Democracy Now! correspondent based in Cairo, Egypt.
A historic election is underway as Egyptians head to the polls for the first presidential election since their ouster of Hosni Mubarak. For the first time in the country’s history, the winner is not a foregone conclusion. We go to Cairo for an update from Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. Despite predictions of a high turnout, Kouddous says concerns remain over the role of Egypt’s military rulers: "Many say that we cannot have a president without a constitution. ... The president is essentially being elected without knowing exactly what authorities he will have vis-à-vis the military, vis-à-vis cabinet, vis-à-vis the Parliament. And many of these young revolutionaries ... say that any president that comes will be a puppet for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, will not have any real power, and that the real struggle will continue to be in the streets." [includes rush transcript]
NERMEEN SHAIKH: A landmark presidential election is underway today in Egypt, 15 months after Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office in a popular uprising that ended his 30-year rule. Security has been tight as many of 50 million eligible voters make their way to polling stations. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which assumed presidential powers last February, has promised free and fair elections followed by civilian rule. Many polling stations opened this morning with long lines.
This is independent Islamist presidential hopeful, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, speaking today after casting his vote.
ABDEL MONEIM ABOUL FOTOUH: [translated] We must respect the results of the elections on the condition they are free and fair and there is no interference in them. I am certain we are going to stand behind any president who is elected, on the condition there is no rigging of any kind.
AMY GOODMAN: Polls will remain open today and Thursday. As many as 50 million eligible voters could participate. Analysts say no candidate is expected to win a majority, and a runoff election is scheduled for June 16th and 17th. International election monitors include former President Jimmy Carter, as well as U.S. Representatives Jane Harman and David Dreier. Meanwhile, the old polling station where former President Hosni Mubarak used to vote has barred its doors to voters.
This is voter, Ahemed Azzam at the Fatma Annan School in Cairo.
AHEMED AZZAM: [translated] I am here to elect, for the first time, a president of the republic, a president that will be good and righteous and to make this country wake up.
AMY GOODMAN: For more on this historic election, we go to Cairo, where we’re joined by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. He has covered the Egyptian uprising, has been closely following the race.
Hi, Sharif. It’s great to have you back. Tell us what’s happening today.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, as you mentioned, millions of people are heading to the polls today in what is considered Egypt’s first-ever competitive presidential election. It’s a historic day, but also one that’s filled not only with enthusiasm, but also anxiety, because of the way the transition period has been managed and because, essentially, Egyptians are going to the polls to elect a president, unclear exactly what his powers will be. And we can get into that a little bit later.
But the leading front-runners—there’s 13 candidates on the ballot, and it’s widely considered that five of these 13 are the contenders, two of which are considered Islamist candidates, one of whom we heard just a few moments ago, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who was a longtime member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who left the group last year because he wanted to run for president, and the group had said it would not field a candidate. Aboul Fotouh has managed to really bring together a unique campaign where he’s brought together supporters from secular liberals to ultraconservative Salafis. He’s received endorsements from the Salafi party, the Nour Party, here. He’s also received endorsements from many secular people as well as a number of revolutionaries, as well. His political adviser is a Marxist university professor. And so, he’s seen as one of the leading contenders here.
He’s pitted against, of course, the Brotherhood’s own candidate, which is Mohamed Morsi, who’s the president of its Freedom and Justice Party. Mohamed Morsi is not the Brotherhood’s first choice. Of course, the Brotherhood reversed its decision, its pledge not to field a presidential candidate, angered many in late March when it first nominated Khairat El-Shater to run for president, who is its lead financier and its top strategist. Khairat El-Shater was disqualified by the Presidential Elections Commission over a political imprisonment that he had under the Mubarak regime. And so, Mohamed Morsi is running in his place. His detractors have said—have called him a spare tire and said that he would be only a symbolic president and take orders from Khairat El-Shater. But nevertheless, the Brotherhood has a very well-oiled political machine and has put it into full gear to back him. And Mohamed Morsi is widely considered to be one of the leading front-runners.
They’re pitted against two members of the former regime, the former Mubarak regime, one of which is Amr Moussa, perhaps enjoys some of the best name recognition around the country. Amr Moussa was the secretary general of the Arab League for a decade before stepping down last year to run for president. Prior to that, he was the foreign minister for the Mubarak government for 10 years, from 1991 to 2001. And he has really tried to promote himself as a statesman, as someone who can act as a bulwark against the rise of Islamists in government. Of course, we have to remember that in the parliamentary elections that—in last fall, we—the Muslim Brotherhood captured about half of the seats, and the ultraconservative Salafi groups captured about 25 percent, and so they have about 70 percent of Parliament. So, Amr Moussa is really campaigning on this issue of being, A, a statesman with long experience in diplomatic affairs on the international stage and also as someone who can act as a bulwark against the rise of Islamist groups.
Another figure who has really received a late surge—we can call him a dark horse in this race—is Ahmed Shafik. He was Mubarak’s last prime minister and now wants to be the first democratically elected president. He is the closest to the former regime and a man who served—was a retired general. He’s the only—he’s the only candidate who is from the military, like all the former presidents we’ve had in Egypt. He served as civil aviation minister under Mubarak for 10 years. And he was appointed prime minister in the opening days of the revolution by Mubarak on January 29th. He remained in that post following Mubarak’s ouster. He had support of the military council. But he was eventually forced out of office three weeks later over mass protests in Tahrir Square over his candidacy. But he has received a real boost in the polls.
And finally, there’s a Nasserist candidate who has also seen a late surge, Hamdeen Sabahi, who is a longtime resistor to the Mubarak regime, has been jailed many times, was jailed in 2003 opposing the U.S. war on Iraq. He was jailed in 1979 for being an instigator of the bread riots against Sadat. There’s footage of him on January 25th, the first day of the Egyptian revolution, breaking through police cordons and leading crowds through. And so, his revolutionary credentials, I think, are there. And he’s also someone that has received this late surge.
And, of course, there’s also what many people consider the closest candidate to young revolutionaries, a young labor lawyer and human rights activist called Khaled Ali. Khaled Ali is not seen by many as having much of a chance of winning; however, he represents, and his platform and his actions are seen as being perhaps closest to those who were at the heart of the struggle of Tahrir Square, which is just behind me in the distance.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sharif, earlier it was reported that Amr Moussa is the front-runner in the polls. Is that still the case?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, it’s very difficult to tell. Polls here are highly unreliable. They vary a lot. The polls before the parliamentary elections were completely wrong; they completely mispredicted the Salafi gains in the parliamentary elections. So we’ve seen polls go—be all over the place.
The best indication we have so far is the Egyptian ex-pat vote, so Egyptians living abroad who have voted. That period has closed and has been counted. Of that vote, Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, was the winner, followed by Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who is the former Muslim Brotherhood candidate running against him, followed by Hamdeen Sabahi, the Nasserist candidate, with Amr Moussa trailing behind that. So, it’s very unclear to tell.
What is interesting is that, really, for the first time, a presidential election in Egypt’s history is not a foregone conclusion. If no president wins—if no candidate, excuse me, wins above 50 percent in the poll, which is being held today and tomorrow, then a runoff between the top two contenders is scheduled to be held on [June] 16th and 17th, with a final winner to be announced on June 21st.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Have the activists, Sharif, behind the January 25th uprising backed a particular candidate? You mentioned Khaled Ali, but there are also some who are boycotting the election. Can you say a little about that?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That’s right. Some of really the core activists who led the uprising against Hosni Mubarak on January 25th, 2011, that resulted in his ouster, and have really been at the forefront of the struggle of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that replaced him over these past 15 months, have decided to boycott the process. A lot of them boycotted the parliamentary elections in the fall. They’ve seen—they view the whole process as illegitimate. Many say that we cannot have a president without a constitution. I mean, this is a key issue right now, that the president is essentially being elected without knowing exactly what authorities he will have vis-à-vis the military, vis-à-vis cabinet, vis-à-vis the Parliament.
And many of these young revolutionaries—there was a debate that I went to about whether to boycott or participate in the elections—say that any president that comes will be a puppet for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, will not have any real power, and that the real struggle will continue to be in the streets, in strikes. And we have to remember that the biggest concessions that the Supreme Council has given so far has been in the face of three protests. The only reason that elections are being held right now, that we’re talking for a handover of power on June 30th, is because of a seven-day uprising on Muhammad Mahmoud Street in November, which left over 40 people dead and a thousand wounded. And that’s why Hussein Tantawi—Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi is the head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces—named January 30th as the handover of power date.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about the military trials that have been taking place, the thousands of people who have been put on trial, and what happens during this election?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, earlier this month, there were clashes in Abbasiya, a neighborhood that is home to the Ministry of Defense. Protesters had gone there, had started camping out there, and the military eventually cracked down on the protest, cleared all the people there. And it resulted in one of the largest—actually, the largest one-day roundup of people arrested since the revolution began. Over 400 people were arrested. Many of them were beaten and tortured. And many of them—while some were released, about 30 journalists were arrested and were subsequently released, hundreds still face military trials right now. This was a very key issue over the transitional period. More than 12,000 civilians have been put on military trials. But unfortunately, right now, none of the candidates are really talking about this issue, with the exception of Khaled Ali, who’s the young human rights activist. None of the candidates have really spoken about this. And the Muslim Brotherhood-led Parliament recently passed a law regarding military trials which allowed the military judiciary to decide which civilians go on military trials, and so did not ban military trials outright, as many people have called for. So this has become a key issue in this transitional period, in this post-Mubarak period.
But I think another important thing to bring up is what I’ve mentioned a couple of times, is this issue of what powers the president will have. Let’s remember that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued a constitutional declaration in March of 2011 that has been acting as the de facto constitution in Egypt for the past 15 months. This was issued by them. This was not a referendum. It was not voted on in a referendum. This gave the Supreme Council of Armed Forces full executive authority and full legislative authority. Following the parliamentary elections, the Parliament took some of the legislative authority, and the Supreme Council has held onto this executive authority. So, presumably, you know, if the next president—and we were supposed to write a constitution. It was supposed to be drafted, and a constituent assembly was formed in April, but the Muslim Brotherhood really stacked it very heavily with 50 members of Parliament. The other 50 was stacked very heavily with Islamists. And this outraged groups across the political spectrum, from liberal groups to Al-Azhar, the Sunni university, the learning institution, to the Coptic Church. And eventually, a court dissolved the constituent assembly, and now negotiations around the constituent assembly remain deadlocked.
So, as it stands right now, the incoming president is going to function under this constitutional declaration that was issued last year. But the Supreme Council of Armed Forces is very hesitant, I think, to give the president full power over its—over deciding who the defense minister would be, over deciding the military budget, over deciding procurement, being able to look into the military’s vast economic empire. And so, the military is expected to alter the constitutional declaration to specify exactly what powers the president will have. This was supposed to happen a few days ago; i hasn’t. Some say they’re waiting to see who will win, so they can tailor the adjustments to him. So, as has much has been—as it has been in this transition, it’s a very confusing and very inscrutable decision-making process.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sharif, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. has cut $5 million from the $250 million in economic aid to Egypt. They also report that the remaining aid, $1.2 billion, much of it military aid, is conditional on Egypt adhering to the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt and conducting an orderly transition to civilian rule. Can you say a little about the significance of this?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, the U.S. aid has come mainly in the form of military aid, in the $1.3 billion that—annual military aid that has been funneled into Egypt for decades now. We saw Congress passed an amendment that the aid would have to be conditional on steps towards a civilian transition, a transition to a civilian democracy, as you mentioned. However, the Obama administration earlier this year overrode that stipulation on national security grounds. This was just in the wake of the NGO crisis, where members of the International Republican Institute and the NDI were indicted here in Egypt, and some of them were not allowed to leave the country, including the son of Ray LaHood. So, what happened was the Obama administration overrode this on national security grounds. And this is really a continuation of U.S. policy to continue to fund the Egyptian government, regardless of its human rights record, regardless of how undemocratic it can act, in order to fulfill its larger strategic goals vis-à-vis Israel or elsewhere.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, you have lived in the United States for many years, went to college here, worked at Democracy Now! for many years in New York, and then you went home. And that’s where you’re living and covering the Egyptian revolution since last year. How do the elections there compare to what happens in the United States?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, this is the first presidential election, really, in modern Egyptian history where it actually is a competitive election. And so, there has been a lot of hype, a lot of buzz around it. We saw the first presidential debate, really in the Arab world, I think, in Arab world history, a couple of weeks ago between Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Amr Moussa. There’s been a lot of campaigning that’s happening, big rallies. I’ve gone to a lot of the rallies of the candidates. And so, I think, on one sense, people are very excited, enthusiastic and—to partake in this new process that they haven’t been able to partake in before. So there’s a lot of enthusiasm about it. But there’s also, as I have mentioned earlier, a lot of anxiety, as well, A, because it’s unclear exactly what authority this president will have. Security has been a big concern amongst many of the voters we spoke to today. So has the economy.
But clearly, what happens in the United States seems to be—there’s a lot of apathy, I think, about elections. Perhaps four years ago there was a lot of enthusiasm over the Obama campaign.
But in general, this has been a very exciting time. I mean, you walk in the streets, and the only thing people ask each other is, "Who are you going to vote for?" And it’s been, you know, something that everyone talks about on dinner tables and in coffee shops. And so now that it’s finally happening—but I think many people realize that with this election and with this supposed transfer of power, that we still have a long way to go, that the essential institutions of the state have not been reformed whatsoever, that the military has not been reformed, the police, the security and intelligence agencies have not been touched, that really we didn’t have regime change in Egypt, we had change within the regime. And so, while this process is continuing, managed by the military, I think a lot of people are anxious to know whether it will bring about real change. But having said that, this has been an exciting time to be a part of these past few weeks, as this election and campaign frenzy has really kicked into high gear.
AMY GOODMAN: And Sharif, we only have 30 seconds, but Mubarak and his sons still on trial?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yes, the—well, not on trial anymore, but the decision, the ruling, is expected to come down on June 2nd. So, many people are looking to this, wondering what the ruling will be. Mubarak, of course, is being tried for corruption and for having a role in the killing of more than 800 protesters in the 18-day uprising. And so, we’ll have to see where that goes, but it’s going to be a pivotal moment on June 2nd when that ruling comes out.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif Abdel Kouddous, thanks so much for being with us. We’ll continue to follow this election, expected through tomorrow, and then a runoff election in mid-June. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, a senior correspondent for Democracy Now! in Cairo, also a Nation Institute fellow.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, a former Clinton administration official who quit over the signing of welfare reform. Peter Edelman [joins] us to talk about So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America. Stay with us.