Egypt’s presidential election, set to be the freest it has ever had, began for citizens abroad on Friday after a caustic televised debate between two candidates that produced no clear favorite to lead the most populous Arab nation.
Egyptians who overthrew President Hosni Mubarak as uprisings swept the Arab world last year are savoring the spectacle of politicians competing for their votes and the streets are abuzz with argument over who is the best man to tackle poverty and corruption and uphold their new-found freedoms.
With no obvious winner for now, the expatriates registered to vote in consulates between May 11 and 17 may help swing the election. Recent polls suggest the race is wide open, with many citizens yet to make up their minds.
Expatriates who have registered to vote are a minority among the 6 to 8 million Egyptians who live abroad, mostly in Europe, North America and Gulf Arab states, according to official figures cited by local media.
According to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, expatriates in 166 countries will cast their votes in the first round of the elections, scheduled to end next Thursday. The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Egyptian embassies and consulates are ready to receive the 586,000 expats who have registered to vote, the official MENA news agency reported.
Sorting will take place immediately after the voting process ends, in the presence of candidates’ representatives, representatives from Egyptian communities abroad, and NGOs granted permits to follow the elections.
The largest bloc of registered expat voters is in Saudi Arabia (261,924 voters), followed by Kuwait (119,234 voters), the United Arab Emirates (61,427 voters), Qatar (32,836), the U.S. (27,318), and Canada (11,892).
Foreign Ministry spokesman Amr Roshdy was quoted by Egypt’s daily al-Masry al-Youm as saying that the ballot papers of Egyptians expatriates were available on the Presidential Elections Commission website as of Thursday midnight Cairo time, so “voters could print and send them by mail or hand them in to embassies or consulates.”
Roshdy said the ministry received instructions from the Presidential Elections Commission that expats can vote using passports or by attaching their images to ballot papers, rather than their Egyptian ID card or a copy of it, provided their names are listed at the embassy or consulate as eligible voters.
In France, Abdul Aal Shady, 55, an agriculture engineer living in Paris, said he had voted for leftist Hamdeen Sabahy.
“He is the black horse of this presidential election because he is the most famous to have fought the former government since he was a student,” Shady said. “If (Amr) Moussa wins, it is catastrophic for the people. It leads to a second revolution.”
Hundreds of Egyptians queued in front of their embassy in the Saudi capital Riyadh to cast their votes. “For the first time in my life, I take part in elections, and I don’t know how it will end or who will win,” said one of them, Mahy Samir.
In Cairo’s sheesha (water-pipe) cafes and on Twitter, Egyptians swapped impressions of Thursday night’s unprecedented televised stand-off between Islamist Abdul Moniem Abul Fotouh and Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister of Mubarak.
“If you didn’t enjoy the debate like me, remember that if someone told you a couple of years ago that there would be a presidential debate, you would have thought it was a sci-fi movie,” tweeted Mohammed Diab.
The disorganized build-up to the first-round vote on May 23 and 24 has been marred by deadly street clashes in Cairo and lingering suspicions that the generals now in charge will try to manage democracy from behind the scenes after formally handing over to civilians by July 1.
Egypt has never had a genuinely contested presidential election, but several candidates were disqualified last month and two recent court verdicts have challenged regulations for the vote, deepening the impression of a chaotic and fragile political transition towards a more democratic future.
A supreme administrative court is due on Saturday to view the state’s appeal against one of the court rulings which demanded the postponement of the election.
Egypt’s democratic experiment is being closely watched by long-time ally the United States and neighboring Israel, both unnerved by the sweeping success of Islamists who were long repressed by Mubarak but who now dominate parliament.
Liberal and left-wing activists who helped topple Mubarak have struggled to translate their success on the streets into a prominent role in politics. The presidential campaign is mostly a contest between Islamists and Mubarak-era figures.
Policy paralysis and political bickering has drained some of the optimism that greeted Mubarak's ousting in February 2011.
The Moussa-Abul Fotouh debate lasted more than four hours and may have entrenched the impression that they are the main contenders. The two independent TV stations that aired it said they had been invited because they topped recent opinion polls.
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, a run-off between the two top-placed contenders will take place in June.
(Additional writing by Abeer Tayel)