Shifting sands

On May 23 and 24 Egyptians will vote in the first round of the first presidential election since the fall of Hosni Mubarak

After growing unrest and anxiety over the military generals that have been governing the country since the overthrow of Mubarak’s regime last February, the public are finally getting their say. The parliamentary elections were welcomed and did not throw up many surprises, with the Islamists landing the most seats through the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. But it is the chance to elect the figurehead to lead the country away from dictatorship and military governance which has created the most excitement.

The first ever televised presidential debate took place last night, on 10 May, between the two front-runners of the 13-strong field of candidates. Neither ex-Foreign Minister Amr Moussa nor former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Abul-Futoh have clean copybooks and their battle once more draws a long, deep line in the sand in between the two men over the issue of religion: the open liberalism of Moussa against the moderate Islam of Abdul-Futoh. With parties of all colours represented in parliament, from hardline Salafis to hardline secularists to the young revolutionaries who powered the upheavals last year, it is unsurprising that there is such a long list of possible presidents to lead a free nation for the first time. However, in any race for the hot-seat in any country there is always a short-list and a couple of favourites, it is just a further source of division that the top two for the new Egypt have plenty of baggage between them.

The country that one of them will be heading is an important place. As the most populous member of the Arab world and one of the largest in Africa, with more than 81m citizens, by size alone Egypt is a key state. But economically it is significant as well. It has been categorised as one of the crucial emerging economies on the CIVETS list, alongside Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Turkey and South Africa. This move has also been criticised, particularly seeing as economic growth has stalled in recent years. In 2009, GDP output was 4.6% but by last year, the revolutionary turmoil had taken its toll and the figures plummeted to 1%. Saudi Arabia has just approved a $2bn loan to help Cairo through this tricky period. Estimates for future Egyptian GDP growth are looking a bit brighter but do vary wildly:  forecasts for the 2012-13 financial period range from 1.6% to 3.5%. It is clear that the huge national changes that have taken place have wounded the country’s economy, mainly through scaring investors and foreign tourists. But they have been national changes which will hopefully free the nation.

The main geopolitical aspect to Egypt used to be its relations with Israel. Cairo not just recognised the Jewish nation but maintained a long-standing peace accord with its neighbour. However, in the debate last night, both candidates supported revision of the international deal, and Abdul-Futoh went as far as calling Israel an “enemy”. Egypt has an important trans-continental and regional role to uphold, being a bridge state between Africa-Asia, the Maghreb-Mediterranean, Arab-Israeli relations and Northern Africa-Central Africa. Egypt is also somewhere with major internal religious differences, as more than half of the world’s 18 million Coptic Christians live in the country. And Cairo’s Tahrir Square has become an unofficial focus point for the Arab unrest. It is a country on the move, but with an uncertain destination and with many uncertainties within. The next two weeks of campaigning to elect a fair driver to carry on the revolution are going to be as heated as the upheaval itself.

Kicking sand in their face

Western Sahara is caught between Moroccan overlords, the Sahara desert and an uncertain future

The Arab Spring has so far not reached the nomadic Muslims of El Aaiun. Or Semara or Bir Gandus. Or in fact any town at all in Western Sahara. And it looks likely that it will be blown off course as it tries to reach down to the desert coastal territory.

When Spain left in 1975, Morocco and Mauritania both rushed in for a land-grab and the local Polisario Front declared Western Sahara to be the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Mauritania has since retreated, leaving only an anomalous section of its national railway in the far south-eastern corner.

Morocco has done more than roll a few engines through the dunes in the last 36 years. The UN-supported republic only has legitimate administration in the thin eastern slice of the country that is not governed by Morocco. The rest, including El Aaiun, the capital, is run by Rabat. For those from Tangier down to Agadir, the Southern Provinces are considered a fundamental part of the kingdom.

The UN disagrees and sees Western Sahara as a part of an ‘incomplete decolonisation’. On 15 April, the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that despite the repeated stalling of talks over the dispute (10 rounds of UN discussions have taken place in the last four years), the international community must make more effort to find a solution to the problem.

A ceasefire has been in place since 1991 and Morocco has floated a proposal to devolve more autonomy to the 500,000 Sahrawis. The Polisario Front have rejected this idea and Mr Ban admitted that:

“While both emphasise their full commitment to the search for a solution, a total lack of trust continues to haunt the negotiating process, and each party harbours deep suspicions of the other.”

Sahrawis, spread out across a large, arid (but rich in phosphates) country, will not be able to remove Morocco in the same way the Tunisians and Egyptians kicked out their presidents. They cannot organise a rendez-vous on Facebook. The nomadic version of Islam that had developed there means they cannot get together on Fridays to plot the latest post-prayer protests.

They will have to rely on the UN coming to a definite agreement with Morocco to hold the long-postponed referendum on self-determination and try to garner firm help from the 50 or so countries which have formalised foreign relations with the republic. South Sudan recently became Africa’s newest independent nation. The dream for Sahrawis is that it does not take them too much longer to capture that title.