Walking through the poorer quarters of Cairo, the press of the crowd is overwhelming. People are everywhere: eating, talking, shouting, trapped in what feels like eternal gridlock. It’s difficult to move left or right, forward or back, and not rub shoulders with the shaab, the people of this vast nation of 85 million. It is hard to believe that more than a year has passed since the extraordinary scenes in Tahrir Square.

This week Egypt will elect a new president, in what will be the first free and fair presidential elections in living memory. The winner will contend with poverty, overcrowding, rising unemployment, and the lack of opportunities for the young. Though there are no women running, women’s rights will be a major issue.

One of the few women in parliament, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Azza al-Garf, has become something of a specialist in courting controversy. She has argued that what a man does in the privacy of his home is his own business, including abuse and rape within marriage. And while the rights of women have long been a contested issue in Egypt, Al-Garf believes a divorced woman has no legal right to her home or to her children. Those rights, she argues, belong to the father. She has even weighed in on female circumcision, claiming that the pre-Islamic practice is in keeping with Sunni Islam, as it keeps women chaste and well behaved. None of this bodes well for the country should the elections solidify the Islamist majority.

Parliamentary elections five months ago gave the Muslim Brotherhood almost 40 percent of the vote. The more extreme Salafist party, Al-Nour, took almost 30 percent. And while there is plenty of concern about what these parties might do to Egypt, the real worry is that they won’t tackle the widening economic inequality the country faces, and which hits the young particularly hard. As we’ve seen in neighboring Sudan and elsewhere, Islamist rhetoric is often a substitute for real political action.

There were initially thirteen candidates but, judging from the billboards that dot the Cairo skyline, there are only a few serious contenders remaining.

Despite this, it is vital that the presidential elections go ahead, and that they are free of any interference by The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has been overseeing the transition into an elected civilian government since Mubarak’s demise in February 2011. It is essential that they remain impartial, if only to improve their own battered image. The days when the crowds in Tahrir Square chanted, “The army and the people are one hand,” feel a long way off. SCAF has not fulfilled its promise to end the state of emergency that the country has been in, more or less continuously, since 1967. In addition, nearly sixteen thousand people, journalists, bloggers, and protesters, have been arrested and tried in closed military courts over the past year.

The confrontation between protesters and the military came to a head in October 2011. Demonstrators converged on the Maspero building in downtown Cairo to protest the way the state-run media network had reported on the burning of a church in Upper Egypt. (During the Mubarak era the state-controlled media was used to increase tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians.) The demonstrators clashed with armed thugs and the military. At least twenty-four people were killed, and over three hundred wounded. Eyewitnesses reported that army vehicles were driven directly into the crowd. Since then, affection for the army has plummeted. Posters that have appeared along the roadsides, showing a soldier in combat gear cradling a baby in his arms, seem like wishful thinking.

Robust democracy in Egypt depends on the success of the elections that begin May 23/24. The Egyptian people have lost their faith in the honesty of election results. But for these elections to succeed, voters have to find new faith in the ballot box. This will not be easy. Most seem to be approaching the elections with cautious optimism, but there is great interest in the elections and the turnout is likely to be higher than in the parliamentary elections last January.

Despite the potential for these elections to pave the way for Egypt’s democratic future, there are still major flaws in the way campaigning has commenced. It would be easy to think the only candidates in this election are Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafik, both former ministers in Mubarak’s government. Both are very wealthy, and appeal to those who yearn for a return to order. There were initially thirteen candidates but, judging from the billboards that dot the Cairo skyline, there are only a few serious contenders remaining. A 10 million EGP (1.7 million USD) limit was set on funding, but some candidates seem to have exceeded this on single stretches of Cairo’s ring road. Another four or five candidates are visible on the banners hung across the streets. The rest have to make do with posters plastered to walls, underpasses and windshields.

At the other end of the political spectrum lies the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been tying itself in knots looking for a powerful position from which to approach the elections. First, they announced they would not be contesting the presidency. Then they changed their minds and produced a candidate who was subsequently disqualified because his mother has U.S. citizenship. In the interim, another Brotherhood figure, Aboul Fotouh, broke with the party in order to run independently.

For years the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed, and many of their number imprisoned. But they have gained broad support over the years for their social and welfare programs while shying away from the spotlight politically. (More importantly to voters, they have been accused of complicity with the SCAF.) If their current candidate, Mohammed Morsi, wins, the Muslim Brotherhood would likely dominate the government at all levels.

Alongside them, although by no means allied with them, is the Salafist al-Nour party, which is even more lacking in political experience. Their agenda is a purely Islamist one, and is unlikely to alleviate or even address the country’s problems. On the contrary, it may well plunge the country further into the economic abyss. A prominent Salafist was forced to concede his position after undergoing cosmetic surgery to improve the shape of his nose. Instead of facing the facts, so to speak, when confronted with the charge, he claimed to have been the victim of a violent robbery. In an age when many hardcore Islamists spend their time considering the permissibility of a woman plucking her eyebrows, cosmetic surgery is definitely haram.

While the candidates sort themselves out, there are signs that the country is growing weary of all this turmoil. Egypt’s economic plight is only exacerbated by a lack of leadership. Exports have dropped and tourism has been badly hit. There has been an increase in crime, car theft, and armed robbery. Hanging over all of this is a more amorphous fear about where the country is heading. With over 30 percent of the population illiterate, most people get their information from the television. The media, so recently state-controlled, still carries a strong element of support for the former regime, as the Maspero clashes demonstrated. They have exploited these fears, encouraging an unhealthy obsession with conspiracy theories and foreign plots to bring down the country. A rather hysterical woman threatened to report me for taking a picture of an underpass. Not a particularly inspired photograph, as it turned out, but nothing would calm her. In the end I retreated, recalling stories of mobs descending on foreigners and beating them before handing them over to the police.

All of this plays into the hands of the remaining members of the Mubarak regime, the so-called fulul of the National Democratic Party, who are biding their time in the hope of effectively restoring the pre-revolutionary Egypt. Talk of insecurity, and, more dangerously, of foreign agents, helps to convince the general public of the benefits of the devils they know—Mr. Moussa and Mr. Shafik, who are expected to maintain things, to a large degree, as they were. The armed forces, worried about their business interests, and the intelligence officers, hoping for immunity, want the same.

It was clear a year ago that the real challenge would be to dismantle the machinery that three decades of Mubarak’s rule had put in place …

The group conspicuously absent is the group that launched the revolution in Tharir Square; the young, media-savvy generation that garnered support around the world. It may be premature to concede defeat, but there is a sense that the most promising part of the revolution has lost its way.

The absence of the youth movements in these elections is in part explained by their political inexperience, and their disillusion with the political system as a whole–something they share with the indignados in Spain and the Occupy movements in London and New York. This lack of experience means they have been unable to translate indignation into clear demands, to harness their energies on behalf of the candidate most likely to champion their cause.

Facing this missed opportunity, they talk instead of boycotting the elections. But this only gives a bigger advantage to the Islamists and the old guard. One of the most active of these youth groups, the 6 April Movement, seemed to be aware of the danger when they called last month on three presidential candidates to form a coalition against the old guard, rather than split the opposition vote. Unfortunately, the initiative didn’t take hold. But it suggests that the transition from protest movement to political force is possible and could become more pronounced in future elections.

With the immediate need to protest waning, some protesters are being drawn into demonstrations that, increasingly, lack an end goal. These endless-seeming protests are also more violent. Clashes in Abbasiya at the beginning of May demonstrated an ugly new side to things. Eleven were killed and hundreds wounded when protestors clashed with the military police. There were rumors that some of the protestors were armed, and that the army was collaborating with those who were shooting into the crowd. Further protests called for a new revolution, and for the fall of military rule. But there were also rumors that some of the protesters came armed, and that there were running battles between protesters and local residents.

The fall of Mubarak was only the beginning of a long process. If that process succeeds, the country will move towards real democratic representation. The alternative at this stage is a descent into chaos, or a government indistinguishable from Mubarak’s. It was clear a year ago that the real challenge would be to dismantle the machinery that three decades of Mubarak’s rule had put in place, and that was never going to be easy. For the people of Egypt, so long excluded from the levers of power, this is a historic moment, one unlikely to come again. On the walls around Tahrir Square, there are graffiti murals depicting some of those who gave their lives for the revolution. They are a simple reminder of what it took to come this far.

For the moment, however, every night brings a new round of television debates in which the candidates are given a chance to defend themselves. (They have more in common than they would like to think.) Most are preoccupied with saying what they think people want to hear. None of the candidates seems to have a clear strategy of how to reverse decades of economic stagnation and corruption. Every day brings fresh revelations of the conflicts within parties, or accusations of corruption. New cases involving businessmen who amassed enormous personal fortunes under Mubarak are still coming to light and reveal how state assets, including factories and land, were bought and sold for insider prices by men in Mubarak’s inner circle. And while there is understandably an interest in returning much of this wealth and land to the country, repatriation alone will not solve the nation’s problems. And while “social justice” is a phrase all the candidates seem keen to use, implementing it will not be easy.

It is no coincidence that one of the most promising candidates is also the youngest. Khaled Ali is a human rights lawyer. At forty, he is twenty years younger than most of the other candidates. He has little chance, at present, of making it into the election’s second round, but his rigorous and ambitious plan to turn the country around is persuasive: To bring back jobs and restore land and resources which have been privatized to the state, and to improve national production in a country that survives on donations of wheat from abroad and cheap imports of everything from garlic to clothing, items that Egypt once produced itself.

While it is unlikely that Khalid Ali, or any of the secular liberal candidates, will win this time around, the important thing is not to lose sight of the long-term aim of establishing regular free and fair elections. Next week’s results are unlikely to please everyone, but establishing the precedent is important. It remains to be seen whether the Egyptian street will accept them, especially if they appear to mark the return of the old guard. Still, assuming there is no tampering with the results, (which is never a given) and that the reviled Supreme Council for the Armed Forces steps down as promised on the 30th of June, Egypt will be on its way to a new existence. One that, even eighteen months ago, no one dreamed was possible.

Jamal Mahjoub

Jamal Mahjoub is a writer currently located somewhere in The Netherlands. His work has appeared in Best American Essays, Granta, and a host of other places. His prizewinning novels and short stories have been translated widely. He also writes crime fiction under the name Parker Bilal, the latest of which is The Burning Gates (Bloomsbury USA).

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