Secular Candidates Take Lead in Egyptian Presidential Race

by RYAN MAURO May 20, 2012

Egyptians will go into voting booths on May 23-24 to choose their next president, a critical moment in the struggle between secularists and Islamists for the future of Egypt. If no single candidate gets a majority of the vote, as will probably be the case, the top two vote-getters will compete in a final contest on June 16-17. The latest polls show secular candidates taking the lead ahead of the election.

The most recent poll by the Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies shows that secularists are in first and second place: Former Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa (31.7%) and former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq (22.6%). Moussa's support fell by about 8% over the past week, attributable to his gaffe during a debate where he said that Iran is an Arab country. Shafiq's support grew by about 2.6%. Some of Moussa's support went to Hamdeen Sabahi, a ferociously anti-American secularist, came in fifth place in the poll. His support grew by about 5%, bringing him to just below 12%.

However, two polls show Shafiq in the lead. The Information and Decision Support Center, which is run by the government, has him at 12% and Moussa at 11%. The poll is substantiated by another one done by the Baseera Center of the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper. It has Shafiq at 19.3% and Moussa at 14.6%.

Amr Moussa is the long-time frontrunner. He was a Foreign Minister under President Mubarak, an ally of the U.S. He believes that Sharia Law should only provide a loose template for governance. In his debate with Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, an Islamist, he emphasized that his rival wants to enforce Sharia rules, while he only wants to apply "general principles" of Sharia in accordance with the current Mubarak-era constitution.

Moussa is hostile to Israel but in his debate with Aboul-Fotouh, he only described it as an "adversary," while his opponent called Israel an "enemy." A cable released by Wikileaks reveals that U.S. officials feel that he downplays the threat from Iran, though he has condemned the Iranian regime's interference in internal Arab affairs. Iran condemned him after he predicted that the Arab Spring would spark a revolution against the regime.

There is less information available about the views of Shafiq. He was Prime Minister from January until March 2011 and has a long military career. He is courting the persecuted Coptic Christian minority, even suggesting that he'd choose a female Christian as his deputy if he wins. He has been endorsed by the Copts of the U.S.A. and the Coptic Solidarity Organization.

The secularists have benefited from a sharp fall in Islamist popularity. In February, 43% of Egyptians supported the Muslim Brotherhood, 40% supported the Salafist Nour Party and 62% felt that it is positive to have a strong Brotherhood presence in parliament. A Gallup poll in April found that the statistics fell to 26%, 30% and 47% respectively.

It is unclear if Moussa or Shafiq is the frontrunner but several polls show them as the top two candidates. If the vote on May 23-24 reflects these polls, then Egypt will have a run-off on June 16-17 between two secularists, shutting out the Islamists from the presidency. It will be extremely interesting to see how Islamists react to that choice if that should happen.

The two major Islamist candidates, former Muslim Brotherhood official Aboul-Fotouh and the Brotherhood's candidate, Mohammed Morsi, are tied for third and fourth place in the Al-Ahram poll. His support increased from 9.4% last week to 14.8%, while Aboul-Fotouh's collapsed from 24.5% to 14.6%.  Two other polls contradict these results, though. The Baseera Center poll has Aboul-Fotouh at 12.4% and Morsi in fifth place at 9%. In this poll, the Muslim Brotherhood is even behind Sabahi, who had 9.5%. The Information and Decision Center also has Aboul-Fotouh ahead.

Aboul-Fotouh argues that he is the consensus candidate that can bridge the gaps between the secularists and the Islamists. He is the most complicated candidate. He used to b a member of the al-Gamaat al-Islamiyah terrorist group but left and rejects the group. He served in the Muslim Brotherhood for a long time but was kicked out when he announced his candidacy because, at the time, the Brotherhood said it would not field a candidate.

On the positive side, he advocates some liberal Islamic viewpoints. He feels that women and Christians should be allowed to run for president. He is against punishing Muslims who leave the faith and banning pro-atheism books and alcohol. He states that the Islamic Caliphate is a stage of history that has passed and need not be revived. He also pledged to require that the Brotherhood declare its sources of financing and register as a religious organization and not a political party.

On the other hand, he called Israel an "enemy" in his debate with Moussa. His platform is based on "the application of Sharia Law as a comprehensive concept for achieving the fundamental interests of the people." He did not leave the Muslim Brotherhood because of theological differences. "I still belong to the Muslim Brotherhood school of thought," he said. He also stated, "Contrary to fear-mongering reports, the West and the Muslim Brotherhood are not enemies."

He is endorsed by the Salafist ultraconservatives and in April 2004, he justified attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Israeli soldiers because, "When a Muslim land is occupied, jihad becomes an individual duty for every man and woman, boy and girl." When asked about the 9/11 attacks, he answers, "I don't believe it was jihadists" and that "it's part of a conspiracy." He condemned the killing of Osama Bin Laden as a "gang-like political assassination" that "makes us doubt whether there is a thing as Al-Qaeda or Bin Laden to begin with."

The Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohammed Morsi, reacted to Aboul-Fotouh's stance as a moderate by moving in a more hardline direction. At one of his rallies, a cleric named Safwat Higazy told the crowd that "We are seeing the dream of the Islamic Caliphate come true at the hands of Mohammed Morsi" and "the capital of the caliphate and the United Arab States is Jerusalem." Morsi declared at another event, "We will not accept any alternative to Sharia. The Quran is our constitution and it will always be." This rhetoric may be helping him take away some of Aboul-Fotouh's Salafist supporters. The Muslim Brotherhood also published a fatwa forbidding Muslims from voting for Moussa or Shafiq.

The voting preferences of Egyptians living outside of the country appear to strongly differ from those living inside. A preliminary count of these votes gives Aboul-Fotouh the lead, followed by Hamdeen Sabahi. Moussa and Morsi are in a close battle for third place. However, only 1.13% of eligible voters live outside of Egypt, so this shouldn't be seen as a foreshadowing of what will happen later in the week.

The presidential race has fluctuated wildly and there's a huge amount of undecided voters. The Information and Decision Support Center says that 38% have still not made up their mind. The Baseera Center puts it at 33%. Another key factor is turnout. The Islamists have a powerful political machine and turnout operation. It is encouraging to see the secularists in first and second place, but the race is far too fluid. It's still either side's game.


This article was sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

Ryan Mauro is Family Security Matters' national security analyst. He is a fellow with, the founder of and a frequent national security analyst for Fox News Channel. He can be contacted at

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