Egypt is conducting the most historic election the Arab world has seen, much more important than the purple thumb ballot that got so much attention in 2005 in Iraq.
The presidential race pits a Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, against two secular candidates, Ahmed Shafiq and Amr Moussa, who had links to the old regime and one moderate Islamist, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who has broken with the Brotherhood because he felt they were too rigid and insufficiently pluralist.
In my first day here, talking with human rights activists and liberal journalists like Hani Shukrallah, managing editor of Al Ahram Online, I heard a deep despair that Egypt may be sliding towards a conservative Islamist future in which the Muslim Brotherhood controls the presidency, the parliament, and through them the education system and interior ministry – home of the dreaded police. In the background, is the Egyptian military, which has been the paramount power in the past, but whose legitimacy is diminishing.
“The new Egypt is scary, grim, grim. For the time being the revolution has been betrayed,” Shukrallah told me, in his book lined office, as his staff tapped busily away on their laptops in cubicles nearby. Many liberals are supporting Aboul Fotouh because he has tried to bridge the secular-Islamist divide. But the Brotherhood, with its vast organization network, honed during decades of social work for the poor, is in better position to deliver the votes, especially in the vast stretches of rural Egypt, where people care most about their daily bread.
The campaign is being waged with huge rallies, TV ads and endless talk show discussions – campaign headquarters are invisible, mostly operating out of apartment buildings, and costly billboards are clustered around major bridges and intersections.
But make no mistake. This is an election whose results could shake the Middle East.