As Egyptians cast their ballots in what could turn out to be the most significant milestone in Egypt’s transition to democratic rule, the country’s youth greet the prospective candidates with varying degrees of enthusiasm, while an unmistakable thread of pessimism runs through the discourse of secular liberal groups, many of which helped lead the January 25th uprising and now believe the revolution has been hijacked, either by the Islamists or by remnants of the former regime.
Still, one can clearly discern excitement among young Egyptian voters for several of the leading candidates in the first round of the country’s first free and fair presidential elections.
The first of these, Abd Al-Moneim Aboul Fotouh, has been one of the leading contenders since the race began in 2011. Aboul Fotouh is appealing to voters because he is able to attract support from diverse segments of Egyptian society. During a massive rally organized by his supporters last Friday, for example, female professors, ultraconservative Islamists, liberal activists, and former members of the Muslim Brotherhoo delivered speeches. “He has the most potential to unite Egyptians,” argues Suzy El Ayoubi, a lawyer and head of the legal counsel of an Egyptian oil and gas company. “I’m not a socialist,” she continues, “so I think his program suits Egypt better than that of some of the more leftist candidates.”
Even some of Aboul Fotouh’s detractors point to the strengths of his ideas . Sondus Hassounah, a public health specialist who submitted an absentee ballot for Amr Moussa, praised Aboul Fotouh’s positions on health care. “He has a very holistic approach to reforming the sector,” she remarked. When pressed on her reluctance to vote for him, Sondus admitted her suspicion of his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. “Even if you believe that he’s severed his relationship to the organization, being a member of the Brotherhood implies an entire way of life, and you don’t just give that up.”
Many young secularists make less of an effort to temper their criticisms of Aboul Fotouh, who they assert has a long history of flip flopping in order to win political support. “This is also the man who founded the Islamic Group, whose membership made a sizeable contribution to Egypt’s pool of armed jihadists and terrorists,” pointed out Mohamed Bahrawi, editor in chief of Egypt Oil and Gas. “I’m not willing to entrust my country’s future with an Islamist just because he recently carved out a role for himself as a progressive voice within a fundamentalist organization.”
Voters like Bahrawi seem to be lending their support to one of the other leading candidates among the youth, Hamdeen Sabahi, a former journalist and Nasserist politician. Largely perceived as one of the only non-Islamist candidates with political legitimacy in post-Mubarak Egypt, Sabahi presents himself as a supporter of social justice and nationalism and as such, competes with some of the more populist campaigning strategies of his Islamist competitors.
And yet many of his supporters admit that Sabahi’s appeal is mostly as an alternative both to the Islamist candidates who terrify secularists and the other non-Islamist frontrunners, Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafik, both of which have ties with the former regime and are often perceived as corrupt.
Indeed, many young voters understand more clearly who they don’t want to take office. Mohamed Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s official candidate, is a particularly polarizing figure. While he enjoys immense popularity and the full support of the organization (advantages which some observers assert could win him the election) the more progressive and secular segments of Egypt’s youth fear that he would implement radical policies aimed at Islamizing an already conservative Muslim country, policies in large part conceived by one of the group’s main strategists and financiers, Khairet Al-Shater. “The only scenario in which I will feel compelled to vote,” says Ahmed Beguirmy, a mechanical engineer and small business owner, “is if either Mursi or Shafik make it to the run off. In that case I will vote for whoever opposes them.”