On the eve of the first round of Egypt’s presidential elections slated for May 23, Canadian media reports reflected a range of views about the likely winner and the impact these elections could have on the future of Egypt and the wider Arab world.
Although the final result may not be known until a second run-off election (if necessary) is held in mid-June, the National Post’s Peter Goodspeed noted that the stakes are high: “The result, which is far from predictable, will shape the future of the Arab world’s most populous state and could determine whether last year’s Arab Spring can produce a new era in Middle East politics.”
While Goodspeed declined to predict an outcome, he noted that the dozen candidates in the running pitted “Islamists against secularists and revolutionaries against members of the former regime.” He reminded readers that Egypt’s parliamentary elections held last fall saw the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood (with almost 50 per cent) and the more extreme Salafists (with 25 per cent of the seats) dominate.
Might this not indicate that in a country as religiously conservative as Egypt, an Islamist candidate for president is most likely to prevail? Not necessarily, according to Goodspeed. “But concerns that the Muslim Brotherhood might dominate Egypt’s politics, could see the group’s official candidate, Mohamed Mursi, do poorly. Still, the party’s grassroots organizing ability has the potential to get out the vote.”
Writing a May 20 analysis piece for CBC’s website, Mideast correspondent Sasa Petricic noted the uncertainty in the race, but focused on Amr Moussa. A 75-year-old former head of the Arab League, Moussa is considered by many, Petricic noted, to be the leading contender for the presidency.
“[H]ow did a secular, former Mubarak official like Moussa end up as a front-runner?” Petricic asked.
“[H]e’s been playing on two big fears that Egyptians have of their future… [W]hile the vast majority of Egyptians consider themselves devout Muslims, it’s not so clear how many actually want to live in a state defined by religion. Moussa has raised the spectre of an overbearing and risky ‘Islamist experiment’ if his rivals win. Just as important, he’s been promising a return to stability and prosperity.”
Petricic pointed out that with the economy “in tatters” and many without jobs, no candidate will likely be able to turn things around. As a result, there is a strong chance of fresh protests emerging in what optimists consider to be a budding democracy.
Filing for the Globe and Mail from the upper Egyptian district of Komboha on May 22, Patrick Martin had a different prediction: “The outcome of the vote here, and across the country, is likely going to be the election of an Islamist president – either Mr. Mursi or Dr. Aboul Fotouh.”
Fotouh, formerly with the Brotherhood, broke ranks by running for the presidency before the party decided to enter the race. Often called a “moderate” Islamist in western media circles, he is oddly supported by both liberal reformers and the Salafists of the al-Nour party, whose own candidate was disqualified.
According to Martin, the prospect of an Islamist president, however, “scares the devil” out of the Christian Copts who live in Komboha in an often tenuous relationship with their far more numerous Muslim neighbours. (Copts make up about 10 per cent of the Egyptian population of 80 million, and the same proportion among Egypt’s 50 million eligible voters.)
Given these figures, Martin concluded: “With three major candidates vying for the secular 30 per cent, and two major candidates fighting for the Islamist 70 per cent, the numbers seem clear: It could well be an all Islamist runoff election.”
If so, who indeed will there be to protect minority rights? And if minority (and individual) rights cannot be protected, what does “democracy” really mean?
As this column goes to press, votes have yet to be cast, although preliminary results will be available at the time of publication. Readers will thus have the benefit of deciding who among the media experts perhaps best captured what’s happening in this vital area of the Arab world.
Paul Michaels is director of research and media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
This column appears in the May 31 print issue of The CJN