Incredible though it may seem, there is a chance that the wife of Egypt’s next president is almost invisible. Or at least unseen.

Engineer Azza Ahmad Tewfik is married to Muslim Brotherhood strongman, Khairat Al-Shater, 61; one of the frontrunners competing in Egypt’s presidential elections after the Brotherhood reneged on a pledge not to field a candidate. Mother of 10 (eight daughters and two sons) and grandmother of more, Azza began wearing the Niqab, or full-veil, which covers all but the eyes, after her husband was arrested in the mid-’90s.

She may decide to ditch the veil if she becomes First Lady but that won’t be known until July 21, when the winner is announced. Voting takes place on May 23-24 with a possible run-off on June 16-17.

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Nominations for presidency closed on Sunday (April 8) and campaigning officially begins April 30, although one might wonder, as there’s more manoeuvring now than any campaign could muster.

One candidate, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, 50, an anti-US, ultraconservative cleric and Salafist leader who is committed to a tighter application of Islamic law, has been flooding the market with his banners, posters, flyers, face masks and stickers in every nook and cranny throughout Egypt. When he submitted his candidacy papers at the end of March, thousands of supporters accompanied him in motorcades and marches that created a sense of victory way ahead of it’s time.

But Egyptians were quick to take the mickey out of him, imposing his image on everything from boxes of painkillers to bread wrappings and images of the Last Supper and then posted them on Facebook.

Abu Ismail’s enthusiasm for the spotlight may have backfired somewhat after he denied rumours that his late mother was American then records were produced to show that she was. Dual citizenship is not permitted for candidates and at first Abu Ismail said she only had a green card. Whether he can sort this out has yet to be determined but is seems odd that a lawyer would make such a mistake.

By Friday, Abu Ismail’s supporters had turned the situation of maybe a simple, or even deliberate, lie into a plot, with satellite channel ON TV showing footage of them saying, “Field Marshall, we won’t allow rigging”, referring to Tantawi, the country’s military ruler and head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF).

Saturday was even more dramatic as ultraconservative imam and television preacher, Safwat Hegazy, was named as a back up for Abu Ismail. Last month, Hegazy, who was put forward by the Gamaa Islamiya or Islamic Group, was barred from entering France on the grounds that he and other Muslim clerics hoping to attend a conference were calling for “hatred and violence”.

Gamaa Islamiya leader Abdel-Akher Hamad inferred there was an agreement between SCAF and the election committee to try and disqualify Islamist candidates one by one. “We will not wait to be slaughtered to wish we had acted,” he said.

Khairat Al-Shater may also have to solve a problem before he can race to the end. To qualify as a contender he must be pardoned for every stay in prison, not just the last one, from which he was released March 2011, after the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak.

The Muslim Brotherhood hedged its bets on Saturday as well by naming the chairman of its Freedom and Justice Party, Mohamed Morsi, an alternate to Kairat Al-Shater. “There are attempts to create barriers for some candidates,” a Brotherhood statement said, the implication being that some wanted the former regime to return.

With the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Al Nour Party grabbing most of the power in last November’s parliamentary elections there is a feeling that handing any of them the presidency would be tantamount to overkill. If the feeling grows, candidates like Amr Moussa, foreign minister under Mubarak and ex-Arab League chief, would gain some traction, especially as the 76-year-old has said he would only serve one four-year term.

Moussa topped a recent voter poll conducted by the state-run Al Ahram newspaper with 31.5%, but this was before Khairat al-Shater had engineered the Muslim Brotherhood flip-flop.

Another candidate likely to draw voters looking for moderation is Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, (8.3% of the poll), who used to be in the Brotherhood but was expelled after he expressed interest in running for president. A doctor by profession, the more Fotouh speaks the more popular he becomes, offering a glimmer of being able to satisfy both Islamist and secular voters.

Some of the attraction would also be due to his public statements in support of women and Coptic Christians. Fotouh has said that women and Copts should be able to hold senior government positions, including the presidency, which is something the Muslim Brotherhood has so far rejected.

Liberal politician and head of the Ghad El-Thawra Party, Ayman Nour, 48, is also one to watch, after SCAF head, Tantawi, pardoned him over a previous conviction and imprisonment relating to allegations of “forgery”. Nour, a well-known dissident, is most famous for being the first man to challenge Mubarak for the presidency in 2005. There was some talk that Nour’s release from prison, in February 2009, was due to encouragement from President Obama ahead of his meeting with Mubarak.

With women making up more than half the population, the lack of presidential candidates is a glaring omission in Egypt’s “free elections”.

One woman, Bothaina Kamel, 49, a radio and television personality (pictured), tried hard and only recently changed her Facebook profile picture to one directly calling for more signatures to help qualify before yesterday’s registration deadline. Whatever her fate, Bothaina has become the first woman to run for the presidency of Egypt.

The most notable non-starters for the presidency were former International Atomic Energy Agency chief, Mohamed el Baradei and Mubarak’s intelligence chief and vice-president, Omar Suleiman, 76. By all accounts Suleiman (third in the poll with 10.2%) is extremely popular, which may explain his complete back-flip last Friday when he reversed a decision announced earlier in the week not to run. Suleiman is best known for his po-faced statement on television last February announcing Mubarak’s departure.

The whole exercise by Suleiman seemed designed for maximum publicity including his words that he would withdraw if he failed to get enough signatures by Sunday. Surely he had them already.

Suleiman’s votes may have gone to former prime minister and air force general, Ahmed Shafiq, 71, but now the old regime colleagues will have to compete. Shafiq was Minister of Civil Aviation until Mubarak appointed him Prime Minister during the revolution. With the country in turmoil he barely warmed the seat, resigning little more than a month later on March 3.

“The first decision I will take as president is to immediately activate security on the streets and address the economic deterioration,” said Shafiq after receiving his registration documents.

Until the successful candidates are announced on April 26 and the official campaign begins, it is difficult to judge where the sleepers lie and how many will survive the process. But there is no doubt that Egyptians love a president, perhaps even too much when the country is moving towards democracy.

Whoever gets the job will need a cool head to handle the military’s transition back to the barracks, with or without revealing the secrets of their multibillion dollar businesses.

He may also have to oversee a more inclusive writing of Egypt’s new constitution, which so far has been hijacked by the Islamic parties dominating the newly elected parliament. Perhaps then he will be able to read his own job description.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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