Egypt’s eventful presidential election

Salafi Islamists rally in Cairo's Tahrir square protesting the disqualification of Hazem Abu Ismail from Egypt's presidential race (Photo: Jonathan Rashad CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security, IISS-Middle East

No one expected Egypt’s first ever free presidential election to be boring, but it has turned out to be much more eventful than anyone would have expected. A little more than a month before the first round, Egypt is in major political turmoil. The fate of the revolution and the trajectory of the country are far from certain.

Contrary to what it first announced, the Muslim Brotherhood will field a candidate for the presidency, Khairat al-Shater. The movement’s top strategist and a successful businessman, al-Shater has already launched his campaign, deploying the awesome political machine that has turned the Freedom and Justice Party into the country’s key political player. However, reneging on a major promise after a series of other reversals has made the Brotherhood the target of widespread secular criticism. Al-Shater has reportedly offered clerics an oversight role on legislation which has only deepened concerns about the Brotherhood’s real intentions. 

Al-Shater may only be playing politics, in an attempt to attract the Salafi vote which may now be up for grabs. Indeed, Hazem Abu Ismail, the leading Salafi contender, finds himself caught in a bizarre scandal. It has emerged that his mother acquired US citizenship, which would prevent him from running under Egyptian law. Abu Ismail alleges he is the victim of a conspiracy, but his candidacy is unlikely to survive the controversy and it is too late for the Salafis to field a suitable replacement. The al-Shater candidacy is the culmination of the ambivalent, testy relationship between the Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The former had shied away from revolutionary rhetoric and activity, which won it the latter’s goodwill; but their competing legitimacy guaranteed a clash. Probably worried that the SCAF would seek to constrain its institutional power, the Brotherhood chose to escalate to secure its political gains.

Secularists, following their dismal performance and the huge victory of the Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafi Nour Party during the legislative and Shura elections, are in a state of disarray. Some are clutching to the hope that the ruling military council will check Islamist ambitions. Others are joining the campaign of Abdel Monem Abou el-Fotouh, a former Brother of a more liberal persuasion. A few are reluctantly supporting Amr Moussa, the former secretary general of the Arab League. Moussa, long ahead in the polls, now has to contend with a stronger-than-expected field of candidates.

The fact that Omar Suleiman, the intelligence chief and short-lived vice-president during the Mubarak era, has thrown his hat into the race shows that the old regime is still keen on fighting for power. Many Egyptians who long for the days of the old regime, or have suffered from the disorder and economic pain that followed the revolution or simply fear Islamist rule, are likely to congregate around him. Accusations are already flying that the military will rig the elections in Suleiman’s favour, but the SCAF’s support for him should not be taken for granted. Suleiman and members of SCAF belonged to competing factions during Mubarak’s rule.

Also significant is the fact that Egyptians will be voting for a president without knowing what powers he will eventually hold. Indeed, an administrative court decided yesterday to invalidate the committee tasked with drafting a new constitution, which makes the already difficult task of delivering a document ahead of the elections impossible. The committee had already attracted much controversy after the Islamist-dominated Parliament nominated a majority of Islamists to serve on it, granting secularists, minorities and women too few seats to influence the writing of that most important document. Many secular members quickly withdrew from the committee and some mounted the now successful legal challenge. The Brotherhood may be fuming at how courts have been used in a quintessentially political battle, but it cannot afford to confront a newly assertive judiciary.

Relations between the military, secularists and Islamists are rapidly fraying in Egypt. The tone of the campaign will tell how deep and enduring these rifts will be.


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