Democracy Lab

Vox Pop: Egyptians Prepare to Choose a President

Everyone's talking about Egypt's presidential election. But what do the voters think?

The presidential election campaign in Egypt is under way. Thirteen candidates are competing for the job held for 30 years by Hosni Mubarak. The first round of the elections takes place on May 23 and 24. But so far no clear leaders have emerged.

Polling suggests that the main divide runs between Islamist candidates and those associated with the Mubarak regime. Among the former, the most likely contenders are Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former member in the Guidance Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Mohamed Morsi, the current candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Those associated with the old regime include Amr Moussa, the ex-foreign minister and former secretary-general of the Arab League, and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister. But the recent decision by the High Electoral Commission to exclude the previous front-runners on a variety of technical grounds has thrown the race into confusion.

We hear a lot about Egypt in the news these days, but we rarely have an opportunity to hear what Egyptians themselves think about what's happening in their country. So we at Democracy Lab decided to ask Egyptians from all walks of life about their presidential preferences. On the eve of Egypt's first-ever presidential debate, we present some of their responses -- with a minimum of editorial intervention:

"The people are confused. If they elect a candidate from the former regime, does that mean that the country will go back to the way it was? But if they elect a candidate from the Islamists, they don't know what course the country's going to take, since the Islamists have no experience of actually being in power, and they have a tendency towards violence."

Saeed Abdul Aal, mid-40s, teacher from Izzbet El-Nakhel, north Cairo.

Vote: undecided.

"Mubarak didn't allow any other politicians to share the stage. He systematically eliminated anyone who was capable of competing with him. If you ban people from playing football in the neighborhood for a while, and then you allow them to play it again, their skills will be weak at first. Over time, the level of candidates will improve."

Mohammed Hassan Ali, 38, welder from Izzbet El-Nakhel.

Vote: Aboul Fotouh.

"Drivers spend nearly half a day waiting for a turn at the gas station. You work for a day and then you have to spend another day to get gas. If this country isn't reformed, it will explode."

"Look at this vast desert we've got here. All that land is controlled by a small number of people who don't use it. If one of the candidates announces that he will redistribute the unused land to the people, so that it can be used, I'll vote for him."

"The Muslim Brotherhood is very influential in the countryside. People here expect their problems to be solved by God and the Brotherhood. For example, in religious festivals, Brotherhood Member of Parliament Abdul Aziz Khalaf buys clothes for the poor. He doesn't charge people who can't afford to pay for medicine from his pharmacy. No matter what else you hear about the Brotherhood, they're people who aren't going to change their minds."

Mahmoud Abu-Dahab, taxi driver from Assuit, 370 kilometers south of Cairo.

Vote: undecided.

"In Upper Egypt, every group forms an opinion and the members of that group will follow it. The Copts will have a preferred candidate, and the Muslims will have another."

"Most Copts support Amr Moussa because he's a secularist and won't violate their freedom of religion. But I, like a lot of the other young Copts, support Hisham Al-Bastawisi, the candidate of [the secular leftist party] Al-Tagammu."

"Electing a new president, whatever his political orientation, does not mean that the regime will end. The regime, whose head was Mubarak, has lots of arms, such as the army, the police, and local municipalities. The demands of the revolution will continue."

Ehab Amir, 36, lawyer from the Coptic village of Izziyah, Assuit.

Vote: Al-Bastawisi.

"I believe that the presidential election is part of a game between the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood got the parliament and the SCAF will get the presidency through one of the former regime candidates."

"I don't trust Aboul Fotouh because he's a former Muslim Brotherhood member. He says that he's an independent, but I don't believe him."

"I won't vote for anyone who was associated with the former regime, or for anyone who's associated with the current military regime that doesn't respect human rights."

"I'll vote for someone who can fight corruption so that we can build our country, so I'll go with Abu Al-Izz Al-Hariri.

Marwa Rashed, 25, female graphic designer, Alexandria.

Vote: Al-Hariri.

"The people are waiting for the election to end the unstable transitional period and bring a return to normal life. Even though the election is taking place under abnormal conditions, I still believe that electing a new president will be a step forward for stability, which we need."

"Coptic people are worried about an Islamic candidate winning because they think that will increase discrimination against them. I won't be afraid as long the Islamists guarantee us equal rights."

Marian Nader, 19, female student at Ain Shmas University, from Mataryia, Cairo.

Vote: Moussa.

"Rich people want a candidate from the old regime, someone like Moussa or Shafiq, to return the country to the way it was. They want us to go on being their slaves and they want to go on being the masters. They want a president to maintain their interests and save them. But normal people are waiting for real programs that will get something done. People want the country to go in the right direction. The Egyptian people are too poor and too tired. They've spent their entire history being robbed. We want the new president to work for the people, not for special interests."

"I will decide when I see the programs, but I won't vote for anyone who's connected with the Mubarak regime."

Yasser Gamal, 38, government employee, Assuit.

Vote: undecided.

"When people still respected the police, minibus drivers didn't dare to do that [pointing at minibus drivers parking illegally in a public square]. I'll nominate myself for president, and when I win, I'll put all those drivers in prison. The only problem is that the prisons won't have enough capacity, so I'll have to build new ones."

Mahmoud Abdel Razek, 60s, taxi driver, Cairo.

Vote: undecided.

"I think I'll vote for Hisham Al-Bastawisi. He's a fair judge who has a clean hand, but the Islamists will say that he's secular and an infidel."

"The Islamists fooled us in the referendum and the parliamentary elections by using religion against the secular candidates, and they'll fool the people again in the presidential election."

Hamada Abdullah, 29, taxi driver, Cairo.

Vote: Al-Bastawisi.

"I'll vote for Mohamed Morsi because we want a real Islamic state. Right now Egypt is an Islamic state in name but not in practice. ‘Islam is the solution' was a slogan. Now we want to put it into practice."

Tanseem Al-Said, early 20s, female student in the Department of Islamic Studies at Mansoura University (and member of the Muslim Brotherhood).

Vote: Morsi.

"People still think that the next president will stay in power forever, but actually he'll only be in power for four years, and then he'll leave and someone else will replace him. We need a transition between the old regime and the new one. The new political parties can use this period to organize themselves."

Sami al-Abdullah, in his 50s, doctor, Cairo.

Vote: Shafiq.

"I voted for the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party [in the last parliamentary elections], but I'm not going to vote for them again because of their [initial] decision not to run a candidate for the presidency. I was a supporter of the Brotherhood, but after they backed down I lost confidence in them -- not only me but also most of my friends."

Ahmed Saeed, 23, student at Assuit University.

Vote: Aboul Fotouh.

"I supported [Salafi candidate] Hazem Salah Abu Ismail before he was disqualified [by the High Election Commission]. Now I'm going to boycott the election. I don't want the Muslim Brotherhood to win the presidential election. We don't want a single party to control everything. We don't want a new National Democratic Party."

Mahmoud Ghareeb, 30, computer company owner in Assuit.

Vote: boycott.

"We need someone to apply God's holy law, not someone who is greedy for power. People in my neighborhood prefer the Islamic candidate. The candidates of the old regime, like Moussa and Shafiq, had the opportunity to do something in the past but they didn't manage to get anything done. So I don't believe that they'll do anything now."

Amer Abu Alail, 48, sales director, Cairo.

Vote: undecided.

"Omar Suleiman was my favorite candidate because he knows the ins and outs of the country. He can keep the current situation stable. Even if the situation is bad, the alternative is collapse. We'd rather live with a little water rather than brave the drought."

"Since Suleiman was disqualified, I support Shafiq. He's better than the Islamists, the best of the worst."

Dahi Azer, 34, Copt, teacher from Assuit.

Vote: Shafiq.

"I will not elect any secular candidate because he will be against Islam. We are afraid of the secularists, even if they've said that they will keep Article 2 [the constitutional clause that stipulates that sharia should be the basis of all legislation]. They may work against the religion from under the table. I don't have any leanings toward a specific candidate. I lean towards an Islamic candidate who will apply sharia. That's my first priority, and then I will look into who is better."

Waleed Wagdy, 30s, doctor, Assuit.

Vote: undecided.

"We were deceived by the army. They realized that they can't stand in front of the people's protests, so they claimed that they were for the revolution even while they were working to control it."

"The election will be the last stage of the control process they've been putting in place in the last year and a half. Nothing has changed."

Sarah Mahmoud, 33, female doctor, Cairo.

Vote: undecided.

"I wanted to vote for Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.. But when he was disqualified, Salafi leaders recommended that we vote for Aboul Fotouh. They know better than we do. I'll vote as they say."

Mohammed Mosbah, early 20s, student at Mansoura University.

Vote: Aboul Fotouh.

"I won't vote for a Brotherhood candidate. I don't see any freedom or justice in what they do, only hearing and obeying the same policy of the blind majority. They obey the word of their own supreme guide more than the word of God."

Mahmoud Al-Mougi, 20, law student at Mansoura University.

Vote: Aboul Fotouh.

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/GettyImages

Argument

A Nation of Spies and Snitches

The United States is pretty darn good at infiltrating terrorist groups -- at home and abroad -- these days. But should we be worried about the social costs?

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, one of the most stinging criticisms leveled at the CIA was that it had utterly failed to penetrate al Qaeda with a human source.

That worm turned this week when headlines erupted with the story of how a Saudi spy, working in conjunction with the CIA, penetrated al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), preventing an attack on a U.S.-bound airliner, providing critical intelligence to guide a drone strike against a sought-after AQAP commander, and delivering an intact bomb design for U.S. intelligence to dissect.

It was, by any measure, a spectacular intelligence coup going to the heart of the al Qaeda branch believed to be most actively conspiring to kill Americans. But as plaudits began to traverse one vector of the press and the blogosphere, a backlash emerged in another. One of the more prominent expressions of the latter came in a typically overwrought posting by Salon's Glenn Greenwald:

So just as virtually every "domestic Terror plot" is one conceived, directed, funded and controlled by the FBI, this new Al Qaeda plot from Yemen was directed by some combination of the CIA and its Saudi partners. So this wasn't merely a failed, nascent plot which is causing this fear-mongering media orgy: it was one controlled at all times by the U.S. and Saudi Governments.

Greenwald was not alone in making this questionable assessment. Dozens, if not hundreds, of bloggers and pundits of various stripes were right behind him, ranging along the edges of mainstream politics and spreading enthusiastically in more aggressive anti-establishment circles.

Infiltration and other spy games hold a particular fascination for the American psyche. When a terrorist attack succeeds, Americans demand to know where their intelligence services were and how they could have missed the warning signs. When all's quiet, however, Americans are generally happy enough to look the other way -- so long as the dirty work of keeping the country safe stays out of sight.

But a growing number of "foiled cases" -- from Rezwan Ferdaus's plan to fly a remote-controlled model plane into the U.S. Capitol as a member of an FBI-provided terrorist cell to this week's double-agent revelation -- has voices expressing dismay over just how far those services are willing to go.

The penetration of a well-established foreign organization like AQAP is a far cry from most domestic infiltration programs. To be clear, none of the reporting currently on the table even vaguely suggests the CIA "conceived, directed, or funded" this attempted bombing, which is nearly identical to the one AQAP tried on Christmas Day 2009 without even being detected by U.S. intelligence. But the aggressive approach to intelligence and prevention that evolved after 9/11 in response to perceived failures is increasingly counterweighted by a new perception that the U.S. government has gone too far, a perception that is now spilling over to taint what seems on the face of it to be an unqualified success story.

Since 9/11, more than 300 U.S. residents have been prosecuted for crimes related to homegrown terrorism. About half were targeted by law enforcement using infiltration techniques -- confidential informants, undercover operations, or in some cases both. Claims about the breadth of infiltration run from the foot-soldier level to nearly the top. In a posthumous article published last week, Anwar al-Awlaki, the notorious American who played an important role in AQAP, claimed that both the CIA and the FBI tried to coerce him into becoming a mole.

These tactics have become increasingly controversial for a number of reasons, including a perception that they target Muslims exclusively and do so by means of entrapment (which, it should be remembered, is a legal claim that rarely succeeds in court).

But infiltration -- including the use of undercover agents and paid informants -- was employed extensively long before 9/11. And it isn't just about Muslims, or even terrorism. In recent months, informants and undercover agents have played a key role in criminal cases involving anarchists in Ohio associated with the Occupy movement and right-wing extremists in Georgia, Arizona, and Michigan (where a rare terrorism acquittal was recorded after charges the government had overstated its case).

Even the Mafia is not immune. "Anyone who's out there should realize that if they look to the left or look to the right, they should realize someone is working with the FBI or wearing a wire," defense lawyer Anthony Cardinale told the Boston Globe in an article this week.

The tarnishing of what should be a major triumph for the CIA points to a growing societal concern about the cumulative effect of infiltration tactics on targeted communities and the broader public. There are legal rules and guidelines regarding infiltration and entrapment, and the courts have almost universally upheld the government's use of these tactics since 9/11.

As anyone who has been in a relationship knows, however, you can be technically right and still end up in the wrong place in an argument. The political and practical motives for saturation coverage of would-be extremists are easy to understand -- nobody wants dead Americans on their watch. What we are only beginning to examine are the social costs created by filling a country with spies and snitches.

The national conversation about infiltration remains mired in the formative phase. Open outrage is still found mostly on or over the edges of mainstream discourse. Nagging worries about these tactics are creeping toward the center, however, and the subject is likely to become even more important in the months and years ahead as we adjust to life in a post-post-9/11 world.

Journalists, academics, law enforcement officials, and politicians need to start working now to inform this emerging conversation with facts and context. It's all too easy to get swept up in waves of emotion and truthiness.

The fringe thesis, expressed often and loudly, is that the government is deliberately staging these terrorist incidents to inflate its successes and generally cow the public into submission. It boils down to an absurdly subtle method for achieving an absurdly blunt goal. Why invent underwear bombs when you can invent suitcase nukes? Why disclose the role of informants and agents at all? The list of logical fallacies is nearly endless.

Nevertheless, there is no question that the age of infiltration raises important challenges and thorny questions that need to be discussed in a fact-rich environment. It's time to bring this conversation in from the shouting periphery of American dialogue and into the realm of informed debate.

AFP/Getty Images