Sunday, May 13, 2012

Historic elections

It is just 10 days until Egyptians go to the polls to vote in an election for President in which the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.  None of the leading candidates is a military figure, and they represent substantially different views and ideologies.  In other words, there is a real choice.  Arguably this is the first time in the 6,000 year history of that country that this will happen, and a dozen Augsburg College "Auggies" will be there in Cairo to witness this.  Although there will certainly be some dissent and protest on any given Friday, the overwhelming sense I get from Egyptians is that they want this election to go well (as they did with the parliamentary elections), to show the world that they can have legitimate, orderly selection of a new regime.

The two leading candidates, Amr Moussa and Abdel Fatouh had the first (4 hour!) presidential debate on May 10, with their views reflecting two different responses to the revolution.  Moussa represents those who want stability and order, and generally have had enough of all the protests, viewing them more as trouble-makers and unruly youth.  Moussa has fairly strong ties to the Mubarek regime, having served as Foreign Minister for over a decade, and been a major figure in Egyptian foreign policy for the past 30 years.  He was considered as a possible challenger to Mubarek in the 2005, but did not run.  If he is elected, it will be another blow to the people of Tahrir, whose parties and leaders did not fare well in the parliamentary elections.  In the short run he would likely be able to get the economy "back on its feet" a bit faster than Fatouh, but in the long run, he would not likely do as much to address the problems of economic injustice in the country.

Fatouh is positioning himself as the candidate of the revolution, a champion of the protestors and "their" candidate to a much greater degree.  He has an interesting background, and I find him quite an interesting character, defying easy categorization.  He was imprisoned for five years for opposition to the regime, was a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, then kicked out for his independent stance, is a fairly liberal and tolerant Muslim, and now endorsed by the Nour party (with its base in the religiously conservative Salafis).  He is a proponent of "reformist Islam" that is open to women having an equal role in politics, religious pluralism, nonviolence, and justice.  Fatouh rightly stands up for Islam against the critiques and stilted views held by the Western media.  In contrast to Moussa, for whom Egypt is still an "Arab Republic," Fatouh would certainly elevate the Muslim identity of Egypt.  Although the U.S. and Israel are not happy about this prospect, it would put the plight of the poor and dispossessed at the heart of the government's policies, and that really needs to be the priority.

Religion is of course an important element of the election, although I would argue it is not that different from the role of religion in the U.S., where Christianity clearly dominates the American political scene (even with the First Amendment in place).  In the U.S. the religious litmus-test for Presidents has been pretty iron-clad for the last 200 years, so it would seem odd for us to be critiquing Egypt for considering the faith of its candidates in the election.  Mitt Romney may not be a mainstream Christian, but he certainly isn't a Muslim (and the odd claims that Obama was a Muslim indicate the deep-seated antipathy to that faith in the U.S.)  The real issue of course is not so much the faith of the chief executive, but, as eloquently stated by JFK during the 1960 campaign, how those views might be reflected in policy.  Certainly the Saudi and Iranian versions of Islamic rule have many really repressive elements, but these can be attributed as much to non-religious dimensions of those regimes as to any particular teachings in the Koran.  Saudi oppression is backed by the U.S. and by oil money;  Iranian repression by U.S. sanctions and oil and natural gas money.  Egypt is neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran, and the form of Islam there has predominantly been open, tolerant, and moderate.  The real good that Islam and the mosques in Egypt have done in addressing the pressing needs of the poor provide a strong basis for public policy that will carry forward the demands of Tahrir.

In any case, the Egyptian people, God willing or Inshaa Allah, will have a real choice to make on May 23 & 24, and we will be paying close attention and reporting in on what we see when they do.

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