THE chaos of political life in post-revolutionary Egypt has infected the race for the presidency. The surprise disqualification last weekend on technicalities of ten candidates, including three prominent figures, has changed the shape of the contest, leaving the Muslim Brotherhood without its preferred candidate, and the Salafists with no representative in the race. Appeals from those disqualified were rejected on Tuesday.
While these moves open the possibility of further tension between Islamists and the ruling military council, the elimination of the former President Mubarak’s spy chief, Omar Suleiman, has removed another source of possible conflict. His last-minute decision to stand — with an overt agenda to counter the Islamists’ domination of the political scene — was regarded as an attempt by the army to keep the presidency within its grasp.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Khairat el-Shater, was strongly tipped to win the presidential race, and its political party, Freedom and Justice, dominate parliament. The Brotherhood had at first said that it would not enter the presidential race, in keeping with its belief that parliament rather than the presidency should become the most influential arm of governance. It described the banning of Mr Shater as a blow to the principles of the revolution.
But tension between the Islamists as a whole and the military, and the Brotherhood’s fear that the army might force one of its preferred candidates into the presidency, made the group change its mind. While the Muslim Brotherhood still has one candidate in the race, he is regarded as a lightweight in comparison with Mr Shater.
The Salafists, for their part, have no reserve candidate, and have been infuriated by the electoral commission’s decision to disqualify Hazem Salah Abou Ismail on the grounds that his mother held a US passport. The likelihood is that Salafists will express their frustration by direct action on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities — a prospect that will leave Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority feeling distinctly uneasy.
The two leading candidates left in the field are a former foreign minister from the Mubarak era and former Arab League secretary-general, Amr Moussa, and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who was expelled from the Muslim Brotherhood when he decided to contest the presidency.
Mr Moussa is likely to attract votes from former supporters of the regime and from secularists, who see him as an acceptable middle-of-the-road candidate who could prevent the presidency, like parliament, from becoming a preserve of the Islamists.
How much support Dr Fotouh would attract from Islamists is less certain. He is unlikely to appeal to members of the Muslim Brotherhood, having fallen out with its leadership, while Salafists have denounced his conciliatory tone towards secularists and the Copts.
The Copts themselves, faced with the choice between the two, are likely to favour Dr Fotouh, arguing that it would be in their best interests to see a moderate Islamist in the presidential seat. Also, there is a case for believing that Egypt might have a better chance of a stable future if the president were not associated with the previous regime.
The Copts are still affected both by these upheavals brought about by the revolution and the trauma of losing their spiritual leader, Pope Shenouda III, who died in March (News, 23 March). He was not only a staunch Egyptian patriot, but also a fierce critic of Israel. As a result, he forbade members of his community from going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land until the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land ended. The vast majority of Egyptian Christians obeyed his command.
But at Easter this year, several hundred Copts defied the ban and travelled to Jerusalem. “There is nothing more beautiful than to visit the holy sites,” one pilgrim told a news-agency reporter. “This is a pilgrimage that shouldn’t be tied to politics.” The pilgrim would identify herself only by her first name, Samia, because she was worried about punishment from the Church.
Those who defied the late Pope’s ban could face being denied the sacrament. As it was, Coptic officials in Jerusalem turned away many of the pilgrims seeking to enter the chapel of St Helena in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, insisting that Pope Shenouda’s ruling should continue to be enforced.
But, away from the chaos in Egypt, St John the Baptist’s Episcopal Church, in Cairo, is pressing ahead with its Fourth Annual Caravan Festival of the Arts (26 April to 5 May). The organisers describe it as a unique interfaith festival, seeking to “use the arts as a bridge for intercultural and inter-religious interchange, toward enhancing understanding and respect, and deepening friendship between cultures and creeds”.
The Rector of St John’s and founder of the festival, the Revd Paul-Gordon Chandler, said: “It could not be timelier to be involved in this interfaith aspect of peace-building in this country, towards promoting a sectarian-free Egypt.”
Special guests at the festival include Ahdaf Soueif, an Anglo-Egyptian author who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and the Ana Masry Band, a musical group that has become very popular since the revolution, and is known for its fusion of Arabic, Muslim, Sufi, and Christian music.