Egyptians are rediscovering the art of politics as elections draw near in what is now the Arab world’s biggest democracy
In the final moments of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency, Mohamed Elshahawy made a call to the man he thought should replace him.
“We need to talk about the future,” he told Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, then a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader.
One year on, Elshahawy has taken time out of his job as a successful business manager to work seven days a week heading Abol Fotouh’s campaign. He is one of a generation of Egyptians who have thrown themselves into the first real competition for the nation’s presidency, scheduled to take place in May.
“I rediscovered myself and I rediscovered Egypt,” said 41-year-old Elshahawy in an interview. “I feel there is a mission.”
The race for the Egyptian presidency is forging a new class of political campaigners who have stepped away from jobs as doctors, accountants and diplomats for front row seats in a vote that will be a defining moment in Middle East history.
How Egypt’s political pioneers perform will be crucial in deciding who comes out on top in an election being watched as a measure of the change brought by uprisings against decades of autocratic leadership in the Arab world. Election results were a foregone conclusion under Mubarak, who ruled for 30 years.
Mubarak’s successor must manage the expectations of voters demanding the revival of Egypt’s economy and regional influence while balancing ties with Israel and the United States. The new president will face competing demands: those of revolutionary youth and a conservative and powerful military and liberals and emboldened Islamists. The president must also deal with a parliament set on empowering itself at his expense.
Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister and Arab League chief, is seen as one of the front-runners in a field including independent Islamists and a host of former officials, among them the last prime minister appointed by Mubarak.
Abol Fotouh’s decision to run for the presidency led to his expulsion from the Muslim Brotherhood as it decided not to field a candidate in the presidential race, wary of being seen as too dominant in national politics.
On a steep learning curve, campaign teams have hit the books to better understand the world of electoral politics. One campaign manager said he had met a member of Barack Obama’s election team, others had watched Michael Bloomberg's campaign for re-election as New York mayor or sought advice from Turkish politicians involved in the AK Party’s election win.
Juggling issues from campaign finance to media appearances and planning country-wide tours, their task has been made no easier by the administrative chaos of the army-led transition.
The May election date was itself only set a few weeks ago. Campaign managers also complain that with weeks to go before the 30 April start of official campaigning, they are not yet allowed to raise funds. That has given a head start to candidates with deep pockets and wealthy friends, some of whom have been campaigning unofficially since the day Mubarak was deposed.
Campaign posters and banners already dot the streets of the capital. The campaign of one ultra-conservative Salafi candidate Hazim Salah Abu Ismail is particularly widespread. Illustrating the wealth of his supporters, his campaign has even put stickers on taxi cars and micro-buses.
With opinion polls sketchy at best, gauging what at least 50 million voters are looking for in their new president is just one of the challenges cited by the campaigners.
As they have hit the campaign trail, touring the far corners of the Arab world’s most populous nation, they have found many of the concerns of the Cairo-based elite — the role of Islam in politics, for example — mean little to ordinary people in a country steeped in poverty.
“We are learning every step of the way,” said Hesham Youssef, a career diplomat who left his job at the Arab League to head up the Moussa campaign. His team have commissioned professional surveys to better understand voters whose main concerns are restoring an ailing economy and security. “People are looking for someone who can save the country,” said Youssef.
Looking for further clues, campaign managers are studying the results of the recent legislative elections dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Nour Party, both Islamist parties. They are not planning to contest the presidency themselves, but have said they will back candidates.
The nationwide presidential vote is a different prospect to the constituency-based parliamentary polls, where local presence and organisation were one factor that swayed voters. But the campaigners have been able to draw some conclusions.
One is that the number of Egyptians who voted for the Islamist parties is smaller than their dedicated support base, raising questions about the extent of their influence over the presidential vote and hinting at a pool of millions of non-aligned voters whose choices will be critical. “Right now, we’re in an experimental lab,” said analyst Hassan Abu Taleb.
Some are taking lessons from Amr Hamzawy, a liberal whose parliamentary victory was one of the most convincing. He was one of the few MPs who clinched his seat outright without facing a second round run-off, beating Islamists in the process.
“You have to take name recognition into consideration,” he said. A 44-year-old political scientist, Hamzawy’s regular television appearances as a commentator on satellite television made him a household name before the legislative election.
Hamzawy identifies one key category of voters as “value conservative Egyptians”. Like most Egyptians, these are practicing Muslims but that does not mean they will vote for an Islamist. Familiarity with the candidate is of prime importance.
“If you listen to what people say, some voted based on ideas and political platform and some voted for me simply based on the fact that ‘he’s a decent man’,” Hamzawy said during an interview. “If you can appeal to ‘value conservative Egyptians’, not moved by political preferences, you will make it,” he said.
When it comes to name recognition, none of the candidates appear better placed than Moussa, the 75-year-old who spent a decade as Egypt's foreign minister before he moved to his high-profile job at the Arab League. But his campaign is still reaching out to make face-to-face contact with voters.
“The candidate that is going to win these elections is the candidate that is going to be seen by the most people, met by the most people and heard by the most people,” said Ahmed Kamel, who visited three provinces in a week on the campaign trail.
Kamel, 35, is a qualified neurosurgeon. But in the post-Mubarak Egypt he has found a new vocation in political PR. “I’ve always had a thing for politics,” said the 35-year-old.
One of the biggest of all the campaigns, Moussa’s team has also employed marketing experts. Moataz Abdel Rahman, the marketing manager, joined with a background in brand management.
“Of course it’s a completely different ball-game but the basics of the industry are the same,” he said, as he fiddled with a prototype of a Moussa campaign pin on his desk. “The strategy is do, learn, and do again.”
The Moussa campaign is one of the more well-endowed. Funds have come from the candidate himself or have been donated by supporters, said Youssef. While they may accept donations, the campaigns are not yet allowed to actively raise funds.
Electoral authorities have yet to declare the rules for how candidates can solicit funds, a delay which their campaigns say poses a major challenge for planning.
Unable yet to fundraise, the poorer campaigns feel most disadvantaged by the rules. Leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahy's campaign hopes his popular touch can overcome their financial disadvantage. His entire effort is being run by volunteers.
“The only one who gets a salary in this entire campaign is the man bringing us coffee,” said Sabahy’s 29-year-old campaign manager Hossam Moaness, who is juggling his job as a corporate accountant with his new role.
On an afternoon in March, dressed in a white shirt and a smart black blazer, Sabahy took his campaign to a busy Cairo metro station, stunning bystanders. His slogan is “One of Us”.
Television cameras and photographers crowded around the smiling politician, who most people struggled to identify. He shook hands and listened to street children and vendors complain about food prices and high rates of crime.
“I am happy to be here among you. I promise, if elected, I will bring back the rights of the poor, the rights of the country,” he told excited passengers.
“Who is that man?” asked 41-year-old government bureaucrat Amany. “This is a strange sight indeed. Could you have ever pictured this just a year ago?” she added, smiling.
That kind of sentiment reflects another challenge cited by campaigners: making voters feel their opinion matters. For most of his era, Mubarak’s position as president was uncontested, confirmed in referendums held every six years.
But in 2005 and under US pressure, his administration held what was billed as Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential vote. The far-from-perfect election secured Mubarak’s fifth term in office but did little to boost his democratic credentials.
“A wide strata of Egyptian society has spent the last 60 years playing no role in selecting either a president, a representative or anything. So the concept of choice is new in itself,” said Moaness.
One frequently heard view holds that the fate of the presidency will be decided in a behind-the-scenes deal between the Brotherhood and the ruling military council which could seal the result by mobilising their resources behind one candidate.
Yet the campaign managers, paying more attention to the electoral landscape than anyone, believe that view is both overly simplistic and unrealistic. One asked just how the military would be able to manipulate the vote in a country where these days every government move comes under intense scrutiny.
And Muslim Brotherhood support, while an asset, is not necessarily going to be decisive. Abol Fotouh is expecting strong support from within the group despite his feud with its leadership. But his campaign is leaving nothing to chance. At campaign HQ, workers upload content to Facebook and Twitter sites, plan events and teach activists how to recruit volunteers. “You are the campaign,” states a slogan on the wall.
The media campaign is headed by Ali El-Bahnasawy, a journalist who wrote a book on winning an election. He recalls how his enthusiasm for politics grew when he was in New York in 2009 and got to witness Michael Bloomberg’s election campaign.
“They had an impressive volunteer base,” said Bahnasawy. The Abol Fotouh team has grown from a handful of people one year ago to now stand at 7,000 registered volunteers across Egypt.
“It’s very enjoyable,” Elshahawy, the campaign boss, said, smiling. “Before, I didn’t even know what was going on in the next street. Now I am discovering the whole country,” he said.