Posted by on February 28, 2012 in Blog

By Jeffrey Wright

As the seemingly endless American presidential election campaign wears on, Egypt’s presidential election is beginning to take shape. The interim government and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the real power in Egypt, have finally decided on a date for the election. The first round of voting will be held in the first week of June, with a runoff to follow, if necessary, at the end of the month. As they have throughout the transition to democracy following last January’s revolution, the SCAF has made the rules governing the election opaque and complex, confusing even political parties, to say nothing of average Egyptians. The date of the election has been moved several times and potential candidates face myriad restrictions on everything from the signatures necessary to get on the ballot to the nationality of their spouse. A similar pattern unfolded in the run up to the parliamentary elections, in which final rules were released just weeks before the elections, meaning candidates had little idea how to plan their campaigns and voters were turned off by the system’s incredible complexity. Given the continuation of this pattern to the presidential elections, it’s easy to conclude that the SCAF is trying to encumber democracy with so many rules and restrictions that it turns off ordinary Egyptians, making them yearn for the simpler days of one “big man” ruling the country by decree.

A topic of significant discussion in Egypt and abroad is the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in the presidential election. Shortly after the revolution, in a move intended to calm fears of an Islamist takeover, the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), announced that it would not run a candidate for president. As the elections grow closer, Brotherhood spokesmen have said publicly that the group wants to back a “candidate of consensus,” an elusive figure who would be acceptable to the vital stakeholders in Egypt’s transition: the Brothers, the Salafists, the liberals, the SCAF and the outside world. However, given the FJP’s unquestioned position as Egypt’s most powerful party, a candidate with the support of the Brotherhood and the SCAF would likely be a heavy favorite to win the presidency. This potential alliance looms over the elections, and the liberals and Salafists both fear being left out in the cold by a Brotherhood-SCAF alliance. Potential “candidates of consensus” include Amr Moussa, a former Foreign Minister and Secretary General of the Arab League, and Nabil el-Araby, the current head of the Arab League who has not yet decided if he will run. Though both men would likely be acceptable to liberals and the military, they are tainted by their histories in the Mubarak regime. The Brotherhood’s task is complicated by internal tensions over whether to back an Islamist candidate. The presence and strength of the Salafist el-Nour Party has deprived the Brotherhood of its previous position as the standard-bearer of Islamism in Egypt, leading some to speculate that it will compensate by backing an Islamist for the presidency. Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, a former Brotherhood leader who was dismissed from the group for declaring his candidacy, may attract significant support from younger Brothers who disagree with the leadership’s reluctance to back an Islamist. A Brotherhood spokesman provided little clarity on Sunday, explaining that the Brotherhood does not want a candidate from a particular Islamist group, but someone with “Islamist tendencies.” All clear?

The approach of the presidential elections has also sparked internal conflict among Egypt’s embattled liberal parties. Liberals are deciding whether to run their own candidate, who would have little chance of winning, or to throw their support behind a consensus candidate, which could earn them a seat at the table after the elections. The most likely choice to be the standard-bearer of the liberal parties, Mohammed el-Baradei, announced this month that he would not be a candidate for the presidency, depriving the liberals of their only candidate with any realistic chance at victory. Another liberal favorite, Ayman Nour of the el-Ghad Party, is prohibited from running for president by his 2005 conviction for voting fraud. Nour’s only crime was to have the gall to run against Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election. The SCAF-backed Prime Minister and former Mubarak minister Kamal el-Ganzouri recently pointedly refused to overturn Nour’s conviction, which is widely seen as illegitimate and politically motivated. With el-Baradei and Nour removed from the race, Egyptian liberals are left without a legitimate candidate to call their own. Some liberal leaders have called for the parties to unite in backing a consensus candidate, perhaps in collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood. But given the long-standing animosity both between the liberals and the Brothers and between the various factions of the liberal coalition, this does not seem likely. Instead, the pattern of infighting and divisions that has characterized Egyptian liberals since the Revolution (and before) will probably continue, diluting their strength in the presidential elections to the point of irrelevance. This process has already begun, as the Tagammu Party recently endorsed Hesham al-Bestawisi, a reformist judge with little chance of winning the presidency. The endorsement was not coordinated with other liberal parties.

To the consternation of Egypt’s liberals, and many foreign observers, the eventual winner of Egypt’s presidential elections will likely be a candidate agreed upon by the country’s two most powerful forces: the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. To gain the military’s support, this candidate will likely need to strike a devil’s bargain that precludes any meaningful investigation of the murder of protesters during the transition, the military’s privileged place in the Egyptian economy, or the opacity of its budget. Before this candidate emerges, we can expect months of nationalistic bluster, demagoguery, and ambitious promises of reform; in other words, an election in the American style.

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