Egyptian spring has turned to glum autumn

Cairo. Egypt. Nine months after the Tahrir Square revolution that over threw President Hosni Mubarak, the mood in Egypt is glum.

I’ve just come from Tunisia where  Sundays elections – the first of the Arab Spring – were marked by the high turnout and excellent organization. In contrast, Egyptians are confused and uncertain about how their upcoming elections will work. 

Pricey new Muslim Brotherhood headquarters. (Trudy Rubin / Staff)

With dozens of party lists and huge number of independent candidates, no one is quite certain how the voting will work, when the first round starts in late November.  Nor do Egyptian authorities appear anywhere near as organized as the Tunisians were. Meantime the economy, and tourism, are in the tank. Egyptians in every line of work – who are eager to seize their freedom – are striking for benefits the country cannot afford to pay.

A couple of things are certain.  The biggest winner – sure to take a plurality – is the Freedom and Justice party, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Another smaller chunk of votes will be picked up by salafist parties, comprised of hardline Islamic fundamentalists who have turned from violence to elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood has large amounts of money – they just built a huge new headquarters in Cairo that is rumored to have cost ten million dollars.  Stories abound of huge donations from rich Saudis or Gulf Arabs, who are also believed to be bankrolling the salafists. The latter have enough cash to set up satellite TV stations populated with radical clerics who have been known to broadcast hateful propaganda against Egypt’s Coptic Christians.

Most Egyptians believe another block of seats will be won by backers of Mubarak’s old NDP party, who will come back as independents or under a new party name.

Lurking in the background, the military is still the main power in the country, and many Egyptians believe they are in cahoots with the Islamists and former NDP members, because they know these people and think they can control them.

Meantime, liberal and social democratic parties have fragmented and so failed to united into a grand alliance that could offset the Islamists. Nor have they been able to raise sufficient funds to get their message out; most liberal businessmen are afraid to contribute from fear that they will alienate the military who might harm their businesses in retaliation.

Bottom line:  Egypt’s first election post-revolution is likely to be dominated by conservative Islamists, but may be so fragmented as to be unable to govern.  Optomists here say it will take five years for the population to grasp the culture and mechanics of democracy.  Pessimists fear that five more years of chaos may send the country lurching towards fundamentalist Islam or economic collapse.

I will be talking to many Egyptians next week in an effort to decide where I stand on the optimist-pessimist pole.