Egyptians Hope Election Will Save Their Country From the Brink

Tens of millions of Egyptians will head to the polls Wednesday to vote for the candidate they hope will move the country from a state of transition to one that is stable and ruled by a civilian government.

But their hopes come during very volatile times for the country.

Nearly 16 months after a populist uprising aided by the military unseated President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is on the brink.

In early May, Islamist demonstrators protesting the disqualification of a Salafist presidential candidate clashed with the army and "thugs"; at least 11 people were killed and more than 300 wounded.

The military arrested hundreds, some of which still remain in detention awaiting military trials. Human rights groups have accused the military of beatings and torture.

Footage of the clashes left many people rattled, but increased anger on the streets.

Two days after the clashes, demonstrators shouted "Down with the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces," and against its chief: "Tantawi, you'll never be president," they said as they marched to Tahrir Square.

While the situation has stabilized since then with most Egyptians debating which candidate to vote for, the sudden outbreak of violence and the military's response has left some in Egypt wondering whether the presidential elections will make any difference.

Many now believe that despite the promise of reform and democratization, Egypt's recent history has come full circle pitting the same type of players in the battle for the presidential election and the future of the country.

The country is like a runaway train moving with ferocious speed toward the always inevitable showdown between Islamist groups and the ruling military.

For the young Egyptians who sought fundamental socio-political change and braved the vicious onslaught of security forces week after week, their "revolution" has come and gone, side-stepped by the opportunistic bedfellows that dirty politics creates.

Efforts to have a new constitution in place before presidential elections, a major rallying call for many who participated in the street protests last year, also appear to have faltered. The liberals and secularists who just a year ago spoke with a bright outlook and determination are now lonely voices in the street. A handful were able to win seats in Parliamentary elections held between November 2011 and January of this year. But they are largely overshadowed by the majority of Islamist MPs. Egyptians who had invested energy and hope that a freely elected Parliament would pave the way for economic resurgence are unable to contain their disappointment in its dismal performance.

In November, political wisdom had it that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the military had reached a power-sharing deal. The Islamists refrained from participating in street demonstrations, which were eroding the military's legitimacy among Egyptians, in exchange for the authorities looking the other way as the MB and Salafists used every tactic, some illegal and contrary to the constitution, to win votes. They underestimated the military's strength and influence in running the Egyptian political landscape. Within weeks, the MB appeared unable to deal with Egypt's harsh realities as squabbling and political wrangling dominated the Parliament. Then came the Port Said football massacre in February -- 76 people died in clashes that were blamed on cronies of the former regime. Parliament was tasked with sending a fact-finding mission, but it dragged its feet for days as the ire of the people grew. Diab, who delivers laundry on bicycle to his customers, says he can't stomach watching TV coverage of Parliament sessions. State TV has a C-SPAN type channel running round-the-clock coverage, debates, talk shows, etc about Parliament. A devout Muslim with a university degree, Diab works at his brother's Laundromat where he earns the equivalent of $250 a month. He had hoped that a new government would provide better economic prosperity for him to take care of his wife and two daughters. Now, he does not mince words for Egypt's politicians. "The Salafis have offered nothing new, just slogans, while all these politicians appear disconnected from what we [Egyptians] are going through every day," he says. His frustration is shared by most Egyptians I have talked to, including Hassan, a truck driver for a consumer products company. "Everyone has lied to us," he said one evening over mint tea, "We just don't know any more who to trust." Hassan voted for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in the Parliamentary elections but now speaks with open hostility of the group once seen as most likely to run Egypt. "They're liars. First they said they would not field a presidential candidate because they had no intention of seeking power, but they went back on their word and did," he said. The MB nominated Khairat al-Shater as their presidential candidate but the electoral commission barred him from running due to a previous military court conviction. An angry MB responded by fielding another candidate, but that move backfired among many Egyptians. "It's as if they have several candidates ready to go," said Hassan, "Why then all the fanfare just a year ago when one of their own Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh announced he wanted to run for president?" Aboul Fotouh, a physician and a senior member of the MB, was kicked out of the organization last year because his presidential aspirations contravened with the Islamists' promise they would not seek the top job.

Aboul Fotouh made history when he recently appeared on Egypt's first televised presidential debate opposite former Mubarak-era minister and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa.

The debate may have started off slow as the candidates and moderators adjusted to the format, but soon Egyptian (and regional) viewers saw the gloves come off as Aboul Fotouh and Moussa sparred with personal jibes and character assassination.

It was an unprecedented spectacle, the likes of which no one in Egypt could have predicted just two years ago; this was the first time a debate was held, let alone televised.

The debates revealed the power of Egypt's independent media to shape public opinion; many who watched the debates said they were now rethinking whom to vote for.

But Diab says he is unimpressed. "I am likely not going to vote -- none of the candidates deserve my vote," he says.

Hassan said he would vote for Moussa because "Egypt needs someone who is strong and can bring back stability."

A number of national polls have shown that a considerable segment of the electorate favor former Mubarak-era politicians such as former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik or Moussa. They tend to link such figures with the stability they enjoyed in the past under the Mubarak regime.

Hatem Rushdy, a political analyst and blogger, says that the notion of stability under Mubarak is a myth.

"It is a bit ridiculous to say that a system which ended up in a revolution was stable, even more ridiculous to say it was successful," Rushdy says.

While he does acknowledge that the macro economy was improving, GDP per capita was rising slowly but steadily, and that the economy was growing at respectable rates, he says Egyptians were paying a terrible price.

National and foreign debt was rising, balance of payments and balance of trade were both deteriorating and the levels of poverty were at best steady if not growing. There are estimates that up to 70 percent of the population live on or below the poverty line.

Egypt's foreign reserves have also dwindled in the past 16 months reaching $15.1 billion in April. In early May, the Ministry of Finance announced a $100 million rise in foreign reserves.

"We were always going to explode; it was just a matter of time. This is why I think we've been on the brink for decades. Mubarak was like Brezhnev presiding over the declining, collapsing Soviet Union, old, weak, embalmed and rotting, except we didn't even have the world's largest nuclear arsenal," Rushdy says.

But he does hold out hope that with Mubarak's ouster and his regime allies in jail, Egyptians have a greater say in their destiny.

"There is hope and belief that we can change things to the better, and perhaps more importantly, there are some tangible differences too," he says.

"The Gulf Arab states cannot afford a collapsed Egypt."