When Egyptians go to the polls today and tomorrow, they will vote not so much for a president as for a set of ideas. Among the five candidates with a reasonable chance of victory, there are just two clear and viable visions for the new Egypt — Islamist or felool (former regime). Thus in many ways, this race can be seen as a judgment of the former regime and a trial for the untested Islamist paradigm.
Before the Muslim Brotherhood decided to run a candidate last month, it seemed there was nothing to stop Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh from reaching the presidential palace. By uniting former Muslim Brothers, revolutionary youth, liberals, and ultraconservative Salafis behind him, he has run what Shadi Hamid called “a big-tent movement.” But his appeal to a wide base has disturbed some supporters, especially liberals who abandoned him for socialist Hamdeen Sabahi after Aboul Fotouh received the endorsements of Al Dawa al Salafiya and the Nour Party.
Enter Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s backup candidate who came into play when their first choice was disqualified. Though certainly lacking the charisma of Aboul Fotouh, Morsi maintains the financial and organizational prowess of the oldest and largest political opposition movement in the country. The Brotherhood’s extensive business interests provided an ample source of campaign finance. Combined with grassroots organizing and charity work in cities, towns and villages across Egypt, the Brotherhood has an unparalleled capability to mobilize voters and volunteers for Morsi.
The flip side of this affiliation is the backlash against the Brotherhood that many Egyptians are feeling. The lack of sensible action in the last few months from the Brotherhood-dominated parliament has disappointed many people. The Brotherhood’s reversal of its public decision not to run a presidential candidate also turned off many supporters. The general belief that the organization is replacing Mubarak’s National Democratic Party in seeking to dominate political life has become widespread and certainly costs Morsi votes — likely to Aboul Fotouh or Sabahi.
One of the first people to announce his candidacy after the revolution, Amr Moussa has been considered presidential material for over a decade. Mubarak reportedly moved him from the foreign ministry to the Arab League in 2001 to eliminate him as a political opponent. During the past year, Moussa has polled consistently at the top of the field, relying on his reputation as a skilled diplomat and wise, seasoned politician. His appeal crosses socio-economic and geographic borders, taping into people’s desire for someone familiar to restore normalcy.
Any serious consideration of Moussa, however, must include his lack of opposition to the very regime that the revolution sought to overthrow. In addition to executing and defending some of Mubarak’s unpopular foreign policies, Moussa endorsed the former president as late as the 2010 elections. Though he’s not as forthcoming about his intentions as Ahmed Shafiq, the other felool candidate, it is clear that a Moussa presidency would not advance the revolutionary agenda.
As in most democracies, Egyptians face a choice this week between two options perhaps neither of which they support completely. If Morsi and Moussa make it to the runoff, the intricacies of their electoral programs and professional credentials will likely yield to the familiar dichotomy of Islamist versus non-Islamist which has characterized Egyptian politics since the country’s independence.