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The first time for millions of Egyptians

The first time for millions of Egyptians

This is a translation from Portuguese of my column that appeared in the March 23, 2012, edition of O Globo:

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

For the first time in 56 years, millions of Egyptians voters will be able to elect their president in democratic elections on May 24 and 25. Until now, Egyptians could only elect a president not through a multi-candidate election, but in a referendum in which they voted yes or no for a single candidate. Thus, Gamal Abdel Nasser was elected with 99.9 percent of the vote in 1956, and Hosni Mubarak elected five times in similar referendums until his overthrow in a popular revolution last year.

With a population of 85 million, and an electorate of nearly 52 million, Egypt has always been a power in the Arab world, especially in the areas of military strength, culture, education, and movies. It is not for nothing that people call Egypt in Arabic  “Umm Al Dunia” or “Mother of the World.” But with the overthrow of the dictator Mubarak and his secular party, the National Democratic Party, the political landscape was opened fully to the religious parties, previously banned for decades.

In recent parliamentary elections, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Party for Freedom and Justice, banned until last year, and the Salafist parties, which are even more conservative, won an overwhelming majority, leaving the secularists and Christians afraid of what may come in the future. But it is foolish to believe the scaremongers who say that Egypt will ban the consumption of alcoholic beverages, will not let women wear swimsuits on the beaches and break off relations with Israel if the Islamists win the presidency. Several officials of the Muslim Brotherhood have said that despite not liking the Jewish state, they will not break the peace treaty signed by President Anwar Sadat in 1978.

And it is this pragmatism that the Islamists have which should calm the fears of the secularists and Christians. After all, tourism is a major source of income in the country, rendering Egypt a record $11 billion in 2008, when 12.8 million tourists visited the country. The Islamists must take into account that denying a frosty beer to that European or American tourist, after a long day of visiting the pyramids, would cause more damage to the economy than would be gained in moral points.

Egyptian voters will have a wide range of choices for the post of president, with at least 300 people trying to become candidates. Independent candidates will have to collect at least 30,000 signatures of voters from all provinces, or the support of 30 parliamentarians, so that their names appear on the ballot. But with the deadline for signatures only on April 8, there is still much speculation of who will run or not, and the Brotherhood announced that it would not reveal their choice for candidate until the deadline for the registration of candidates.

Still, we know the names of some candidates, like Amr Moussa, a career diplomat who was minister of foreign affairs (1991-2001) and head of the Arab League (2001-2011). He is well known both in Egypt and abroad, but may suffer from being associated with the Mubarak regime. He leads the polls with 26% of respondents choosing him as the future president of Egypt in a 2011 poll.

In the Islamist wing, the candidate who draws the most attention is Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is a doctor by training. He spent, in total, more than six years in prison for opposing the policies of presidents Sadat and Mubarak, and stood out when he led the union of doctors, traditionally a stronghold of the Brotherhood. He is attracting the support of more traditional voters, as well as the support of younger ones, and even feminists and leftists. He has championed the need for complete civilian control of military and upholding civil rights.

And it is the all-powerful Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which many Egyptians are watching with concern, hoping that they let the people decide who will rule them for the next five years. Many fear that the SCAF wants to have the last word on questions of governance, and that it will help politicians linked to the old Mubarak regime to stay in power.

We cannot emphasize enough how important this election will be not only for Egyptians, but also for the entire Arab world. All Arabs are closely monitoring this election as an important test of the uprisings of the Arab Spring. If the Egyptians manage to elect a president representing the majority of the population, and with full powers to govern, including control over the military, then yes, the Arab world will see that their revolts were worth it. They will also feel that they can see the light at the end of a dark tunnel of more than 50 years of living under dictatorships.