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Explainer: What Is At Stake In Egypt's Presidential Election?

  • Ron Synovitz

Presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh waves after casting his vote at a polling station in Cairo. A Fotouh presidency could present a challenge to the ruling military council.

Presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh waves after casting his vote at a polling station in Cairo. A Fotouh presidency could present a challenge to the ruling military council.

Two days of voting began on May 23 in the first round of Egypt's presidential election -- a ballot that comes 15 months after longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak was ousted by Egypt's Arab Spring uprising. If none of the 12 candidates secures more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two will face off against each other in a June 16-17 runoff. Let's take a closer look at what is at stake.

What do opinion polls suggest about the outcome of Egypt's presidential election?

None of the opinion polls ahead of voting is considered a reliable indicator of the eventual winner. That's because just over half of eligible voters still said, just days before the start of the first round, that they remained undecided.

But four front-runners have emerged from the different groups that are battling to guide Egypt's post-Mubarak transition and, thus, political life in the country for years ahead.

Marina Ottaway, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, sees that power struggle as a four-way battle.

"We are still in the middle of a transition and the transition has turned into a four-way struggle between the military and parts of the old [Mubarak] regime that are still intact, the Islamist parties, the secular parties, and the protesters in the street," Ottaway says. "There is very difficult fight going on among these four political groups."
A woman shows her ink-stained finger after casting her vote in Cairo.

A woman shows her ink-stained finger after casting her vote in Cairo.

About two dozen candidates initially were contesting the presidency. But 10 were disqualified in April by the Supreme Presidential Elections Commission, and others dropped out of the race -- including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad ElBaradei -- leaving just 12 candidates in the election.

Two of the front-runners are Islamists and two are secular candidates who had been ministers during Mubarak's rule.

Who are the front-running Islamist candidates?

Opinion polls show that a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood -- Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh -- is clearly among the top contenders.

Seen as a moderate Islamist compared to the more radical Salafists, Fotouh gained revolutionary credibility by joining demonstrators outside Egypt's Supreme Court on the first day of the uprising against Mubarak in January 2011.

Fotouh's appeal to voters from different ideological backgrounds makes him appear as a consensus candidate for voters who want the country to move away from an increasing polarization between Islamists and liberals. It's a role Fotouh has trumpeted in his campaign speeches.

Fotouh's broad coalition of support includes the ultraconservative Al-Nour Party and the liberal activist Wael Ghonim. He was affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood from the early 1970s until he formally quit all political work with the movement in 2011 and decided to run for president.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate is Muhammad Morsy. He has been the chairman of the Freedom and Justice party since it was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood after Mubarak's ouster.
Just over half of eligible voters said they were undecided before the start of the first round of voting.

Just over half of eligible voters said they were undecided before the start of the first round of voting.

Morsy initially was nominated as a backup presidential candidate but emerged as the movement's main candidate after Khairat el-Shater was disqualified by the Supreme Presidential Elections Commission -- a decision based on a Mubarak-era criminal conviction that was widely seen as being politically motivated.

Who are the leading secular candidates?

Former Arab League chief Amr Moussa -- an independent candidate with international diplomatic credentials -- is one of the leading secular candidates.

Moussa was the secretary-general of the Arab League from 2001 to 2011. He had been Egyptian foreign minister from 1991 to 2001 and also served as Egypt's ambassador to the United Nations, India, and Switzerland.

Louisa Loveluck, an administrator in the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, has written in an election analysis that Moussa appeals to a "growing constituency who fear continuing political uncertainty." She notes that Moussa has stuck to a campaign script peppered with the Mubarak regime's language of stability.

For Egypt's powerful Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has ruled the country since Mubarak stepped down, the undeclared favorite is Ahmed Shafiq.

Shafiq was the last prime minister of the Mubarak era -- a position that he held for one month. Before that, his 40-year military career culminated as commander of the Egyptian Air Force. He also served as Egypt's minister of civil aviation from 2002 to 2011.

Shafiq was among the 10 candidates disqualified in April by the Supreme Presidential Elections Commission. But he was reinstated by the judicial panel on appeal. Critics describe Shafiq as a remnant of the Mubarak regime.

What do Egypt's street protesters want?

Many young Egyptians who continued street demonstrations after Mubarak's ouster say they want all remnants of the old regime to be removed from power.

Many also complain that the 2011 uprising was usurped when Egypt's military council took power in the wake of Mubarak's downfall.

Islamists have mobilized large protests with crowds demanding a greater role for Islamic Shari'a law in the country. The Islamists also are calling for reforms of the police force -- with greater respect for human rights.

All candidates have vowed to crack down on street crime that has become pervasive since Mubarak's ouster.

The need to create more jobs to bolster Egypt's struggling economy is an issue raised by candidates seeking to attract voters from all ideological perspectives.

There also have been demonstrations by liberals calling for greater unity between all Egyptians.

What does Egypt's ruling mlitary council want?

Analysts say Egypt's military council wants to maintain a behind-the-scenes role in political transition that gives the military a stake during the decades to come. They also want to prevent a civilian government from having an oversight role on the military's budget.

That means a president who could help control the process of creating a new constitution to replace the version suspended after Mubarak's overthrow last year.

That process already has been delayed by the dissolution of the panel of lawmakers tasked with drafting a new constitution -- leaving it unclear, for now, how strict Shari'a law will be in Egypt.

It also has left unclear what the powers of the presidency will be after the current election -- although the winner will be limited to two four-year terms in office.

Clearly, Egypt's military favors the longtime military personality of Shafiq.

Analysts say Moussa also would be preferable in the eyes of the military council to any of the Islamist or leftist candidates because he is a known entity to them.

A Fotouh presidency could present a challenge to the military council. Fotouh has made campaign promises to replace the upper echelons of the military with younger leaders -- a move seen as particularly worrying for the military junta at a time when a new constitution is to be drafted.

With additional reporting by Voice of America