Ever since the toppling of Egypt’s former dictator Hosni Mubarak, the United States has been very nervous with regard to its former client state. Likewise, most Israeli leaders have been sounding the alarms, warning that the peace treaty with Egypt is in danger and that its relationship with its western neighbor has never been more fragile. Last month, Egyptian authorities, under intense pressure from the public and revolutionary groups, abruptly ended all natural gas shipments to Israel. In addition, the parliamentary elections late last year, which resulted in the overwhelming victory of Islamic candidates, gave early warning signs that Egypt might chart a new independent course to the detriment of U.S. and Israeli policies in the region.
According to multiple well-placed American and Israeli sources, U.S. policymakers have concluded that they must pursue a dual-track policy. The first was to accelerate and broaden the contacts with the new power brokers in Egypt, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, in the hope that engaging the Islamist group might result in more moderate policies towards Israel and the West. The second but more potent approach was to devise a sophisticated scheme in order to ensure that the next president of Egypt would be a friendly and trusted face to the West. The selected candidate was Amr Moussa, Mubarak’s former foreign minister and, until his term ended last year, the General Secretary of the Arab League.
Although he had been known to criticize some Israeli policies on occasion, it was concluded that not only was he a known quantity and would not cross any red lines, but more importantly that he would keep Egypt in the U.S. column and within its sphere of influence in the region, and would easily succumb to pressure if he were to deviate from the line. The U.S. strategy, devised by intelligence and foreign policy officials, consisted of three elements: a) to prevent at all costs a single consensus candidate supported by revolutionary and Islamic groups, b) to sell the U.S. supported candidate as the most able statesman to solve Egypt’s enormous security and economic problems, and c) to bring back Mubarak era political leaders as a ruse so that selling the U.S. candidate would seem as a victory for the masses and the sensible choice once the remnants of the regime were defeated.
There are several presidential candidates that are quite acceptable to the youth and most revolutionary groups that led last year’s demonstrations against Mubarak and the military rule that followed. These candidates include former Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leader and liberal Islamist Abdelmoneim Abol Fotouh, Nasserist leader Hamdeen Sabahi, and leftists Khaled Ali, former judge Hisham Bastawisi, and Abol Izz Al-Hariri. The last three candidates have maintained very low poll numbers and agreed that if a consensus ticket was to emerge they would withdraw their candidacies.
So the real attempt to unify a revolutionary ticket was to have Abol Fotouh and Sabahi join together. Judging by the choices and mood of the Egyptian electorate to favor religious candidates, most mediators recommended that Abol Fotouh become the president and Sabahi vice president. However, Sabahi refused to yield to Abol Fotouh after being approached by many anti-religion liberal and leftist groups that convinced him that he could be the consensus secular or “civil society” candidate.
Even the attempts to unify the remaining four revolutionary secular candidates failed. Once these attempts failed, the impetus of revolutionary momentum waned, as most of its potential votes would be divided over multiple candidates. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood, which played a significant role in the success of the revolution, decided to consolidate its political power rather than lead the transition to a new democratic Egypt with other political groups. After promising not to field a candidate last year, the MB decided to enter the race despite the great concern by most of the other political parties that such move was a power grab that ignored Egypt’s divided society, especially after the MB attempted to singlehandedly appoint the committee that would write the new constitution.
However, many insiders within the group including some who have recently resigned because of this decision, admit that the real reason for fielding a candidate was the fear of the MB leadership that a victory by former member Abol Fotouh would pose a tremendous challenge to the group and its leadership that might potentially break up the 84 year old organization.
Last year, the MB reasoned that it would not field a candidate because it did not want to raise concerns in the West unnecessarily, or face difficulties or sanctions like Hamas in the Palestinian territories after its electoral victory in 2006. But the U.S. sent several signals to the group in February and March that it did not object to a government led by or a presidential candidate from the group. Meanwhile, the military council ruling Egypt gave its tacit agreement by offering the MB strong leader Khairat Al-Shater a pardon from his criminal (political) conviction under the Mubarak regime, knowing that he would be disqualified as his political rights were not restored. It was feared that such disqualification would have caused massive riots.
Enter Mubarak’s former Vice President Gen. Omar Suleiman. On the last day for candidates to file, he made a sudden announcement of his candidacy. Such a move not only irked most Egyptians but came as an insult to all those who struggled against the regime. Massive demonstrations went back to Tahrir Square for two weeks demanding his disqualification. Thus many political observers believe that Suleiman’s candidacy was a ruse so as to disqualify not only him, but also Al-Shater and popular preacher Hazem Abu Ismail, whose candidacy had generated much excitement and who promised to abrogate Egypt’s treaty with Israel.
As the people were relieved that Suleiman was out, the disqualification of the other candidates by the Elections’ Commission had a more muted impact. Nevertheless, the MB was trapped and offered a back-up candidate, the less charismatic Dr. Muhammad Mursi, the leader of the MB’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). By then, the break up of the revolutionary and Islamic groups was complete.
Even though the new parliament passed a law that banned former senior officials of the Mubarak regime, the Elections’ Commission invalidated the law and kept the candidacy of Mubarak’s last Prime Minister, Gen. Ahmad Shafiq alive. Shafiq has a history of insulting and shocking the Egyptian electorate. On several occasions he mocked the revolution and the massive demonstrations, even saying on one occasion that it was unfortunate that it succeeded. Recently, he even declared in a public interview on TV that Mubarak was his role model. In a most stunning way, he said that if he wins he will send the army and security forces to Tahrir and arrest all demonstrators that protest his election since he would be by then a democratically elected president.
Since last December the new government, appointed by the military council and led by Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri, deliberately created many problems for the common Egyptian, including a breakdown of security and an alarmingly increased crime rate, lack of basic goods including bread and cooking oil, and shortage of gas and public transportation. The purpose of such made-up daily crisis was to send a signal to the Egyptian in the street that the revolution has only brought misery and suffering. Thus, only a law and order candidate can restore security and economic prosperity.
Meanwhile, the state bureaucracy was mobilized to support the candidacies of Shafiq and Moussa. Many polls sponsored by state media outlets and government agencies kept showing Moussa as the top candidate. Shafiq kept climbing in these fraudulent polls, rising from fourth to first in a matter of days. People became angry at the thought of Shafiq becoming a viable candidate. On many campaign events he was given the Bush treatment as shoes were being thrown at him. On other occasions, he had to be taken to the back door as fights between his supporters and youth protesters broke out, ending in multiple injuries.
Since early April, Abol Fotouh has emerged as the consensus candidate that many Egyptians with different ideological backgrounds, with the exception of the MB, have rallied around. He was able to secure many endorsements from diverse segments in society that were not seen since the early days of the revolution. He was consistently first in most independent polls. By mid-April, a vicious media campaign against him was in full force. Most government media outlets attacked him for the benefit of Moussa, while other outlets attacked him in favor of Sabahi knowing the latter could only gain at the expense of Abol Fotouh, although he could not possibly get to the second round. The MB media campaign also focused on Abol Fotouh as the group saw in him the greatest threat not only in the polls but also as a candidate with Islamist credentials capable of drawing tremendous support from its base.
As Egyptians go to the polls this Wednesday and Thursday, there are 51 million eligible voters, but how will they actually vote? If left to the US design and the remnants of the old regime they would like to see Moussa and Shafiq finish as the top two contenders, claiming that the revolutionary votes were scattered over Abol Fotouh, Mursi, Sabahi and others. In this scenario it is hoped that Egyptians would flock to Moussa who would rout Shafiq in the second round and people would then breathe a sigh of relief, as Moussa would now claim the mantle of the revolution, the one who defeated Mubarak’s candidate. According to a Norwegian source, two war rooms were created in the American Embassy in Cairo and in the State Department, which are working around the clock in order to engender this outcome. Several American and European experts have already joined the Moussa campaign team running an American style aggressive campaign. When the Senate’s foreign relations committee chairman Sen. John Kerry visited Cairo last month, the only presidential candidate he visited was Amr Moussa, a message not lost on the Egyptian electorate.
On May 10, a four-hour debate between Moussa and Abol Fotouh was aired on several TV channels and watched by tens of millions across the Arab World. Moussa attacked his opponent as a closeted Brotherhood member who would be a threat to freedoms, while Abol Fotouh attacked Moussa as the candidate favored by the remnants of Mubarak’s regime. In one telling exchange regarding Israeli policy, Abol Fotouh declared that Israel was an enemy relying on aggression to further its policies in the region and that he would unconditionally support the Palestinian struggle, while Moussa described it as an out-of-control rival that needs to be brought back to negotiate a settlement within the two-state solution framework.
But if there is any indication of how Egyptians might vote in a free and fair election it is in the 586,000 Egyptian registered voters who live abroad or make up about 1 percent of the electorate. This block of voters started to vote on May 11 and concluded on the May 17. Over 55 percent, or about 320,000 Egyptians have voted in 140 cities around the world, including five cities across the U.S. Excluding Saudi Arabia (with over 40 percent of the Egyptian electorate abroad and where the electorate is much more conservative than any other), independent candidate Abol Fotouh and MB’s Mursi were first and second (garnering 46,000 and 39,000 votes) respectively. But once the votes from Saudi Arabia were counted Mursi received 33 percent (or about 107,000) of the total votes abroad followed by Abol Fotouh at 26 percent (or about 82,000). All other candidates were significantly behind as Sabahi, Moussa, and Shafiq received 14, 12, and 7 percent respectively.
If such a trend continues, then the U.S.-backed scheme will have failed miserably and the second round runoff will be between a current and former Muslim Brotherhood members. If the elections to be held on May 23 and 24 are free and fair, and no one candidate exceeds fifty percent of the vote, then most of the votes of the eliminated candidates in the second round on June 16 and 17 would probably go to Abol Fotouh, making him the first president of the post-Mubarak Egypt- a big if since the remnants, the U.S. and Israel are not about to concede- not yet.