‘Hug and hold’ to promote democracy in Azerbaijan

This week’s Eurovision Song Contest has put Azerbaijan’s authoritarian regime under the spotlight. It should also be a catalyst for Europe to change a relationship with Baku that is currently guided by narrow energy interests if it is to avoid a repetition of the Arab Awakening when it appeared to be a supporter of autocrats, according to a new report.

The EU and member states should adopt a “hug and hold” approach to promoting democracy in the former Soviet Republic – that is, hug Azerbaijan but also hold it to its commitments to reform, Jana Kobzova and Leila Alieva argue in “The EU and Azerbaijan: Beyond oil,” a policy memo for the European Council on Foreign Relations (Hat tip: Global Europe):

Although Azerbaijan holds more political prisoners than any other Eastern European country, the EU has remained timid about human rights violations. The EU’s failure to pressure the Azerbaijani government to liberalise has brought few benefits and continues to discredit the EU in the eyes of Azerbaijan’s society.

The EU is now trying to put democracy back at the heart of its foreign policy. But while it has taken a tough approach to Belarus – another systematic abuser of human rights in the Eastern Partnership region – it seems more concerned about its own energy interests and security in Azerbaijan than for the state of democracy there. Although they have been vocal about democracy in Azerbaijan, individual member states and the EU institutions have in reality co-operated with the regime in Baku without imposing conditionality. This conditionality-free approach has brought Europe few benefits and continues to discredit the EU in the eyes of Azerbaijani society. Without adjusting its relations with this oil-rich country, the EU risks repeating the same blunders it has made in its southern neighbourhood in the past.


At the moment, the EU’s best chance for more reform in Azerbaijan is continued engagement – rather than isolation of the Baku government. At the practical level, the EU should continue to use its dialogue with the government to assist in areas that are important for Azerbaijan’s modernization and transformation, such as governance, rule of law or diversification of the country’s economy, as well as those where the EU can increase its indirect influence through outreach to broader society. When it comes to co-operation with the government, the limited funds the EU has should be invested where its assistance can have greater added value rather than into equipment or infrastructure projects.

…but holding

While “hugging” Azerbaijan, Europe should also hold it to the commitments it made by joining the ENP and agreeing action plans. The European Commission’s recent offer of a “matrix” for Azerbaijan is a step in the right direction as it links its assistance to the government’s performance on reform. If the regime expresses no interest in EU aid or continues to underperform, the EU should apply “adjusted conditionality” and re-direct the funds towards local civil society. To monitor the government’s actions, the EU should also work to develop greater co-operation and interaction with Azerbaijan’s national platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum and local watchdogs. The EU should also establish an internal contact group among relevant EU institutions and directorates-general (led by the European External Action Service or Commissioner Füle) to facilitate exchange of information and co-ordination of EU assistance for Azerbaijan.

A concerted effort at the EU level to restrict the movement of those in Azerbaijan who violate human rights on a systematic basis is unlikely. But member states can take action individually and should follow the example set by the British government, which earlier this year adopted a new rule banning those non-EU nationals accused of human rights abuses from entering the UK. The UK took this measure even though it traditionally has good relations with the Azerbaijani government and London’s property market is the prime destination for investment by the Azerbaijani elite. The provision will hardly be enough to encourage the Aliyev regime to fully democratise, but it might significantly change the calculations for those in the ruling elite taking part in human rights violations.

“As Azerbaijan grows more authoritarian, Europe faces a choice,” says Alieva, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. “It can fully embrace this country and its society, which is proud of becoming the first-ever Muslim liberal democratic republic in 1918, or it can continue its condition-free dialogue with the regime.” 

Azerbaijan has often used its difficult geographical and geopolitical context as an excuse to tighten the political screws. The country is blessed with hydrocarbon riches but cursed by its location in what is probably the most combustible region in Europe. To the north, it borders Russia, which, apart from having a radar station on

Azerbaijan’s territory is also one of the main sources of the radical Islamist groups that are currently operating in the country. To the east, Armenia is still technically at war with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh; Iran, in which 20–30 million Azerbaijanis continue to live, is also a difficult neighbour. Azerbaijan’s only two “good neighbours” are Georgia and especially Turkey.

As the ECFR paper notes:

  • Azerbaijan’s oil and gas reserves transformed the country and led to a decade of impressive economic growth. However, with oil running out, Azerbaijan’s economic model is unsustainable. The government has made little effort to diversify the economy away from dependence on hydrocarbons.
  • Since 2003 Ilham Aliyev has consolidated power in the presidency and steered Azerbaijan towards a full-fledged autocracy. The overall human rights situation is worsening.
  • The government’s heavy-handed tactics may eventually backfire. By clamping down on independent media and repressing the secular opposition, the regime has closed most of the usual channels for expressing dissent.

The EU and member states should adopt a “hug and hold” approach to promoting democracy:

  • The EU needs to redirect more political and financial support to grassroots groups, SMEs and independent media who can put more pressure on the regime. The EU should be more vocal in demanding greater political pluralism.
  • The EU should continue to use its dialogue with the government to assist in areas that are important for Azerbaijan’s modernisation and transformation, such as governance, rule of law or diversification of the country’s economy.
  • The EU is Azerbaijan’s most important trading partner and should use this as a leverage to push for change.
  • EU member states should follow the UK’s example and introduce new rules banning those non-EU nationals accused of human rights abuses from entering the EU – this would change the calculations for those in Azerbaijan’s elite taking part in human rights violations.

Key facts

  • There are more political prisoners in Azerbaijan than in Belarus, the political opposition has almost been eliminated, the main TV channels are controlled by the government and journalists are regularly threatened.
  • The volume of oil extracted in Azerbaijan peaked in 2010 and is set to continue to decline. Azerbaijan’s budget increasingly relies on transfers from the state oil fund (SOFAZ) rather than taxes.
  • Between 2003 and 2010 the poverty rate dropped from 45% to 9%. But in 2011 the country recorded the lowest economic growth among all former Soviet republics.
  • Azerbaijan is as corrupt as Russia or Uganda and ranks worse than neighbouring Georgia and Armenia. (Transparency International)
  • The EU’s financial levers are limited: in 2012, the EU’s offer of €31 million in exchange for social and economic reforms was dwarfed by the almost €43 million that Azerbaijan earns every day from oil.
  • EU democracy promotion in the Eastern Neighbourhood has failed: none of the six Eastern Partnership countries is fully democratic and democracy scores in the region have been worsening.

The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) is the first pan-European think-tank. Launched in October 2007, its objective is to conduct research and promote informed debate across Europe on the development of coherent and effective European values based foreign policy.

Jana Kobzova is a Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the coordinator of its Wider Europe programme. Before joining ECFR, Jana led the Belarus democratisation programme at the Bratislava-based Pontis Foundation. She also helped establish the Slovak branch of the European webzine Café Babel. Jana has co-authored several book chapters on Eastern Europe and EU Eastern policy as well as articles for various journals and media  outlets. She has co-authored various ECFR publications including The Spectre of a Multipolar Europe (2010), The EU and Belarus after the Election (2011) and Dealing with a post-BRIC Russia (2011).

Leila Alieva is a Baku-based political analyst and the founder of the Center for National and International Studies. She has held research fellowships at Harvard University, Berkeley, the Woodrow Wilson Center, Johns Hopkins University, NATO Defence College and the National Endowment for Democracy. Her publications include Integrative Processes in the South Caucasus and their Security Implications (2006) and The EU and the South Caucasus (2006) and she has also written about security, conflicts and politics in the South Caucasus for various publications including the Journal of Democracy and Jane’s Intelligence Review.

The authors of the memo are available for comment and analysis on the situation in Azerbaijan.

Jana Kobzova, ECFR Policy Fellow, jana.kobzova@ecfr.eu, +44 7786 008 683

Leila Alieva, Center for National and International Studies Baku [a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy] – leilalibek@yahoo.com

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‘Authoritative’ glimpse into Boko Haram

“Boko Haram was founded on ideology, but poor governance was the catalyst for it to spread,” says “the most authoritative voice” on the Nigerian jihadist group, killed more than 1000 people, mostly Muslims, in a three-year insurgency.

In 2005, a young journalist named Ahmad Salkida (left) was living in Maiduguri, north-eastern Nigeria, Xan Rice writes from Abuja, when one of his mother’s friends knocked on the door. Her son had dropped out of university to study under a local imam. She begged Mr Salkida to persuade him to return home.

The student refused to change his mind and instead introduced Mr Salkida to the imam, Mohammed Yusuf, a “brilliant orator” heavily influenced by the conservative teachings of a 13th-century cleric. Soon Mr Salkida began praying at Yusuf’s mosque – and reporting on the rise of an increasingly radical, if obscure, sect.

Today Boko Haram, or “western education is forbidden”, is notorious throughout Nigeria. The police execution of Yusuf in 2009 sparked an insurgency in the country’s north that has become as violent as any in the world.

Confronting radical Islamist ideology or violent jihadists isn’t part of the core mandate of civil society groups like the Center for Constitutional Governance and Center for Constitutionalism and Demilitarization. But by addressing Nigeria’s deplorably poor governance, their activities have a resonance and impact few might consider.

“If there had been proper governance and a functioning state, [Boko Haram founder Mohammed] Yusuf would have found it very difficult to succeed,” says Salkida, an independent journalist and civil society activist.

Salkida has received anonymous telephone threats since 14 March when it became known that the government was holding talks with Boko Haram, says Reporters Without Borders:

The reporter, who has covered the activities of Boko Haram (right) for several years, was accused among other things of being a member of the Islamist group and of being the instigator of the talks. He was also told that he and the group “are not supposed to exist”. The next day, he was followed by a white Lagos-registered 4×4 for several hours in Abuja.

In July last year he was forced to move away from the northern city of Maiduguri after receiving threats from people claiming to belong to Boko Haram. The threats followed the publication in the magazine Blueprint of an article he wrote on the Islamist group’s first suicide bomber.

On 11 March, Boko Haram threatened to take action against three newspapers, National Accord, Vanguard and Tribune, in a tele-conference in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state. The group said the newspapers attributed statements to the group which were not made by its members and showed bias against it in their reports. It said they portrayed the group in a negative light while praising government forces.

On 9 March, Boko Haram had threatened to “take care of” any journalist that misrepresented its views in an article. The Nigerian Tribune and Vanguard Newspapers were among those mentioned specifically by the group’s spokesman, Abul Qaqa.

On 13 February, six journalists from the New Nigerian, Blueprint, Aminiya, Voice of Nigeria, Hausa Service and the Nigerian Standard, and a Nigerian Television Authority cameraman were attacked by a dozen unidentified assailants in Katami village in the Silame local government area of Sokoto State, where they were covering the election campaign of the All Nigeria Peoples Party’s candidate for the state governorship, Alhaji Yusha’u Ahmed. The bus in which they were travelling was attacked by men armed with machetes, knives, cutlasses and sticks.

“Salkida might be a reliable source, but his information still shouldn’t be swallowed hook, line, and sinker,” Walter Russell Mead writes on American Interest’s Via Meadia.

“His reports paint a picture of Boko Haram as anything but weak and disorganized, yet there appears to be room for the Nigerian government to negotiate a resolution to Boko Haram’s violence and an end to the oppression that begat Boko Haram in the first place.”

Boko Haram founder Yusuf objected to aspects of modern education at odds with this fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.

“On education, he did not want mixed schools, or the teaching of evolution. He wanted children to have more time to study their religion,” says Salkida. “But it was not just education. Democracy was alien to him, and he said he could not support a government whose constitution was not based on the Koran.”

Like other Islamist movements, Boko Haram gained support by providing social welfare services, including its own microfinance system, and a parallel state through its own ruling council.


The Center for Constitutional Governance and the Center for Constitutionalism and Demilitarization are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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After Egypt’s poll, military demands ‘special status’ as ‘guardian of red lines’

The biggest question hanging over Egypt’s presidential election is whether the military will relinquish power to a civilian authority.

“With these elections, we will have completed the last step in the transitional period,” Maj. Gen. Mohamed el-Assar (right), speaking for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, told an eve-of-poll news conference. The military has promised to cede authority on July 1, but the devil is in the detail, say observers.

“The military is not going to do anything that is against its interests,” says Eric Trager, a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It decided that it’s in its interests to have some sort of formal handover of power because of mounting protests against its rule.”

But it will not give up its authority over foreign policy, he says, and it won’t do anything that might jeopardize the more than $1 billion dollars in aid it receives annually from the United States.

Few Egyptians are “certain of the true intentions of a military that has been the backbone of successive Egyptian regimes,” says the FT’s Roula Khalaf. “Part of the generals’ strategy will depend on who is elected, and the extent to which they can strike a deal that is sellable to the public.”

People familiar with the military’s thinking say the generals are seeking to maintain oversight over Egypt’s “direction”.

“They want a special status – in other words they won’t accept civilian rule over the ministry of defense or the ministry of military productions and they want to be the guardians of certain red lines,” says one official. These red lines include “matters of war and peace” but also preventing any political current (which means Islamist parties) from “changing the face of the country”.

But other observers believe the SCAF will be relieved to return to barracks on condition that the military’s economic privileges and “red lines” on defense and foreign policy are left intact.

“They want to get out of politics,” says publisher and veteran rights activist Hisham Kassem. “They hate it.”

“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is not going to give whomever is elected the keys to the presidential palace and all the executive power,” says Mostafa Hussein, a blogger and psychiatrist. “They’re going to open the door and allow someone to sit on the chair, but they’re going to stay there, behind the curtains, trying to control things.”

The most likely scenario is an “unhappy settlement” with the military “ever-present, in the shadows,” influencing but not controlling the civilian government, said Maajid Nawaz, the chairman of Quilliam, a London-based anti-extremist think-tank.

“Egypt is going along similar lines to Turkey or Pakistan,” he said. The military has little incentive to retain control when whoever wins the election assumes responsibility for a troubling agenda.

“They are inheriting a failed economy, an abysmal bureaucracy, a frustrated people, and a deep distrust on behalf of the people towards their military and any policing,” Nawaz said.

The Project for Middle East Democracy adds:

Egyptians Vote in Historic Presidential Elections

With 53 million eligible voters, Egypt opened presidential polls Wednesday on the first of two days for what is widely considered its first openly contested presidential elections. Voter turnout was hard to determine, but Egyptian media is reporting low voter turnout in some cities such as Marsa Matrouh, Minya, and Suez, while polling stations in Alexandria, Al-Arish, Mansoura and Sohag saw a high turnout. Turnout in Cairo was mixed, with some areas seeing long lines and others nearly empty. Authorities were hopeful that cities that saw a lower turnout would see increased involvement later in the day. Meanwhile, a police officer was killed in the working class district of Rod al-Farag after being shot in front of a polling station late on Tuesday. The officer was hit in the chest by a stray bullet during a gunfight between armed civilians, according to the government. Police say that they apprehended three of the participants, two of whom were carrying firearms. Police do not believe the fight was related to the elections, but a personal dispute between a driver and his passenger.

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Live updates: Many voters interviewed voice support for Morsy or Moussa”, Egypt Independent (English), 05/23/12.

Live updates: Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential elections underway”, Ahram Online (English), 05/23/12.

Elections Commission: Mubarak has the right to vote”, Egypt Independent (English), 05/22/12.

Egypt’s presidential polls open”, Egypt Independent (English), 05/23/12.

Violations in Elections Widespread but Minor

Violations in the first day of presidential elections have been widespread, but have been minor, according to Egyptian media and authorities. There have been multiple violations of the campaign silence period and multiple campaigners, especially supporters of Mohammed Morsi, have been asked to leave polling stations. So far there have been no reports of vote rigging or vote buying, though one judge closed a polling station in Daqahliya province after finding 35 ballots premarked for Morsi. Some polling stations opened late, often due to a lack of personnel on hand or judges arriving late, and there were reports of suspicious activities by some poll workers. Overall, however, monitors are reporting that the polling is fair and voting is going smoothly.

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Election day violations widespread but relatively minor”, Egypt Independent (English), 05/23/12.

Abouel Fotouh Discovers ‘Electoral Irregularities’”, Al Ahkbar (Arabic), 05/23/12.

Supporter of Morsi arrested…”, Al Shorouk (Arabic), 05/23/12

POMED is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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The coming crisis of Putinism?

Credit: Wall Street Journal

Popular support for Vladimir Putin’s government is eroding at such a pace that Russia could experience “a full-blown political crisis” before the end of his presidential term, according to a new report from a prominent Moscow think tank.

The findings run counter to a new Pew survey’s conclusion that following the winter’s “Snow Revolution” of middle class discontent, Russians show “an increased appetite for political freedom, and at the same time strongly endorse Vladimir Putin.”

The reports coincide with a spat between Putin and the his leading human rights adviser over punitive new measures against protesters and revelations that the Kremlin compiled a ‘loyalty dossier’ on the 126 members of the Public Chamber that measures whether ostensibly independent civil society voices would follow government orders.

“The erosion of confidence can’t be stopped,” Mikhail Dmitriev, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, said prior to the report’s public release on Thursday. Early last year, Dmitriev’s center predicted that the regime would face a crisis as early as December’s parliamentary elections.

“The authorities want to reassure themselves because their popularity ratings have risen and the level of protest has fallen,” Dmitriev told the Wall Street Journal. “But our data give a completely different interpretation.”

The new study, based on 32 focus groups conducted around the country over the past three months, showed that the numbers of committed supporters of Mr. Putin has fallen sharply over the past two years, to below 50%, with most Russians who back him doing so because they perceive no alternative. As a result, the downward trend in Mr. Putin’s poll ratings seen last year is likely to resume as soon as the fall, he said.

“Devoted Putin supporters are now a marginal group,” he said.

A new Pew attitudes survey suggests that Russian voters support democratic institutions, but remain wary of democracy, while endorsing the principal architect of Russian authoritarianism.

“Compared with just a few years ago, more Russians believe that voting gives people like themselves an opportunity to express their opinion about the country’s governance, more feel that it is important to be able to openly criticize the government, and greater numbers see freedom of the press and honest elections as very important,” the Pew Global Attitudes survey notes.

Russians strongly approve of Putin, even though a majority also supports last winter’s political protests.

While 71 percent of respondents said a fair judiciary is very important, only 17 percent believe Russia has one. What Pew calls the “democracy gap,” between ideals and reality is also evident in respondents’ views on free and fair elections, uncensored media, civilian-controlled armed forces, freedom of expression and religious freedom..

Pew’s findings are consistent with those of the Moscow-based Levada Center,* a leading independent polling group. “The absolute majority has no idea what democracy is,” said Lev Gudkov, the center’s director:

“Democracy,” he said, earned a bad name in the 1990s, when attempts at reform unleashed rapacious oligarchs and dysfunctional politics. But now, gradually, Russians are coming to understand that there are democratic norms and that their country doesn’t have them…..Russians increasingly sense that other countries gain something through open elections, respect for rights and occasional transfers of power.

The newly-appointed cabinet “will soon face a painful dilemma in economic policy” with significant implications for the Kremlin’s political strategy The Economist notes:

Should it favour the handful of extraordinarily powerful businessmen close to Mr Putin and the managers of large, state-run companies, or the country’s rural and working-class population, which Mr Putin increasingly perceives as his electoral base? Both groups are essential to the stability of Mr Putin’s rule, yet are fighting over the same shrinking economic pie.

The interests of the former group would be best served by the accumulation of oil profits in Russia’s stabilisation fund, a sort of rainy-day pot to protect members of the business elite……The needs of the latter group look very different. Rural folk, pensioners and blue-collar workers depend on the sort of government munificence that Mr Putin promised in his campaign. Honouring those pledges will require spending on salaries and pensions as well as infrastructure and other large outlays. With much of the urban middle-class now lost to Mr Putin, this constituency is of crucial importance.

Putin today proposed new laws to penalize street protesters, provoking criticism from his leading counselor on human rights

­“We certainly must protect people from extreme, radical manifestations. Society and the state have the right to be protected,” Putin told a meeting of the ruling United Russia party leadership.

The new measures will raise fines for protest organizers to 1.5 million roubles ($48,000) and 1 million roubles ($32,000) for demonstrators for violations of public order during government-sanctioned rallies.

“If this law is approved as it now stands by both houses of parliament then the council will ask the president to veto the bill,” Mikhail Fedotov, chairman of the presidential Civil Society and Human Rights Council, told Reuters after expressing concerns to Putin in a televised meeting.

“This law… must be rewritten almost fully, by almost 90 percent,” he said. “We need to specify when it can be applied, for example because a person used arms, started a fight, threw rocks at the police, smashed or overturned a car or broke shop windows.”

Putin responded by scolding Fedotov for publicly criticizing the bill.

“You are a presidential adviser and can address the president directly,” Putin told him.

The Kremlin is clearly so uncomfortable with expressions of dissent that it has sought to manipulate its own civil society representatives, according to internal documents which appear to confirm suspicions that its Public Chamber of elected independent citizens empowered to influence policy “is little more than window dressing.”

“The document shows how the presidential administration rules its own court of civil society,” said Novaya Gazeta columnist Andrei Kolesnikov, in an introduction to the 42-page dossier:

According to the report, the Kremlin believes that billionaire Vladimir Potanin should not be re-elected to the Public Chamber for not taking an active role, while Yaroslav Kuzminov, president of the Higher School of Economics and husband of acting Economic Development Minister Elvira Nabiullina, has not always kept his word to the Kremlin.

It says lawyer Yelena Lukyanova, known for her opposition views, cannot be influenced by the Kremlin and recommends that the Kremlin negotiate with her through another chamber member.

Political analyst Sergei Markov, who was mentioned in the leaked document as a “loyal” chamber member, said he saw nothing unusual in the existence of such a dossier.

“It is a normal internal document for any political body. If such a document did not exist, people in the presidential administration should be fired,” said Markov, vice president of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics.

*The Levada Center is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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Egypt’s historic poll ‘bodes well’ for rest of Arab world

“Egyptian voters of many ages, occupations and beliefs stood in line for hours Wednesday to cast their ballots for a new president, AP reports. As voters flocked to the polls, Mubarak holdover Ahmed Shafiq warned them not to repeat the  ”mistake” of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood as victory for the Islamists’ candidate would create “a huge problem.”

Only five of the 13 candidates are considered to be serious contenders. Former foreign minister Amr Moussa, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi and independent Islamist Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh “could, in theory, win outright – given the volatility of the polls and the sheer novelty of the situation,” says one observer, while Mubarak’s last premier, Ahmed Shafiq, and the left-Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi are on the margins.

“These polls will be a test of comparative strength of each of the two political machines that have dominated Egyptian political life for decades, the Islamists and the state, and whether new forces have truly emerged capable of challenging them,” said Elijah Zarwan, an Egypt expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank

Whatever the result, Egypt’s “pioneering” poll is widely praised by the Arab world’s media for good reason, writes Roula Khalaf: the election is “a historic moment for the region, the first time that Arabs are allowed to genuinely and freely choose their president. What happens in the largest Arab nation matters elsewhere – Egypt influences Arab public opinion and points to political trends.”

NGOs and rights groups monitoring the poll reported complaints. The Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), told the BBC they received 50 complaints on electoral violations ranging from delay in opening voting booths, to campaigning for candidates outside polling stations during voting.

According to a recent poll, former Brotherhood official Abul-Fotouh leads with 32%, followed by Moussa with 28%, Shafiq on 14%, and Morsi and Sabahi on 8% each.

A sense of trust in the candidate is the most important single quality respondents cited in the 2012 Public Opinion Survey in Egypt, said Shibley Telhami, a professor and pollster at the University of Maryland, and fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Some 71% of respondents to a recent poll said that the Brotherhood’s decision to field a presidential candidate after insisting that they would not was a mistake.

The trust factor is a leading reason for the decline in support for Islamist candidates, with Egyptians re-assessing their views on religious-conservative politicians, said Dalia Ziada (right), executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies.

Egyptians voted for Islamic candidates because they wanted morally irreproachable politicians, but Islamists’ performance in office had caused many to shed their illusions, she said. Surveys conducted by the Ibn Khaldun Center, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, indicate that secular candidates are gaining in popularity.

“What was brought to light for a lot of voters was that the Islamists, contrary to their assumptions, were not the best choice,” Ziada said. “They are not less corrupt than other politicians.”

One voter was struck by “the predominance of outspoken anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiments” at today’s polls:

“I voted MB in parliamentary elections,” said a veiled woman of around 50, “but never again. They’re a bunch of liars. Did you see what they did in parliament? Simply scandalous.” Another woman standing close by agreed with her wholeheartedly. But when she said that she would opt for Aboul Fotouh, many of those standing by reminded her that he was also MB. “Don’t be fooled by his sweet smile. He’ll show his true character once he becomes president,” they told her.

“Almost everybody I spoke to agreed that the youngest candidate, Khaled Aly [executive director of the Egyptian Centre for Social and Economic Rights - left], who spent his life championing the cause of workers, was by far the best choice,” writes Amira Nowaira a professor at Alexandria University.

“But he stands little chance,” they said regretfully.

Mubarak holdover Shafiq tried to tap into the anti-Brotherhood sentiment, by insisting that he was the only candidates in a position to “stop” an Islamist takeover.

Voters made a “mistake” by allowing the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party to win dominate parliament, he said.

“There would be a huge problem,” Shafiq told AFP about the prospect of a Brotherhood or Islamist victory. “The Brotherhood has proved in the past months that it is completely rejected by the Egyptian people.”

“The Egyptian people made a big mistake in trusting the Brotherhood, and now we are suffering from their actions,” he added.

Moussa is viewed as the leading “stability” candidate, with clear appeal to those eager to put months of political turmoil behind them and focus on reviving the economy.

“I am impressed by Moussa’s profile,” says Hisham Kassem (right), a prominent publisher and editor, “though people have criticized me for saying so.

“He does have a clear programme and strikes you as someone who would be able to handle the presidency. We don’t want idols and gods anymore.”

The poll “bodes well for the rest of the Arab world and particularly those countries that have had uprisings,” said Maajid Nawaz, the chairman of Quilliam, a London-based think tank.

“Egypt has always set trends in the Arab world and for Arab political thought,” he said. “Trends spread through the Arab world and eventually affect even non-Arab, Muslim-majority countries.”

“It’s far more complicated than ‘Islamists vs. liberal democracy,’” said Nawaz, a former Islamist who was imprisoned in Egypt for his activism.. “It’s rich vs. poor, (hardline) Salafists vs. the (more moderate) Muslim Brotherhood, secularists vs. Islamists.”

But, in essence, the poll has come down to a face-off between illiberal politicians of one stripe or another, says analysts: either Islamists or Mubarak old guard

“Absent were prominent candidates representing the young, secular liberals who led last year’s uprising, and some voters expressed disappointment over that,” AP reports.

Egypt’s secular and liberal activists failed to make the shift from protest to politics and bought into the Facebook fallacy that virtual networking was as politically effective as grass-roots organizing.

“We made a revolution only to go now from one dictatorship to another,” is the gloomy prediction of telecom tycoon Naguib Sawiris, who bankrolled liberal and leftist secular parties that emerged during the Arab Spring, Trudy Rubin writes:

Sawiris says that if democrats had formed one coalition and endorsed a single candidate, “people would have had a clear idea of what we wanted” in terms of the economy and social justice. Instead, the political newcomers who emerged from the revolution promoted their own candidacies or started their own splinter parties. The splits among the Tahrir Square rebels make it possible for an Islamist to win.

Hisham Kassem is a leading member of the World Movement for Democracy.

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