Egypt’s presidential election this week is shaping up as a high-stakes, winner-takes-all contest for power in the absence of clearly defined rules.
Questions remain as to who should draft a new constitution, what authority the new head of state might have, particularly in relation to the legislative branch, and what role the military might play in the burgeoning political system. With candidates from the revolutionary movement, Islamists and members of the old guard vying for leadership, the election could be one final opportunity for Egypt’s de facto ruler, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to help usher in a genuine and safe political transition.
The SCAF, a 20-member body of Egypt’s top military brass once headed by Hosni Mubarak, was initially hailed as a defender of the uprising, but its high-handed management of the transition and seemingly paradoxical decisions have eroded some of the goodwill it enjoyed in February of last year.
It finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. Historically, the SCAF has considered itself to be the only national actor with the legitimacy, ability and wisdom to protect the country from threats both foreign and domestic. But now it is being forced to respond to mounting demands for radical political changes from a mobilized protest movement and to the political rise of the long-persecuted Islamists.
These developments go against its conservative nature and deep attachment to stability and continuity. In a way, the military has been in charge of administering the very process that is chipping away at its nearly seven decades of political and economic prerogatives.
To be sure, the generals are not keen on governing, but with insecurity high, volatility in the Sinai and troubles in neighboring Gaza, Libya and Sudan, they are reluctant right now to trust an untested civilian leadership. Nor do they accept attempts to undermine their privileged status, which includes a budget largely outside of civilian control, virtual immunity from prosecution and important business ventures linked to key parts of the economy.
On top of that, despite being extremely shy of the public spotlight, the military does not want its influence to diminish, as demanded by the secular-minded protest movement or to see the balance of power shift to a single political party, especially an Islamist one.
The SCAF’s actions in recent months, however, have done little to help it achieve those goals. By playing Islamists off against secularists, and vice versa, it has alienated both. Now the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and the SCAF appear entangled in a confrontation over the post-transition arrangements. Fearing that the junta will impose a strong presidential system and void Parliament of its power, the Brotherhood has thrown itself into campaigning, reneging on a pledge not to present a candidate. Neither wants the contest right now, but as the transition takes on a zero-sum-game quality, neither feels that it can back down.
It might not be too late. The generals urgently ought to do now what they should have done more than a year ago: talk to actors from across Egypt’s political spectrum — not just the Muslim Brothers, but also the ultraconservative Salafis and the liberal protest movement — to find a way of accommodating peacefully their diverse and competing goals and interests.
A way must be found to define the parameters of the country’s future political system; the powers of the presidency, the makeup of a committee to draft the new constitution and a basis for civil-military relations. Such fundamental issues determining Egypt’s political stability should not be left unaddressed.
More than ever, Cairo needs consensus-building in order to shake off the economic and political paralysis it has suffered during the 18-month-long transition, and move quickly to meet the salient expectations of those who took part in the Jan. 25 revolt, and the majority that struggles to secure basic necessities like food and health care.
The lead-up to the presidential election has been far from reassuring. For example, the candidate list was finalized less than a month before the voting, amid much controversy over the last-minute nomination (and disqualification) of the Muslim Brotherhood deputy general guide, Khairat el-Shater, as well as Mubarak’s director of the General Intelligence Services, Omar Suleiman.
If the SCAF can help outline exactly what is at stake in the election — by agreeing with most political parties on the relations of authority among the different branches of government, and ensuring that fundamental guarantees are in place to protect the various interests at play — it could help transform the election from a potentially volatile existential exercise into a manageable political one.
This may be the generals’ last chance to peacefully produce a balanced and democratic political system reflecting the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral prowess and the protest movement’s democratic aspirations, while protecting the interests so critical to the military. Ultimately, the SCAF should step aside, clearing the way to democratically elected civilian institutions; the trick is to make sure that happens in a safe, orderly and dignified manner.
Yasser M. el-Shimy is a Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group.