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May 22, 2012, Tuesday

Vote like an Egyptian

On Thursday night we will finally know who the Egyptians prefer as their new president and successor to the ousted Hosni Mubarak. That's to say, we will find out which two candidates will make it to the second round on June 16 and 17 because, according to opinion polls, no candidate will get the required majority in the first round.

The prediction that nobody will pass the 50 percent hurdle this week is the only point on which all polls agree. For the rest, there is a remarkable divergence among pollsters on which presidential candidate is doing OK and which one is not. It reflects the lack of polling experience in a country where, as the Egypt Independent put it, “over the past 60 years, the only use for public opinion polling ahead of presidential elections would have been to predict how high in the ninetieth percentile the incumbent's win would be.” Those days are definitively over. Still, many flaws can be found in the methodology used by local institutions conducting polls in Egypt. Combined with a highly volatile public opinion that shifts from one preference to another within a couple of days, it remains quite a challenge to predict who is going to win.

Most polls indicate a successful outcome for Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and Arab League chief, and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader who was expelled from the Brotherhood after he decided to run for president on his own. These two men appeared last week in an unprecedented television debate that continued for hours, and although it did not bring a clear advantage to either of them, it did show millions of Egyptians that things have changed and that discussions can be held out in the open.

The dark horses in this race seem to be Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister under Mubarak, and the official Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammad Morsi, who lacks charisma but can profit from the movement's formidable election machinery.

For sure, the most intriguing candidate is Aboul Fotouh. He presents himself as a liberal Islamist who has moved away from the Muslim Brotherhood's dominant conservative strand and claims he can satisfy the needs of both pious Muslims and young liberals. He is supported not only by people like Google executive Wael Ghonim, one of the figureheads of the anti-Mubarak revolution last year, but also by hard-line Salafi groups. His political adviser is a Marxist professor, his media adviser a liberal journalist and his economic adviser a Christian academic. In a sympathetic portrait, Brookings fellow Shadi Hamid called him “A Man for All Seasons,” backed by liberals who think he is more liberal than he actually is and conservatives who hope he's more conservative than he sometimes appears to be. Others, not convinced by his big-tent approach, have accused Aboul Fotouh of trying to be all things to all people. As informed American blogger Juan Cole put it, “speaking like a fundamentalist to the Salafis and like a liberal to the Coptic Christians and secularists.”

It is surprising to see how quickly the huge appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood has dwindled. In the parliamentary elections a few months ago they took almost half of the seats. Now many Egyptians are disappointed with their performance in parliament and with their tactics that are seen as shifty and secretive. There is a widespread sentiment that it would not be wise to give the Muslim Brotherhood the control of both the presidency and parliament. This remarkable shift is an indication of the fact that the support for the Muslim Brotherhood in December was not for ideological or religious reasons but simply because the Brotherhood was better organized and untainted by corruption.

In this presidential election many voters are looking for other qualities like personal charisma and the ability to pursue an autonomous political line. I agree with observers like Arab and Turkey political expert Steven Cook, who consider these changing calculations as a sign of growing political maturity in Egypt. The country is still in the middle of a messy transition. At the same time, it is also experiencing a more open political environment in which neither the army nor the Muslim Brotherhood are able to impose their worldview on Egyptian society.

As some of you probably guessed, the headline of this column refers to the 1986 hit single “Walk Like an Egyptian” by The Bangles. The song was written after seeing people on a ferry walking awkwardly to keep their balance, which reminded the writer of figures in ancient Egyptian reliefs. This week, the Egyptians are trying to find a new political balance. Let's see where their walk leads them to this time.

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