I want to preface this post by reminding everyone that Egyptian election law dictates that presidential candidates cannot officially begin campaigning until April 26th, at which point the list of candidates will be finalized by the PEC.
That having been said, on Friday the campaign of prominent Islamist candidate Sheikh Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail lined the streets of Cairo with a human-chain of supporters that accompanied Abu-Ismail’s motorcade as it traveled to HPEC headquarters to submit his nomination papers and endorsements. This “unofficial” campaign event epitomized Abu-Ismail’s strength within the Salafist community and the Islamist community more broadly, in spite of the fact that the Salafist Nour party has thus far refused to endorse him.
Politically, the event was meant to strengthen support among Abu-Ismail’s base and to increase media coverage of his nomination and candidacy – and in both respects, it succeeded. Abu-Ismail dominated the Egyptian news cycle on Friday, and even garnered some attention from western media. It looked as though Abu-Ismail’s campaign was off to a great and “unofficial” start.
Then came Saturday, and the news that the Muslim Brotherhood (FJP) would nominate deputy chairman Khairat Al-Shater as its candidate for president. The news of the nomination, first posted on the Brotherhood’s social media accounts, spread through the press like wildfire. Suddenly, Abu-Ismail was yesterday’s news – unsurprisingly so. The MB’s decision to run a candidate in the election, a reversal of prior Brotherhood policy, has major implications, and the reasons behind this decision — though largely speculative — speak volumes about the current state of affairs in Egypt. Moreover, the Brotherhood is a recognizable name outside of Egypt, so their decision to enter the race quickly attracted the attention of major western media outlets who rapidly pieced together their own analyses of the election. In no time, Egypt’s national election was once again international news.
Anyone outside of the Middle East who picked up a newspaper Sunday morning would have reached the conclusion that the Egyptian presidential election was a two-man race: Salafist Abu-Ismail vs. MB Khairat Al-Shater. The media, both inside and outside of Egypt was now primarily focused on these two candidates, leaving many of the others scrambling for press. Amr Moussa, who prior to Al-Shater’s entrance was the front-runner in the race, gave a number of interviews, including one where he questioned Al-Shater’s loyalties if elected president:
If Shater is elected presidnt, the supreme guide [Mohammed Badie] will be the country’s real leader.
Yet while Moussa’s lead was impacted by Al-Shater’s entry into the race, the strength of his candidacy, on a whole, was not. Though they will compete for many of the same demographics in May, Moussa and Al-Shater do not share a base, making Al-Shater’s candidacy less of an immediate threat.
Al-Shater’s candidacy, however, is a direct threat to Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh. Fotouh, a prominent Islamist activist, spent decades in the MB including a number of years serving in the Brotherhood’s guidance office before being dismissed by the group in May 2011 for announcing his intention to run for president. Fotouh is popular among the liberal-Islamist segments of the middle class as well as younger members of the Brotherhood, and cannot afford to cede that demographic to Al-Shater and Abu-Ismail. So with buzz about Abu-Ismail and Al-Shater’s candidacies dominating the media, Fotouh announced on Sunday that he would hold an “unofficial” campaign event Monday night.
The event, which was held in Al-Azhar park, was billed as a presentation of Fotouh’s platform and policies, in reality though it was the “unofficial” launch of his campaign – complete with fireworks, music and campaign merchandise. The park was filled with thousands of Fotouh supporters, mostly young people, shouting slogans such as “the people want Abul-Fotouh as a president” and “down with the military rule”, a shout-out (pun intended) to the slogans of the revolution. This was quite intentional, as Fotouh positioned himself not only as the Islamist alternative to the Brotherhood and Salafist candidates, but also as the candidate of the revolution and of the broader Egyptian society. To that end, the event featured a number of well-known personalities that had endorsed Fotouh, including:
Dina Abdel Rahman – TV host
Dr. Sharif Dos – Prominent Christian physician
Athar Al-Hakim – Actress
Abdel Rahman Youssef – Poet and TV host
Mona Makram Ebid – Politician
Hamdy Kandel – TV host
Mokhater Noah – ex-MB member
Kamal El-Helbawy – ex-MB member
Fotouh also presented his team of advisers, which included 41 members from different political backgrounds and different professional fields. Notably, a third of his advisers are female, a subtle attempt to attract female voters that may feel neglected by the male-dominated political environment.
In his keynote address, Fotouh touched upon many of the major themes that will likely dominate the election, including education, national pride and dignity, military trials, social justice, national security, and the future of the military, among others (Egypt Elects will dedicate another post to focus on the content of his platform). Cognizant of his support among the youth, Fotouh promised that his vice-president will be under the age of 45 – though if the minimum age in order to be president is 40, presumably the vice -president would need to be 40 as well (in case he/she were to become president), so therefore it is fair to assume that Fotouh’s number two will be between the ages of 40 and 45. All in all, the event was an effective way for Fotouh to relaunch his campaign and regain media attention that had otherwise been focused on Abu-Ismail’s human-chain and the MB’s announcement.
Here are some tweets from the event:
So where does that leave us now?
This past weekend was an eventful weekend in Egyptian politics, but that is, after all, the nature of politics…Egypt is no exception. If anything, the political theater in Egypt is amplified because of the proximity to the revolution and the tension between the varying segments of society – which makes the implications of the election all the greater.
Still, the election is more than 7 weeks away, so it is to be expected that there will be many more Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays such as these. More candidates will be added, others will withdraw – all the while Egypt Elects will be there covering the stories and themes that are at the heart of the election.
The bottom line is this: stay tuned, stay engaged, and stay informed. Abu-Ismail dominated Friday, Saturday belonged to Al-Shater, Amr Moussa was vocal on Sunday, and Abul-Fotouh held a massive campaign rally on Monday night.
Whose turn will it be tomorrow?