Picking new leader, Egyptians search for superman

May 24, 2012 - 6:37 AM
Mideast Egypt Election

Mohammed Bassiouni poses for a portrait inside his home in the village of Ikhsas, south of Cairo, Egypt on Wednesday, May 23, 2012. Bassiouni expressed dissatisfaction with the Muslim Brotherhood, a political party that enjoys broad support in areas throughout the country. On Wednesday morning, Egypt commenced two days of presidential voting after 16 months of interim rule by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. This election is the first free and fair presidential race since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak. (AP Photo/Pete Muller)

CAIRO (AP) — Egyptians say they want their next leader to be honorable, smart, a knight, a man with a heart, a military man, a religious man, one who goes down and meets with the people. What they are really looking for is a superman.

Egypt's next president is facing an incredibly tall order of problems, from a tumbling economy and a beat-up security force to decrepit schools and hospitals that can't even provide enough incubators for premature babies.

Turning out in large numbers to vote for the first time in free and competitive presidential elections, a deeply engaged population have a lot of expectations from the leader that will replace the longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, whom they ousted in a popular uprising last year.

"We want a flawless president. We want him strong, just, respectable, clean, someone who feels for the poor. We basically want a superman," said Heba el-Sayed, a 42-year old teacher who was asking her colleagues outside a polling station in the popular neighborhood of Sayeda Zeinab who they voted for.

Egyptians have never had the chance to pick a leader. Mubarak, who was often derisively labeled as "pharaoh" by Egyptians, came to power in 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat at the hands of Islamic militants, mostly because he signed a peace treaty with Israel. He was re-elected multiple times after that, mainly in yes-or-no referendums in which he was the only candidate.

The pent-up anger that exploded against Mubarak's reign on January 25, 2011 built up over years because of festering corruption, which created a tight ruling clique around his family and cronies. It left a twisted economy, that soared in terms of economic development indicators, but was unevenly distributed — leaving vast sections of the population — up to 40 percent— hovering near or fallen far below the poverty line.

Denying services and attention to the poor seemed to be a way Mubarak's regime kept such classes in constant need of handouts and dependent on a patronage system, which doled out small benefits to those who cooperated and stayed under his control. This left a debilitated public health and education system, where only those who can pay can receive better services.

His authoritarian regime, which has maintained good relations with the world, relied heavily on security agencies whose widespread torture and abuse were the immediate reason behind the uprising.

The 18 days of protests that brought his fall were not limited to the poor or the abused. They brought in a broad spectrum of classes, angered over every aspect of the stagnation and worried that it would only deepen if Mubarak's son, Gamal, succeeded him as was widely expected.

So in the voting that began Wednesday and continued Thursday, the hundreds of thousands who lined up at the polls had a litany of dreams. Freedom to walk freely with girlfriends or boyfriends without police harassment. Improved sewage systems. Better education.

"I've lived under Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak," Mahmoud Ahmed, a 70-year old businessman, said, listing Egypt's last three presidents as he waited to vote in the impoverished Cairo district of Basateen.

"What we want to see is someone with the firmness of Nasser, the political skills of Sadat," he said.

"And nothing at all from Mubarak."

He said he wants the next president's priority to hold a "real" trial for Mubarak — reflecting how many Egyptians dismiss the current trial of the ousted leader as a sham.

Mubarak has been on trial for months over charges of corruption and complicity in the killing of nearly 900 protesters during the uprising against him. As the proceedings have dragged on, many have grown skeptical that the trial organized under the military rulers would constitute a fair trial. A verdict is expected on June 2 before the name of a president is announced.

For Yasmine Abdel-Rahman, a 22-year veiled student who was voting in the southern industrial district of Helwan, a religious leader can bring justice. She was voting for the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was Mubarak's most organized opposition and has seized its place as Egypt's most powerful political movement since his ouster.

"First thing he must do is get back the rights of all the martyrs. Many mothers' hearts are broken," she said.

Ali Ragab, a 27-year old who runs a photo shop in a rundown quarter of Cairo's Maadi neighborhood, agrees. But he thinks only a president that can rival the charisma and populist ideals of Nasser can do the job.

He's voting for Hamdeen Sabahi, a veteran opposition figure under Mubarak who proclaims Nasser as his role model. Sabahi has recently risen in polls, particularly among the working class and younger generations.

"I want a leader like Nasser, who looks after the poor. I wish those days come back," said the dreamy-eyed Ragab, born 15 years after Nasser's death.

"We need a leader that has extraordinary skills, one that has a heart, a big brain, and can play politics. He must be all that," he said as he helped other voters find their polling station.

Zeinab Nabil, a 28-year old mother, lost two of her triplets because of an unexplainable shortage of incubators in public hospitals. After their premature birth in September 2010, she ran from hospital to hospital for months trying to find incubators and proper care, only to be turned away.

Now she is indebted to the banks for more than $8,000 from the salary of her husband, who works in another city. The only good luck she's had is that her landlord dropped her rent by a third after the revolution because of her economic woes.

"I want the president to spare other people my troubles. I want him to fix the hospitals and provide incubators," she said. "I want him to be just. I want him to walk among us. I want him to be human."

None of the 13 candidates running in the first round is likely to win outright. So a run-off will be held between the top two on June 16-17, with the victor announced June 21.

The president's powers have not yet been defined. The military rulers, the Islamist-dominated parliament and various groups and political parties of liberals and secularists have been locked in a struggle over how to write the constitution that will define Egypt's political system, the role of religion and the place of the military in the future.

The explosive mix of high expectations and a power struggle between political factions will set the tone for the next president's entire term, supposed to be for four years. The stormy transition since Mubarak's fall has piled on even more demands, with some wanting the ruling generals held accountable for mismanagement and violence during the past 16 months.

And the new president will face the constant threat of protests from a politically charged population.

"There is now an open court in Tahrir. No matter who is elected," said Hamdi Abdel-Zaher, a 40 year old accountant, referring to Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the anti-Mubarak uprising and months of protests since against the ruling military.

Fares Kamel, a 42-year old trader in a village on the outskirts of Cairo, said despite the destruction of the image of a pharaoh among Egyptians, many still yearn for it, seeing him as a savior.

"They want to be led," Kamel said. He thinks the president must be "a knight, who has a sword and is not afraid to use it or to die using it. We want someone with dignity, and not a filthy rich man. We don't want a thief."

"We want someone that loves this country, and satisfies people's needs. God be with him."