Egyptians turned out in droves Wednesday to vote for a president. The fact that a free election is news says much about how much has changed since President Hosni Mubarak was toppled some 15 months ago.
For the past 5,000 years or so, Egypt has been ruled by a series of pharaohs, kings, sultans, generals — dictators all. No more. Whatever comes next for Egypt — and many analysts now fear for the worst — Egypt's first president is unlikely to enjoy anything like his predecessor's enormous power.
The 11 men — two of the 13 on the ballot have effectively dropped out of the race — offer Egypt's nearly 85 million people, some 50 million of whom are eligible to vote, starkly different choices with respect to Egypt's future.
The leading Islamist candidates — the more liberal Abdel Moneim Abou-el-Fatouh, 60, and Mohammad Morsi, the 60-year-old engineer who represents the Muslim Brotherhood, the doctrinaire Islamist organization that has battled Egypt's rulers since its founding over 80 years ago —are telling people that Egypt must be governed by Islamist roots and values —that Islam remains key to solving Egypt's crushing economic woes. For such religious candidates, Islam, and that becoming an Islamic state, is the solution.
The main secular candidates include Ahmed Shafiq, an ex-Air Force chief who is the military's current favorite, Amr Moussa, Egypt's former foreign minister under Mubarak and ex-chief of the Arab League, and Hamdeen Sabahi, a socialist and Arab nationalist who earned second place the early voting of Egyptians living abroad. These men, the race's unapologetic nostalgia contenders, argue that Egypt will suffer from what Moussa called an "experiment" in Islamic rule.
The religious-secular split is not this society's only cleavage, however. Egyptians are likely to split their vote between candidates who are perceived as being "pro" or "anti" revolutionary —those who championed Mubarak's overthrow and those who feared the chaos and uncertainty of the National Democratic Party's stultifying, monopolistic order.
Revolutionaries favor a much diminished role for Egypt's military, the self-appointed guardians of Egyptian stability, public order and safety; they despise the men they call "feloul," or the "left-overs" from the earlier regime. Reactionaries, by contrast, crave a return to the 1980s, when the jails were filled with Islamists and other alleged enemies of the Arab nationalist republic and the media reflected mostly official views.
None of the candidates mirror Egypt's demography — the youth bulge with its rising expectations and disproportionately high rate of unemployment. Women candidates, too, have fared poorly in the new, post-Mubarak order. There is no woman among the 13 presidential candidates, and women won only eight of the 508 seats in the parliamentary elections — fewer than 2 percent.
Many Coptic Christians, too, who see themselves as descendants of the original Egyptians but who now constitute probably only 10 percent of the population, fear for their fate in an "Islamist" Egypt.
Perhaps those most depressed by their election prospects are classical "liberals" in the Western sense of the word — members of the April 6 youth movement and the hundreds of thousands of the technology-friendly, Western-oriented "twitterati" class, have been grappling with the issue of how their Tahir Square revolution was "stolen" by the far better-organized Islamists, the army, and the "remnants" of the regime's former National Democratic Party.
Amr Bargisi, a young liberal and western-oriented activist, lamented what he called Egypt's choice between "Islamist Repression or Repression of Islamism." Nothing else would come out of the ostensibly "free" elections under way," he wrote in an article published today in Tablet, the American on-line magazine.
He was not inspired by the sea of voters' pink fingers that emerged from the more than 10,000 polling stations throughout the country today. Egyptians were being asked to choose between "the Muslim Brotherhood and old Mubarak hands," he told me when I visited Cairo last week. "There are no liberal democrats in sight."
The reason for their absence was obvious, he added today. "My country currently lacks the necessary foundations of liberal democracy" — first and foremost, "liberal leadership" that could confront Islamism, Egyptians steeped in individual liberty's "philosophical roots and historical development."
"You can find various editions of Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in any modest sidewalk bookstand," Bargisi wrote. "But you won't find John Locke's Second Treatise on Government or Plato's Republic in Cairo's biggest bookstores" — in English or in Arabic. Islamist teaching has been "ubiquitous in schools and mosques, on bumper stickers and YouTube videos."
But Bargisi's pessimism was rare today. Most Egyptians were jubilant about their right to participate in a truly free election. It is heady stuff —these trappings of democracy.
The economic crisis that awaits Egypt's next ruler, whether he be secular or Islamist, was temporarily forgotten. Few Egyptians were on Wednesday about how a president would work with a Parliament dominated by Islamists or an army intent on protecting its economic interests and influence. Few Egyptians were contemplating how a new, freely elected government responsive to the will of the people would cut and rationalize subsidies that now consume at least 25 percent of the government's budget.
Such challenges are tomorrow's agenda, when the field of presidential contenders will be narrowed to two. Only then will the choice facing Egypt be clearer.