Worldview: In Egypt, genuine political discourse

Retirees (from left) Hilmi Hanna Yacoub, Mohammed Mahdy, and Magdi Mahouri reflected on the ballots they cast.

CAIRO - On the first day of the first free presidential election in Egyptian history, 10 young men sat in a circle in a rundown cafe in the working-class quarter of Saida Zainab.

They were supposed to be holding a sales meeting for a food products company, but instead they were arguing over which presidential candidate to vote for.

Three had picked the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, three were opting for a moderate Islamist independent, and three backed a socialist who patterns himself on Gamal Abdel Nasser. One was supporting a former prime minister in the government of Hosni Mubarak named Ahmed Shafiq.

"The real success for the revolution," said their supervisor, "is what is happening in this room. We are listening to each other, even if we are different."

If he is right, if the Tahrir Square revolt has ushered in an era of tolerance where different political strains can coexist and all parties accept them, then the revolution will have succeeded.

But in talking to voters across Cairo, many queuing for hours in the sun in order to cast their ballots, I heard many question the likelihood of such tolerance - especially from Islamist parties.

Indeed, the first day of the election was a day of exhilaration, intense arguments - and fear.

Much of the nervousness revolved around concerns about the direction of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and its presidential candidate, Mohammed Morsi, who appears to believe God has destined him for victory.

The FJP won 47 percent of the seats for parliament, but it has created fear among moderate Muslims and Coptic Christians with its exclusionary attitude toward other parties and toward Christians, and with its efforts to roll back rights for women.

Judging by recent polls, and by my conversations with at least two dozen voters in several Cairo neighborhoods (admittedly no scientific sample), Morsi's chances for the presidency aren't overwhelming. Voters who said they chose the FJP in parliamentary elections repeatedly added that they regretted their choice because the party had performed badly. Uniformly, they said they would not vote for Morsi. Yet the unreliability of Egyptian polls, and the Brotherhood's legendary organizational skills in the countryside, create the possibility of a Morsi upset.

In the Christian neighborhood of Shoubra, Coptic Christian women whispered to me their fears that churches would be squeezed out and that they would be forced to emigrate. In the well-to-do area of Mohandessin, elegant women voting alongside their daughters spoke of their nervousness that a Morsi win would curb their right to work or move around freely.

In another Saida Zeinab cafe, near an open-air vegetable market, three balding retirees sat chatting about their vote over small cups of sugared tea.

Suddenly, Mohammed Mahdy reached over and hugged Hilmi Hanna Yacoub and told me, "He is Christian. If you look at the performance of the religious parties [the FJP and the Salafi Nour Party], it makes Copts afraid." Mahdy and Yacoub had voted for Ahmad Shafiq because they thought his military connections would help stabilize the country. Meantime, their other companion, Magdi Mahouri, who had voted for Morsi, loudly denounced Shafiq as "another dictator," like Mubarak.

Indeed, several young voters told me a victory for Shafiq would send young people, along with the Islamists, back to the streets in another revolution.

They were disdainful, but less adamant, about the consequences of a victory by Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister also considered part of the old order, but less tainted than Shafiq. Some polls have consistently shown Moussa to be leading the pack.

Those who want neither the FJP nor the faloul (old regime) candidates are divided between Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a self-styled moderate Islamist who attracts many liberals, and Hamdeen Sabahi, the Nasserite.

In the voting line in Saida Zeinab, four students were arguing vociferously among themselves over who was the better candidate, until, in desperation, one turned to me and demanded, "Which would you choose?"

Some voters told me such debates had split their families as they jostled over whether to risk a "moderate" Islamist like Aboul Fotouh rather than waste their vote on Sabahi, whom they admired, but who could not win.

In the end, the main issue underlying this election may not be who wins, but whether the winner understands the rules of the game have changed and no single party can dominate the country as did the Mubarak regime.

At present, the Muslim Brotherhood and the FJP seem oblivious to this message, in the belief that majority control means taking the whole pie. Even if they lose the presidency, they will still try to dominate institutions via their strength in parliament - unless other parties unite to create a balance.

Much will depend on whether TV-radio technician Ibrahim Ahmed Ali, a Shafiq voter, was correct when he insisted, while waiting to vote in Saida Zeinab: "There would not be a big change if the Islamists won because the Egyptian people now have a big awareness and won't let things be like before.

"The revolution woke people up from a very long sleep," Ali continued. "They would absolutely not accept another dictator. Now a president will have just four years. If he didn't tackle the right agenda, people will never elect him again."

If Egyptian voters can hold new parties to that standard, then it may not matter so much who is the victor. But that remains to be seen.


E-mail Trudy Rubin at