Egyptians, whose only choices in presidential elections have been voting for the dictator or staying home, now have a dozen presidential candidates to choose from in the country’s first-ever contested election, which begins this week, and interest is running high.
A new Gallup poll shows the Islamists, who scored decisive victories in the parliamentary elections six months ago, “appear to be losing steam.”
The frontrunner appears to be Amr Moussa, the secular former secretary-general of the Arab League and Egyptian foreign minister, but he is not expected to garner a majority in the first round that begins May 23. In that event, there will be a runoff in mid-June.
A longtime outspoken critic of Israel, he has rejected calls to tear up the peace treaty with the Jewish state and break relations, as some have called for. But he has spoken of revising the treaty, which Israel rejects, fearing it will only lead down a slippery slope to destruction. Unlike his rivals, Moussa has refused to call Israel an enemy. "For me, Israel is an adversary with whom we do not agree."
His two leading rivals are Islamist activists: Khairat el-Shatar, of the Moslem Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party, and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, of the Salafi movement’s Nour party. Both have been highly critical of Israel.
Hamdeen Sabahi, a socialist and Arab nationalist, may be the dark horse to watch in this race, offering an alternative to the Islamists and the former Mubarak officials. He is considered the most anti-Israel candidate and has said he wants to abolish "the spirit" of the Camp David agreement and has spoken of preparing for possible war with the Jewish state. “I will support all forms of armed resistance (against Israel) whether it comes from Palestine’s land, from Lebanon’s land or from any other land,” he has said, “Egypt will no longer be a godfather for Israel in this region. This will be over,” the New York Times reported.
While all the leading presidential candidates have spoken of downgrading relations with Israel in varying degrees – and you thought they couldn’t get colder than under deposed president Hosni Mubarak – it is not clear how far the army would let them go. The generals are not about to surrender all their power in the new order and it remains unclear just what changes they will tolerate. They have ruled Egypt for the past six decades and rely on $1.3 billion in annual American aid and access to top U.S. weapons systems and technology, are loathe to surrender their vast political and economic power. They understand the linkage between that and the need to maintain good relations with the United States, and that means with Israel as well.