Egypt is gripped by election fever. A frenetic mix of excitement and anxiety has taken over the country on the eve of its first-ever competitive presidential poll fifteen months after thirty-year autocrat Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office in a popular uprising.
Scuffed campaign posters plaster neighborhoods across the capital, clinging to everything from walls to lamp posts to car windows. The leading candidates—their expressions alternating between smiling to solemn—stare past one another from giant billboards looming over the city bustle below. Campaign ads echo across the airwaves while election news consumes newspaper coverage. Television and radio talk shows host daily discussions and debates.
On the street, conversations about the election spill out from cafes, bus stops and public squares, blending into the cacophony of Cairo traffic. As the date of the poll approaches, the most common question people greet one another with is, “Who will you vote for?”
Major questions remain about the powers of the elected president, the future economic and political role of the military and the legitimacy of the entire transition process itself, yet anticipation for the poll—scheduled for May 23–24—remains high.
Fifty-two million eligible voters will have a chance to select from one of thirteen candidates appearing on the ballot. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a likely runoff between the top two contenders is scheduled for the middle of June, with a handover of executive authority from the Supreme Council of Armed Forces to the elected president by the end of the month.
For the first time in Egypt’s history, the winner of the presidential election is not a foregone conclusion.
Among the top contenders is Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a 60-year-old liberal Islamist and former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. With a campaign that combines pro-revolution rhetoric and criticism of the military council with Islamist credentials, Aboul Fotouh has managed to appeal to a broad base of voters, building a unique coalition of support that brings together secular liberals and ultraconservative Salafis.
The diversity of his support was evident at his last major rally this weekend, held two days before a legally mandated campaign blackout went into effect midnight on Sunday. As dusk fell, thousands of Aboul Fotouh’s supporters streamed into an open field at the Gezira Youth Center, located in an upscale Cairo district. Young revolutionaries in T-shirts and jeans led vigorous chants and waved flags emblazoned with Aboul Fotouh’s face as groups of men in crisp white robes, long beards and shorn mustaches quietly looked on.
Nouran Ahmed, a trendy-looking 15-year-old with her hair piled high in a loose bun, was a strong supporter of the revolution, having taken part in protests in Tahrir Square since the revolution began. “Aboul Fotouh is a good man, he’s not part of the old regime and he helps the poor,” she said. “We see him as the revolutionary candidate.”
Not far from her stood 50-year-old Ramadan Nazeer, a member of Al Gama’a Al Islamiyya, the Islamist group once led by US-imprisoned Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (also known as the Blind Sheikh). “Aboul Fotouh is honest, he is a man of faith and his hands are clean,” said Nazeer. “He can bring together all parties in Egypt: Islamists, liberals, leftists.”