel Mohsen said with a chuckle and a shrug.
When Heba Azouz, 24, first noticed the stirrings of revolution on her friends’ Facebook pages in the last months of 2010, she was immediately energized. Finally, she thought, Egyptians were rising up against the government’s daily, petty injustices that made “everything in life a fight.”
Azouz had just finished her university studies and was beginning medical school with an internship at a large, dismal public hospital in Cairo. She said the doctors were so overworked and underpaid – with salaries of less than $100 a month – that their performance was mediocre at best. She was aghast to find some physicians smoking in the operating room.
When early street protests turned into the 18-day uprising that brought down Mubarak, Azouz left the hospital to volunteer at a field clinic in Tahrir Square. She was furious that state television continued to air reports that said no one was injured in the security forces’ attacks on protesters. She was beaten by batons, overwhelmed with tear gas and pelted with rubber bullets that left scars like polka dots on her forearm and leg.
“In the space of an hour, maybe even less, five people died before my eyes, all of gunshot wounds to the head and chest,” she recalled. “I started thinking, ‘I don’t care how many people are against this revolution, I’ll stay here forever.’ ”
A year later, Azouz sounds deeply conflicted about the revolution and isn’t sure how or why she should continue to support a movement that appears stagnant, disjointed and powerless next to the influential military and Islamists. The tipping point, she said, came on a day when protesters outside the Cabinet building came under attack only a few yards from where patrons lounged at an outdoor cafe.
“I was in the middle of the street,” she said. “I looked one way and saw people laughing and flirting at the coffee shop, and I looked the other way and saw people dying.”
The fear, complacency and hypocrisy she witnessed in her fellow Egyptians so enraged her that she took off her veil, the small, desperate act of a woman who no longer believes that a beard indicates piety or that a uniform promises protection.
“Gandhi had a point when he said, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world,’ but others have to believe that, too, and it’s just not happening,” she said. “How could they change when they still don’t even have the basics? How can you ask them to think, to read literature and history, when they can’t eat?”
Azouz said she saw no viable candidate who could revive the revolution, so on Election Day she plans to spoil her ballot by writing on it an Arabic word that translates roughly as “void.”
“The message is that you won’t deceive me again with a paper and make me feel like I’m part of a decision that’s already been made,” she said “The best thing for the revolution is for Amr Moussa to become president, because maybe people will finally realize that we’re still at square one.”
McClatchy special correspondent Omnia al Desoukie contributed to this article.