Egyptians head to the polls on Wednesday to vote in what will hopefully turn out to be the first fairly contested presidential election in the country's history. Among 13 candidates overall, five stand a decent chance at garnering enough votes in the first round to advance to a second run-off round that would determine the winner. With no reliable public opinion polls and after a hectic few months of campaigning — interrupted most dramatically by the disqualification of ten candidates, including Salafi front-runner Hazem Abu Saleh and Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat al-Shater — no one really knows what outcome to expect.
The elections come amid ongoing uncertainty over the aims of both the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), in charge since Mubarak stepped down last year, and the Muslim Brotherhood, which won a commanding percentage of seats in the parliamentary elections that ended in January. The lead up to the election has focused less on what the candidates each hope to achieve programatically than it has on how each of them represents the antidote to a different bogeymen.
Ahmed Shafiq and Amr Moussa, both former officials in the Mubarak regime, are the choice for many who fear Islamist dominance by either the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafi groups that won nearly a quarter of parliamentary seats. This includes a significant portion of Egypt's Christians, on edge after a number of attacks on churches during the past year. Anecdotal reports from the street also suggest that supporters of these candidates prioritize stability, which they see the more establishment candidates as capable of providing, and want a counter-balance to the Islamists' strength in parliament.
Hamdeen Sabbahi, a revolutionary Nasserist candidate, appeals to secularists and leftists who see his positions as best responding to the demands made by protesters during the uprising last spring: bread, freedom, and social justice. His longtime involvement with opposition politics, as a founder of the Karama Party and an early participant in the mid-2000s Kefaya movement, lends him revolutionary credibility. Sabbahi's major weakness is that those most likely to support his candidacy are also those most likely to boycott the elections entirely, because their major fear is that a SCAF-supervised transition will lead to a situation in which SCAF retains much of its power. Others express concern with the Nasserist emphasis on promoting pan-Arab unity, which they see as an idea past its time.
The two leading Islamist candidates — official Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi and ex-Brotherhood independent Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh — are also strong contenders. Aboul Fotouh was kicked out of the Brotherhood when he declared last year that he wanted to run for president at a time when the organization insisted it did not plan to field a candidate. He has since stitched together a broad coalition of supporters ranging from Salafi groups who see him as the most likely winner to liberal Islamists and more secular liberals who view him as a moderate capable of overseeing a smooth transition out of military control, unlike Mubarak regime “remnants” such as Shafiq and Moussa. Morsi has the advantage of the Brotherhood's mobilization machine, although the alternative provided by Mr. Aboul Fotouh, combined with Morsi's lack of charisma, keep his prospects uncertain.
Whoever emerges from the first round of voting in the lead, his victory will not reflect a clear mandate for a particular program, but rather the complicated web of fears and hopes upon which Egyptians are basing their votes. Many are voting as much or more against something they fear —Muslim Brotherhood control, Salafi influence, return of dictatorship, a return to the pre-revolutionary status quo in socioeconomic policies, entrenched SCAF power — as they are voting for something they believe in. Whatever the outcome, the fact of this uncertainty marks a huge step forward in Egyptian politics.