Egypt’s Presidential Vote: Minorities Divided

Egyptian presidential hopefuls Amr Moussa (R) and Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh smile during a televised debate in Cairo 10 May 2012. (Photo: REUTERS – Mahmoud Khaled – Handout)

By: Rana Mamdouh

Published Monday, May 14, 2012

Salafi and Coptic voters will have a major say in who becomes the country’s next president, but neither group is united over which candidate to back.

Cairo – While Egyptian expatriates have already begun voting for their next president, Egyptians at home have yet to make up their minds.
The final list of candidates was not actually confirmed until Saturday, when an administrative court ruling upheld the candidacy of former premier Ahmad Shafiq until the constitutional court judgement on the validity of the Disenfrachisement Law, which disqualifies senior members of the former regime from running.
The same court also ruled that the election must be held on schedule.
Yet with only nine days left to choose between the 13 presidential hopefuls, many Egyptians—including political and other groups – remain undecided.
These include the country’s array of Salafi groups, who are divided over which candidate to back.

The two leading Salafi forces in terms of their ability to mobilize voters – the Nour Party and the al-Daawa al-Salafiya – have come out in support of independent Islamist candidate Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh – as have the Salafi Front and the Fadila Party.

But other Salafi factions – including the Asala party, Ahl al-Jamaa wal-Sunna, Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadia, the Sharia Association for Reform and Rights, and the Sharia Society – have thrown their weight behind Muslim Brotherhood candidate (MB) Mohammed Mursi.

The so-called “Hazemoun” tendency, meanwhile, continues to support disqualified Salafi presidential contender Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail, despite his having been barred from running.

The split within Salafi ranks reflects disagreements over the extent to which Abul-Fotouh and Mursi are committed to Islamic sharia. Mursi’s supporters accuse his rival of fence-sitting over the implementation of sharia law in Egypt, and have been urging Salafi preachers to endorse the MB candidate instead.

Abul-Fotouh has responded by stressing his determination to “struggle for God’s sharia and the establishment of the Islamic project,” while at the same time emphasising his centrist credentials. “The country wants a centrist president, not an extreme secularist nor a religious extremist,” he remarked on a recent campaign tour.

Observers believe that Abul-Fotouh has the upper hand over Mursi among Salafi voters, and these could prove decisive in giving him the edge over the MB nominee, especially given the popularity and electoral clout of the Nour Party and al-Daawa al-Salafiya.

The MB has sought to counter this by mobilizing big turnouts at Mursi’s campaign events. While designed to project its own strength, observers see this as a sign of alarm on the MB’s part.

Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who according to official statistics account for some 20 percent of the population, are also divided over which candidate to support, albeit from the opposite perspective to their Salafi compatriots.

Some Copts see the priority as electing a president who believes in a civil state and has no Islamist leanings, so as to avoid being treated as second class citizens as they were under the Mubarak regime. This inclines them to back either Shafiq, or former foreign minister Amr Moussa, despite their association with the former regime.

Other Copts see Abul-Fotouh as more deserving of the presidency.

While the Coptic Orthodox Church has deliberately avoided backing any candidate, Coptic activists have sought to mobilize the communal vote.

One group fell out with a committee of 100 prominent public figures which had been formed to choose a consensus presidential candidate who could command the support of a majority of Egyptians after it opted for Abul-Fotouh.

Most Coptic members of the committee resigned. According to Nagib Gibrail, the Church’s lawyer, they had drawn up a list of ten criteria for selecting the future president. These included believing in civil state, not belonging to any Islamist group, supporting equal right for Copts, and also not being an Arab nationalist. Gibrail would not say which if any candidate met these specifications, though he did not suggest there was agreement among Copts in support of former regime figures Moussa or Shafiq.

However, prominent activist Sharif Dous, who heads the General Coptic Association Activist, has openly backed Abul-Fotouh. The Egyptian Coptic Alliance declared after a meeting with Independent Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi that it would announce its recommendation on how Copts should vote shortly. Sabahi had pledged that if elected he would, among other things, bring to justice the perpetrators of sectarian crimes against Copts, and ensure a “just exit” – as opposed to a “safe exit” – from power by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed forces.

The various candidates have meanwhile been continuing with their campaign tours and conferences.

The latest opinion poll, conducted by the public opinion survey and research institute at Misr University for Science and Technology, gives Abul-Fotouh the lead with the support of 34 percent of respondents. Sabahi came second with 10.7 percent, with Shafiq third at 8.4 percent, just ahead of Moussa. The MB’s Mursi trailed in fifth place with just 5.2 per cent.

Sabahi may also prove to be the net beneficiary of last week’s unprecedented televised presidential debate between Moussa and Abul-Fotouh. After the writer Alaa al-Aswany revealed that Sabahi was originally supposed to take part in the debate too but was excluded at the insistence of the other two candidates, Abul-Fotouh responded by offering to hold a separate debate with him.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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