Egypt's elections and generation gap

2012-05-25 12:55
Cairo - Arwa el-Hussein, a 20-year-old pharmacy student, has been quarrelling with her father for weeks, trying to get him not to back Hosni Mubarak's former prime minister for president.

"This is a betrayal of the revolution," she says of support for Ahmed Shafiq, a veteran of the regime that last year's uprising sought to topple. "I get depressed when I think about it."

Egypt's landmark election for a new leader, in which voting took place for a second day on Thursday, has brought out a generation gap in many families around the country, with elders looking to old, known faces and their children yearning for something new.

The result is a lot of squabbles and shifting alliances around dining room tables and in front of living room TVs showing endless candidate interviews. El-Hussein said she managed to sway her mother to "vote for the revolution", but her father successfully won one of her brothers over to the Shafiq side.

Her mother, Omayma, is now hard-core against any Mubarak regime candidate, branded by many as "feloul", or "remnants".

"We will have a second revolution if the feloul win," mom declared.

For the young, a new face is a way to pay a debt to the revolution and bring a change in the entrenched ways of Mubarak's autocracy. Without last year's uprising, they argue, Mubarak would never have ceded the power he had held for 29 years and the doors never would have opened for the first real competitive presidential election in Egyptian history.

Many of their parents, however, crave stability after 15 months of painful transition since Mubarak's fall, with street violence, collapsed security, a battered economy, surging food prices and rising crime rates.

The thrill of the unknown adds an edge to the debates: This race is wide open.

Final results

Out of 13 candidates, five have emerged as the most prominent, but none has pulled clearly ahead. Final results of the first round are to be announced on Tuesday. If, as expected, no one wins more than 50% of the vote, the two top candidates will enter a 16-17 June run-off, with the victor announced on 21 June. At this point, it's anyone's guess even who those top two will be.

Nearly a quarter of Egypt's population of 82 million is between the minimum voting age of 18 and the age of 30. The generation gap is not cut and dried — every candidate boasts young supporters, and some elders will wistfully say it is time for new blood — but it does appear to be a factor, and it cuts across the polarisation between Islamists and secularists.

Many of the young were turning to two "outsiders" among the front-runners. One is Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a moderate Islamist whose inclusive platform has won him the support of some liberals, leftists and even some minority Christians. Abolfotoh is himself something of a rebel, having split with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The other is Hamdeen Sabahi, an activist who claims the pan-Arab, socialist and nationalist legacy of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. He's the youngest of the front-runners, at 57.

Many of the older generation have looked to well-known faces rooted in Mubarak's era. One is Shafiq, a former air force commander and Mubarak's last prime minister, who was booted out of office by street protests several weeks after his former boss. Another is Amr Moussa, Mubarak's foreign minister for a decade before become Arab League chief.

In generational terms, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate Mohammed Morsi fits somewhat in the same category, though he is Islamist and Shafiq and Moussa secular.

The Brotherhood joined the anti-Mubarak protests, touts itself as part of the revolution and has a strong youth activist contingent. But in the eyes of some of the young, the 82-year-old, secretive Brotherhood led by septuagenarians is just as much a part of the "old regime" — it was Mubarak's chief opponent during his rule, but the rivalry intertwined it in the system.


In the middle class village of Kerdasa not far from the Giza Pyramids, Mohammed Saleh looked dismayed at a polling centre transformed into a beehive of Brotherhood supporters. For him, the group has "deceptive" ways that resemble Mubarak's.

The young accountant with thick glasses said his mother was voting for Morsi. "I asked, 'Why, mom?' She said a doctor treating her at a hospital told her to. This is how they brainwash people's minds."

"They give people food at low prices. They sell cooking gas cylinders for five pounds [80c], while outside it is sold for almost six times that price," he said, referring to the Brotherhood's extensive charity organisations, which critics see as a way of buying popular support.

Saleh and his three brothers were going for Abolfotoh, who by leaving the Brotherhood "proved to us that he can build himself from scratch".

Outside a polling station in northern Cairo, Injy Khairi rested with her two young friends on a bench after standing in the long line to vote. Khairi told of friends who hid their parents' national ID cards — which voters must show to poll officials — to keep them from voting for "feloul".

Khairi, fresh out of university and now working in a call centre, said she tried to sway her older relatives to Sabahi, but failed. "The feloul listen to no one but feloul."

The same story holds in their workplaces, she and her friends said — administrators look to Moussa or Shafiq, the young staffers to Sabahi or Abolfotoh.

Rafaat al-Gamal, an engineer in his fifties who backs Shafiq, said he doesn't care if his friends call him "feloul".

"This is Egypt, not a banana republic," he said. "The president must be a warrior like Shafiq. Do you want to give it to Islamists," who he said want to monopolise power just like Mubarak's ruling party once did.

"My model is Mubarak"

Opponents of Shafiq and Moussa fear that they will do nothing to dismantle Mubarak's deeply rooted autocratic system, reliant on fear of police and riddled with corruption and patronage among officials, the military and businessmen. Shafiq is always remembered with a quote he gave during a TV interview saying, "My model is Mubarak".

Many of the young said that if either of the two wins, sooner or later, protesters will return to the streets to demand change, as they did in the 18-day anti-Mubarak uprising centred on Cairo's Tahrir Square.

"I told my parents, if Amr Moussa wins, you won't see an empty inch in Tahrir Square," so many protesters will turn out, said 28-year-old Ibrahim Haroun, a salesman living in Cairo's Dar el-Salam slum.

"We are like a baby crawling toward democracy ... The first thing is to get rid of old leadership, the old business class backed by the army," he said. "My parents don't see that."

Voting dynamics are tough to judge. Some fear the "revolution" vote will be split between Abolfotoh and Sabahi. But then the "stability" vote is split between Shafiq and Moussa. The Brotherhood has a powerful electoral machine, but Abolfotoh has siphoned away Islamist voters. Many voters who don't identify as Islamist but backed the Brotherhood in last year's parliamentary elections have since grown disillusioned with it.

Salah Osman, a 42-year-old accountant, backed the Brotherhood for the past 20 years. Now he's voting for Shafiq, because he wants "an experienced man."

His wife is an Abolfotoh supporter, and their good-natured bickering lasted all the way to a Cairo polling station Thursday.

"He tried to change my mind, but I'm determined," said his wife, Samia Mohammed. "Shafiq is of the past. We want the new."

Osman giggled. "I even hid her ID. But here I am, accompanying her to vote. This is democracy."

"But I'm going crazy," he said. "How can any two candidates even make it to the run-off with so many different opinions, even in the same home?"

Read more on:    amr moussa  |  ahmed shafiq  |  egypt  |  north africa  |  egypt elections 2012

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