After weeks of disputes over candidate eligibility, Egypt’s election commission on Thursday announced the final list of names that will appear on the ballot next month in the first presidential election since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak last year.
The list was whittled down from 23 registered candidates to 13 finalists. The other 10 were eliminated amid court rulings, conspiracy theories and criminal accusations that have left lingering doubts as to the credibility of the election.
One contender – Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq – was ruled ineligible only to be reinstated 24 hours later, the latest jolt in Egypt’s chaotic, unpredictable race. His is the only candidacy still in dispute; the ultimate ruling rests with the Egyptian judiciary.
Most political analysts view the race as a three-way contest of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi, former Arab League chief Amr Moussa and the independent Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, though the country lacks reliable polling data to declare front-runners with certainty.Liberal and moderate supporters of the revolt complain of being forced to choose “the best of the worst” in a race crowded with former-regime types and Islamists who’ve already backtracked on revolutionary promises in the lead-up to the vote.
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The tumultuous campaign season is expected to grow even more fraught now that the two leading Islamist hopefuls are vying for the orphaned votes of the ultraconservative Salafist movement, whose own favored candidates were disqualified.
Before the cuts, Salafists were openly backing the fundamentalist cleric Hazem Salah Abu Ismail and the Muslim Brotherhood financier Khairat el Shater. Abu Ismail was disqualified because his mother was found to be a naturalized U.S. citizen. Shater was removed on a technicality stemming from a Mubarak-era conviction.
Now concern is growing in liberal and centrist political circles that Mursi and Aboul Fotouh will veer more to the right in order to court the new Salafist kingmakers.
In addition, analysts say, the tug-of-war between Mursi and Aboul Fotouh could split the Islamist vote and give a boost to Moussa in a setback for revolutionaries who seek to cleanse the government of all Mubarak-era holdovers.
Moussa, who was Mubarak’s foreign minister for years, and Shafiq, the former premier, are labeled pejoratively as “felool,” an Arabic word that means “remnants.”
“They’re all just different faces of Mubarak,” said Waleed al Qalla, 27, a trader from the deposed president’s hometown of Manoufiyeh. “The revolution didn’t happen just to topple Mubarak, but to bring down the whole system.”
Egypt’s path to elections was rocky from the outset. Many voters have deep misgivings about the election commission, whose flip-flopping on candidate eligibility and other stumbles garnered it a reputation for incompetence and subservience to the ruling military council.
Weeks into the campaign season, the commission on Thursday set the ceiling for campaign spending at 10 million Egyptian pounds, or about $1.65 million, per candidate, and capped runoffs at 2 million pounds, around $330,000, for each of last contenders. The top candidates easily could have surpassed the limit already, judging from their campaigns’ lavish rallies, expensive billboards and glossy literature.
Commissioners also announced that they’d authorized Egyptian and foreign civil-society groups to observe the elections, a somewhat conciliatory move after the government’s high-profile crackdown and court trial against nongovernmental organizations, including ones that had monitored the parliamentary elections last fall.
The commission’s steps came as little comfort to Egyptians who learned only Thursday – less than a month from the vote – the names of the approved candidates, leaving many confused and anxious in a moment they’d looked forward to as a victory of the revolution.
“I buy the papers every day and try to know as much as I can so that I make the right decision,” said Abdullah Ahmed, 55, the owner of a laundry business. “I always wait for the TV shows that host candidates to talk about their presidential campaigns and future projects, but it’s not enough.”
With the headlines dominated by the three or four perceived front-runners, voters have little chance of inspecting the other hopefuls, a mix of lesser-known figures whose chances are considered slim: a veteran Nasserist activist, a couple of Socialists, an independent Islamist, a reformist judge, a former intelligence officer and a diplomat, among others.
The next president will face enormous pressure, supervising the drafting of a constitution, propping up a crumbling economy and navigating the inevitably contentious transfer of authority from the military. Although many Egyptians are expected to vote along party lines or on the advice of religious clerics, there are calls among voters of all backgrounds for nuance in candidate platforms that so far have been heavy on the platitudes and short on substance.
“We have no idea who those candidates are,” lamented Mahmoud Ali, 42, the owner of a small kiosk in downtown Cairo.
Without close inspection, voters say, all the programs sound the same in their promises of jobs, security and education. How, they ask, are they supposed to understand the differences in doctrine among Islamist candidates? Or figure out whether to trust candidates from the former regime to complete a democratic transition? Or how liberals would revive the crashing economy?
Marwa Farid, 28, a pro-democracy activist, said she’d scrutinized the Muslim Brotherhood candidate’s economy-focused platform to little avail.
“I couldn’t understand it, and I come from an economic background,” Farid said. “I’m horrified. Elections are four weeks away and we have voters who have no idea who’s running or what the platforms are. It’s a farce.”
Last week, some frustrated voters began demanding American-style, nationally televised debates as a quick way to acquaint Egyptians with the crop of candidates. After a vigorous online campaign via Twitter, local media announced that the country’s first presidential debates would be broadcast on an Egyptian satellite TV channel over three dates in May. There was no word on which candidates would participate.
“The first encounter of the most powerful presidential candidates – on air,” promised an ad that appeared in Egyptian newspapers this week.
When asked their reactions in street interviews, most Egyptians eagerly welcomed debates, though a few had reservations that the race already had become so heated that the candidates could end up exchanging blows in a televised brawl that would further embarrass Egypt before a world that had cheered on its popular uprising.
“We’re not the United States or Europe,” said Mona Sayyed, 40, a nurse. “The candidates already insult each other in the newspapers, so God knows what would happen if they were together in the same studio.”