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By Philip Whitfield CAIRO: Now that the lesser leagues are sorted, it’s time for the big boys to make hay. As Charles de Gaulle put it: In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant. The nation’s political wanabes are clamoring. Who’d wanabe big? As of now, 800 aspirants are carting around the …

By Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Now that the lesser leagues are sorted, it’s time for the big boys to make hay. As Charles de Gaulle put it: In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant.

The nation’s political wanabes are clamoring. Who’d wanabe big? As of now, 800 aspirants are carting around the application form to be president.

The easiest way forward is to get one of the big political parties to nominate you. Harder still is to find 30,000 registered voters who will endorse your candidacy. Failing that, you can round up 30 MPs to vouch for your probity — ask a pot to call your kettle black.

Your best bet is to get the nod from the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). They’ve the organizational expertise to get out the vote nationwide. Their endorsement should grease the wheels to power, particularly, as Al Ahram suggests, the MB is working hand-in-glove with the military to coalesce around a sure-fire winner.

But the MB shies away from running the whole show. They have the biggest share in parliament. They seem to favor a prime minster and a cabinet in government calling the shots rather than a dictator president.

Another opinion is that the Arab Awakening has woken up the MB’s traditional supporters. They’ve splintered into all manner of groups. Hence the battalion-sized mob grabbing application forms.

Taken at their word, the MB want the country managed by a government that reflects the diversity expressed in elections. On the other hand, you could argue that the MB is being dragged out of its back rooms and clandestine cabals to cope with a raucous hullaballoo.

Even their youthful spokesman has more than 80,000 followers on his personal Facebook wall and often speaks without clearance from the MB high-ups.

The MB’s main presidential challenger could come from the ultra-conservative Salafis. They proved a much stronger force in the parliamentary elections than anyone anticipated. Supporting a radical cleric for the post could bolster the Salafis, particularly if the MB water down their Islamist appeal to garner secular votes.

There’s the rub. If the Islamist vote splits, a secular technocrat could creep in. Or even a woman if a female candidate can canvass charismatically and win the nation’s heart.

We tend to think of Chandrika Bandaranaike from Sri Lanka as the world’s first woman president (1994–2005). But several blazed the trail. Khertek Amyrbitovna became head of state in the People’s Republic of Tannu Tuva in 1940 until its incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1944.

An American-educated Christian became a head of state in China of all places. Soong Qing-ling (1893–1981), leader of the opposition against her brother-in-law Chiang Kai-shek, shared the presidential position for a couple of years in the 1970s.

On July 1, 1974, Argentina’s president Juan Peron died in office and his third wife Isabel was sworn in, the first non-royal woman to head a western hemisphere state. She didn’t last long and skedaddled off to Spain.

Bolivia, Iceland, India, San Marino, Malta, Guinea Bissau, The Philippines, Indonesia, Finland, Ireland, Brazil, Austria and Switzerland are among countries that have elected a woman president. Why not Egypt?

Baffling is the silence of the youthful democrats who were so instrumental in igniting the movement for change. Just because they fared poorly in the parliamentary elections shouldn’t mean they should evaporate. In theory the under 35s have more votes than their conservative elders.

Maybe they were getting organized for the last elections and ran out of time. Maybe they posed a threat to the backroom boys that have in mind a scenario ushering in status quo Mark II with the MB/military in charge and Mubarakites rehabilitated after a wrist tapping.

The hollering from the Mubarak cabinet’s holdover Fayza Aboul Naga supports that theory. On the face of it she capitulated in the showdown with Senator John McCain. But she’d done what aspirants for high office are inclined to do. She raised her profile and diverted the nation’s attention from malaise at home by playing the xenophobia card.

If she enters the presidential race, the closet Mubarakites can come out and vote for what they can call the nationalist candidate, someone with only Egypt’s future in mind.

By the time campaigning begins in May, Aboul Naga’s stump speech could rebound with praise for saving the country a billion dollars in aid and paint the NGO kids as carpetbaggers who slunk back home after their number was called.

Footfalls echo in the memory down the passage, which we did not take towards the door we never opened — T.S. Eliot.

What’s interesting at this stage is the media’s identification of a couple of candidates they think stand the best chance: Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, the secretary-general of the Arab Doctors Union and former MB leading light, and Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a prominent lawyer and Muslim preacher who advocates Islamic Law.

I say interesting because every article is stamped with a health warning that nobody knows how many candidates will run in the election and opinion polls are skimpy.

Personally, I’m rather pleased that’s the case. We’ve seen how badly wrong opinion polling in Egypt was this year. Nobody gave the Islamists as large a slice of the pie as they won.

The danger now is that a contrived opinion poll might skew the result by promoting one candidate as a frontrunner and, not wishing to be left out, the public trails along to the polling stations to make it happen.

Frontrunners attract big money supporters and this is where corruption begins. I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine is the mantra of political success.

The French have been the most tenacious in trying to minimize opinion polls’ influence. In 1977, the French media were barred from publishing opinion polls in the week before an election. In 1997, the newspapers ignored the blackout law. Eventually it was restored to 24-hours before a vote.

Not that anyone cares anymore. The internet is out of the courts’ range.

And if people play their cards right in Egypt, this is where the presidential election can be fought and won.

And we all know who’s best at tweeting, don’t we?

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.


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