Egypt votes for leader to replace ousted dictator

A citizen of Egypt’s young democracy struggles to hold aloft its flag © Getty Images

Egypt, the most populous and ancient Arab country, has voted freely for a president for the first time in its history. The electorate is huge and diverse; their choice is anybody’s guess.

Over the course of its 5,000 year history, Egypt has been led by some colourful characters. Priest-king pharaohs were worshipped as Gods; slave-soldier Mamluks ran Egypt with military efficiency; foreign empires have ruled from faraway lands – first Ottoman Turks, later the British. But of all the leaders in Egypt’s long, rich history, not one has been freely elected – until now.

Last year, Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship crumbled under the pressure of a huge popular revolt. Yesterday voters flocked to polling stations to choose his successor. The final stage in the transition to democracy has now begun.

These elections give the entire spectrum of Egyptian society a voice for the first time in history. But what that voice will say is anybody’s guess: with over 80 million people, Egypt is by far the most populous of Arab nations, and among the most complex.

The capital Cairo is a hub of culture and commerce. The world’s second oldest university can be found here, along with the largest film and music industries in the Arab world. Students and artists rub shoulders with dirt-poor beggars and super-rich businessmen. Orthodox Muslims and Copts practicing Egypt’s own unique version of Christianity live side by side.

Almost all of Egypt’s population clusters in a band along the great River Nile – a situation unchanged since the time of the Pharaohs. But rural communities still feel very remote from the bustle of the big cities. Donkeys are used to plough the ground, while small towns revolve around ancient camel markets. The inhabitants of this Egypt mostly wish for stability.

It is a country where ancient monuments nestle beside skyscrapers; ancient ways of life stubbornly persist despite a swelling tide of modernity.

In the 16 months since the Egyptian Revolution began, this fascinating country has swung between euphoria and despair. The joy of newfound freedom has been marred by a chaotic transition: an economy in tatters, perpetual protests and riots, and an overmighty army making heavy-handed interventions.

Now, with creaks and groans, democracy is clicking into gear. The results of this election will give the biggest clue yet to what kind of country the new Egypt will be.

Illiberal democrats

Few of the candidates in this election offer radical change: the frontrunners are either conservative Islamists or remnants of the old regime. Many revolutionaries are dismayed: democracy should be about freedom and progress, they say, not more of the same.

But Egypt is an ancient society, whose customs are venerable and well-worn. Change here will take time, argue more patient reformists – and that is just as it should be.

You Decide

  1. If you could choose anybody to be president of your country, who would get your vote?
  2. Would you rather live under a dictator who shares your views, or a democratic president who doesn’t?

Activities

  1. Research the pharaohs and write down five unusual facts about them.
  2. Split the class into four groups: farmers, students, labourers and businessmen. Decide what people of your profession would want from an election and conduct a debate in character.

Some People Say...

“People in the West are so ungrateful for democracy, they barely deserve it.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What makes Egypt so especially important?
Its size, for a start: Egypt contains 30 million more inhabitants than the second largest Arab country. It is a major hub for business and culture, and contains some of the Middle East’s most important cities – Cairo and Alexandria in particular. If Egypt succeeded in developing into a flourishing economy, it could be the greatest power in one of the world’s most crucial regions.
So what are its choices?
The thirteen candidates fall into three main categories. Islamists (moderate and extreme) believe in building a society based on the Koran. ‘Fulool’ candidates, survivors of the old establishment, are mostly fairly conservative. Then there are enthusiastic left-wing supporters of the revolution; but few expect these candidates to attract many votes.

Word Watch

Mamluks
The Mamluks, mostly Turkish tribesmen, were originally brought to Egypt as elite slaves of the sultans. However, they gradually became more powerful than the sultans themselves, and by the 13th Century they were in total control of Egyptian government.
Not one
There have been several other elections, but all previous ones have been either rigged, uncontested or both.
Hosni Mubarak
Mubarak ruled Egypt for over 30 years, supported by the army and a huge network of police. He was one of several dictators to be toppled during last year’s sudden outburst of popular revolt – known as the ‘Arab Spring.’ Mubarak has been tried for the murder of peaceful protesters by an Egyptian court, with the verdict to be announced shortly.
Copts
There are roughly 10 million Coptic Christians in the world, almost all of whom live in Egypt. The Church’s head resides in the city of Alexandria, one of the oldest Christian centres. Copts were very important in early Christianity: they pioneered Biblical studies and founded the world’s first monasteries.