There are approximately 24 hours to go until the Egyptians go to the polls to vote for a new president; a unique experience in modern Egyptian history. No one knows for sure who the votes will go to, but while the outlook seems ambiguous, the general framework is clear. There are those who want an Islamic president, and others who believe that that the Islamists have achieved enough gains already with their acquisition of the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council.
Most indications suggest that the first round will not determine the name of the next president, unless there is an unexpected surprise. Current projections are revolving around 4 or 5 names that the votes will focus on, two of whom will likely be engaged in a run-off election in June. No one knows for certain which way the balance will tip for two main reasons, firstly there do not seem to be any authenticated opinion polls, and secondly there is a large non-politicized bloc of the electorate that is yet to settle on a candidate, and many people will make their decision when they are at the ballot box.
This bloc of undecided voters is what the candidates are attempting to win over in the final days of campaigning. They know that the bloc may surprise them, as happened in the parliamentary elections - which surprised even the Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood - when the Salafis gained the second highest percentage of seats despite their limited political experience, and the fact that their ideology rejects the idea of elections and the democratic system.
We will not know the inclinations of this bloc until the first round results begin to appear, showing features of the road that Egypt will go down in terms of the identity of the president, before the outcome is finally settled in the second round. Yet the million dollar question, which everyone is trying to answer, is: Will this president be from the Islamist current, or outside of it?
Some say that whoever assumes the first presidency in the era of “Egypt’s second republic” will not have the same quasi-absolute powers and strength of the presidents who held office during the first republic, established after the 23rd July Revolution . Hence if the president comes from outside the Islamist trend, he will collide with those in the People’s Assembly and Shura Council who oppose him, and his term in office will be blighted by a power struggle. This talk makes sense of course, but it overlooks the importance of the presidential post for the more mainstream Egyptian public, who are still not receptive to the idea that the head of state is just a high level ceremonial employee. This mainstream current is what any incoming president will have to win over, even if they are from the Islamic trend.
There is also the current state of confusion that has resulted from the last transitional phase, characterized by a prevailing atmosphere of polarization and mistrust, which has led to Egypt entering into presidential elections without a clear constitution defining the powers of the president, or the relationship between the authorities of the state that have recently entered into conflict with each other, such as the parliament and the judicial authorities. A constituent assembly is yet to be formed because of vetoes on prior agreements, and attempts by the Islamic current to monopolize it, which were met with public rejection.
This difficult legacy makes the task of the next president a daunting one, and the voters’ choice must reflect the public interest and national harmony of all components of society. The Egyptians cannot afford another four years of fluctuations, extreme polarization and attempts by some political forces to monopolize the country.
It is a difficult legacy but it is an opportunity for someone who wants to go down in history, if the president can correct the course and guide the new transitional phase in the right direction, and reassure everyone that this is a country for all, and not a specific category. Despite the expectations that the problems, whether political or economic, will not end or disappear automatically, the election of the president with genuine popular legitimacy will create momentum and new mechanisms to allow for the course to be rectified. Egypt can move forward with the determination and good will of all parties, and perhaps after four years the talk may be different in light of this experience.
The writer is is Asharq a-Awsat's Deputy Editor-in-Chief. The article was published in the London-based daily on May 22, 2012