No clear frontrunner in presidential polls post revolution

Egypt's presidential elections, widely seen as the culmination of the first round of the Egyptian revolution that started with a blazing uprising that removed former President Hosni Mubarak, has failed to throw up a clear frontrunner.

Despite a spirited contest, none among the leading contestants — Abdel-Moniem Abul Fotouh, a breakaway Islamist; Mohamed Morsy, the candidate put up by the formidable Muslim Brotherhood; Hamdeen Sabbahi, the respectable Nasserite nor Amr Moussa, the veteran diplomat tainted by his long years of association with Mr. Mubarak — have managed to work out a winning formula. Each one of them — not because of lack of trying, but as a consequence of Egypt's complex societal mix — can hope with some assurance of breaching the sharp liberal versus Islamist divide, which has become the hallmark of politics in the post-Mubarak era.

The elections on May 23-24 are taking place against the backdrop of the army's grip on power. All candidates and parties recognise that Egypt's revolution would be incomplete without the army's relegation to the barracks. Yet, not all wish to confront the might of the military, at least not yet. For instance, the Salafi Dawa — the organisation of the ultraconservative Islamists — wants to bide its time, hoping to grow and consolidate for some more time under the protective shade of a non-hostile government before making a final grab for power through the ballot.

Of all the candidates who wish to befriend the liberals and Islamists at the same time, Mr. Fotouh has been first off the blocks. A Muslim Brotherhood icon for decades, he plunged into the presidential race after his expulsion last year from his parent party — a result of his unilateral announcement that he aspired for the highest office in the land. Mr. Fotouh's subsequent espousal of women's rights, his contention that the presidential office was open to all Egyptians including the Coptic Christian minority, became part of a carefully calibrated campaign. Yet not all liberals are convinced by his message of inclusivity, notwithstanding Mr. Fotouh's high-voltage campaign — in which is also fielded, in bright orange, a double decker campaign bus, in addition to the numerous billboards and posters that tower over Cairo's noisy rush hour traffic, bearing his smiling visage.

Mr. Fotouh's benign “Egypt-for-all” message has attracted further controversy after the Salafi Dawa decided to back him, instead of Mohamed Morsy of the Muslim Brotherhood. The decision of the Dawa demonstrated two things — first that far from being a monolithic bloc, the Islamists in Egypt are a divided house; second, despite their puritanical image, the Salafists are a pragmatic lot, not immune to temptations of political opportunism. Observers point out that the Salafists recognise that a confrontation with the Brothers is inevitable, since both are competing for the same Islamist political space. On the contrary, they can avoid this contradiction, if Mr. Fatouh assumes power. Despite the Salafists distancing themselves from the Muslim Brotherhood, the latter's candidate, Mr. Morsy, is by no means a lightweight. It is well recognised across Egypt's political spectrum that that the Muslim Brothers are the best organised, and their capacity to mobilise street power on election day will remain unsurpassed. Besides, the organisation wields plenty of financial muscle. Beneath the repression of the Mubarak years, a new Muslim bourgeoisie quietly managed to sprout in Egypt. Recently organised under the banner of the Egyptian Business Development Association (EBDA), it is now looking for economic and political assertion, chiefly by riding the Muslim Brotherhood bandwagon.

However, Mr. Morsy's weakness may lie in his limited appeal among liberal voters, who are more likely to converge towards Mr. Moussa, Ahmed Shafiq, also of Mubarak vintage, and Mr. Sabbahi, the Nasserite. Mr. Moussa's chances may have dimmed after his opponents branded him a “fuloul” — a derogatory reference in Arabic to a cabal of former Mubarak-era remnants, who now wish to ride the revolutionary wave. In the end, Egypt seems to be heading for a fractured vote, with a run-off between the two leading contenders next month offering possibilities of a more focused and decisive contest.

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