By John Ballard
It's much more satisfying to read about contentious democratic contests than the savagery of tyrants. The struggles still underway in Bahrain and Syria are heartbreaking, even maddening to follow. But reforms in Egypt have energized the population to participate in a more civil political process. Like our own presidential elections, the Egyptian race becomes a prism through which ordinary citizens see their hopes, fears and aspirations.
I have no dog in this fight, so here are a few links to informed descriptions of the Egyptian presidential race. I read them on two or three levels.
The first level, of course, is how and whether a candidate will succeed in becoming a constructive alternative to the Mubarak/Sadat military dictatorship that has run that country since before most of the young people who brought about the Tahrir Revolution were born. Older Egyptians may have a different opinion of what is best for their country (just as in Russia there are plenty of older people who long for the good old days of Communist control) but that is part of the dynamic of electoral politics -- how to persuade people to vote for someone who falls short of perfection.
The second level is hearing the background noise of our own country, trying not to project American values on an Egyptian viewing screen. As a child of the Sixties, for example, I'm tempted to recall the American civil rights movement and see the Egyptian struggle as an echo of the struggle to bring an end to desegregation and voting rights abuses. When reading about Salafists it's hard not to compare them with politically involved Evangelical Christians. Ultras and Salafists come across as lunatic fringe groups, not unlike the Tea Party or anti-immigrant groups, and one is tempted to disregard their influence.
There may be other parallels between Egyptian and American politics, but it's important to remember that the social and political landscapes of our two countries have far more differences than similarites.
Most Americans know, for example, that there are Christians in Egypt. What they may not realize that Coptic Christians (whose origins can be traced to the New Testament) have their own pope and a history largely uncontaminated by the Catholic/Protestant conflict through which most Western Christians view their faith. When they read about Christians being targeted by angry Muslims they probably don't know that Coptic Christians are forbidden to divorce, and sometimes a young Christian (usually a woman) may convert to Islam in order to divorce and remarry, resulting in her being kidnapped and forcibly returned to the community.
Which brings up another extraordinarily deep difference between Egyptian society and our own, the role and treatment of women. This is a subject too complicated for this post (I may put up another one but for the curious reader, the current flap over Mona Altahawy's provocative article in FP is a good place to start) but that is a huge difference between our two countries.
(I cannot leave the women's issue without a link to this link as well. This is a totally important subject. The interview and conversation is about twenty minutes long, and I think everybody should take time to watch it from start to finish.)
All that said, here are some links regarding the Egyptian presidential election.
? New Republic: Media Gets Egyptian Candidate Wrong
This NPR report is a journalistically balanced view and points to the nuances most US readers will never catch.
But American media has had a tough time acknowledging the dispiriting truth that Egypt's presidential race is now a contest between theocratic Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi and Abol Fotouh on the one hand, and autocratic former Mubarak regime officials such as Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq on the other. Instead, the country's major newspapers have gone out of their way to designate a hero. The Wall Street Journal thus whitewashed Abol Fotouh as "relatively liberal," while The New York Times dubbed him a "liberal" outright. Any judicious reading of Abol Fotouh's record would contradict these characterizations.
? Support From Islamists for Liberal Upends Race in Egypt
Here is a link to the NT Times article referenced above. This snip is by no means enough to "catch the drift" of the article. The reader is urged to check the whole piece.
The main missionary and political groups of the ultraconservatives, known as Salafis, threw their support behind Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a dissident former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood known for his tolerant and inclusive view of Islamic law.
The endorsement goes a long way toward making Mr. Aboul Fotouh the front-runner in a campaign that could shape the ultimate outcome of the revolt that ousted the former strongman, Hosni Mubarak.
Mr. Aboul Fotouh�s liberal understanding of Islamic law on matters of individual freedom and economic equality had already made him the preferred candidate of many Egyptian liberals.
?Hardline Islamists back Aboul Fotouh for Egypt president
This is BBC talking. The Beeb is a solid source, so check here for more nuances. Nevertheless, the headline names "Hardline Islamists" which is certain to be misunderstood by most of their audience.
Egypt's ultra-conservative Islamist groups have chosen to back Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh in the presidential race, rather than the candidate of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood.
The former jihadist group, Gamaat Islamiya, has announced its support after the main Salafi party, Nur made its decision at the weekend.
Experts say it is a serious blow for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The development comes as official campaigning for the presidency begins.
Doctor Aboul Fotouh was expelled from the Brotherhood last year after he announced he would join the contest. At that stage, the mainstream Islamist movement said it did not plan to field a presidential candidate but it later reversed the policy.
?The Aboul Fotouh Bandwagon
I saved this link, like dessert after a meal, for last in this list. Baheyya is the most articulate and inciteful observer of all matters political, not only in Egypt but all of MENA and the Levant. She doesn't post often, but when she does I pay attention to every word. From the first time I came across her blog I concluded that this woman has a mind like a steel trap.
Need I say it? I trust her take on anything before that of anyone else. I get the impression that she's an Aboul Fotough supporter. I don't vote in that election, of course, but if I did I might vote for him simply because I have that much confidence in what Baheyya writes.
To kick off the official start of presidential competition, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh�s campaign did a smart thing and showcased the most energetic part of his base: university students. Bedecked in the cheerful orange color of the campaign, they packed into dozens of buses from across Egypt and poured into Alexandria�s famed al-Qaid Ibrahim Square where they put on a marvelous show, pulsating with hope and jubilation at the imminent prospect of real presidential elections.
It�s impossible to be around a gaggle of college students and not catch their enthusiasm, especially if they�re wisecracking the whole time while working like bees. After a march on the Corniche, they stationed themselves in a nice grassy public space next to the Ibrahim mosque and set up shop. An instant fairground emerged, with booths selling campaign commodities and booths to sign up more volunteers; a poet�s corner; a wall display charting milestones in Aboul Fotouh�s public life; art stations; two roving guys with a drum; and a huge orange mural constructed and painted by Alexandria University students.
The poets� stage hosted a string of eloquent spoken word performances and one hilarious stand-up routine where a young man parodied some highly imitable public figures, including Hazem Salah Abu Ismail and the vulgarian Tawfiq Okasha.
An energetic, friendly woman was supervising the students constructing the mural. Dr. Yasmeen Zaki is a professor in the Engineering faculty at Alexandria University and was responsible for securing a permit from the Alexandria authorities and dealing with their bureaucratic obstructionism. �We�ve been working like ants for the past six days, almost round the clock,� she said cheerfully, as students carrying buckets of orange paint darted back and forth. Zaki defines herself as a liberal, and began working with the campaign a couple of months ago during the collection of citizen signatures. She said that what most attracts her about Aboul Fotouh is his personal honesty and ability to gather together different currents, which she said secular candidates she respected like Hamdeen Sabahy and Abul al-Ezz al-Hariri have not been able to do.
This photo-essay is a great read, full of photos and colorful descriptions. If you haven't time for any of the other links above and much choose one only, this is the one to select.