Picking new leader, Egyptians search for superman
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.