Egypt's Transition Remains Shrouded in Tension and Uncertainty
Egypt's presidential election committee confirmed yesterday (17 April) the barring of 10 leading candidates from the country's presidential election in May.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
The decision by the electoral commission means that former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, the Muslim Brotherhood's Khairat al-Shater, and Salafist nominee Hazem Salah Abu Ismail cannot run for the presidency.
The nomination by the Brotherhood of parliamentary party leader Mohammed Morsi to replace Shater means the group will still feel confident of victory; however, the decision to ban Shater and the other candidates will increase political tensions with the military during the campaign.
At a deeper level, the falling out in March between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military has markedly increased mutual suspicions and led many Egyptians to conclude that the Brotherhood is in danger of politically over-reaching itself. This may lead to a liberal-secular backlash in the medium term, especially following the resumption of consultations over the new constitution, which are currently suspended pending judicial review.
The presidential election commission yesterday (17 April) took the decision to uphold its original pronouncement made on 14 April barring former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, the Muslim Brotherhood's Khairat al-Shater, Salafist nominee Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, and seven other prospective candidates from standing for election. Of the 23 candidates who originally put their names forward, 13 will now contest the first round of voting on 23-24 May.
Barred on Technicalities
The three high-profile candidates were all barred on different technical grounds. Suleiman, although able to gather enough signatures to secure a nomination, allegedly failed to get enough endorsements from a minimum of 15 provinces, as required by law. Shater was disqualified because, having only been pardoned last year on charges of money laundering and terrorism, the legal period of six years had not elapsed between the end of his jail term and his seeking elected office. Meanwhile, Abu Ismail was rejected because his mother holds dual United States-Egyptian citizenship, therefore violating election rules stipulating that all candidates and their parents and spouses hold only Egyptian citizenship.
Khairat al-Shater talks to reporters during a press conference in Cairo yesterday (17 April),
The Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps aware that Shater's candidacy would be rejected, announced soon after the original decision by the commission that Mohammed Morsi, the leader of its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), would contest the election instead of Shater. This leaves Suleiman—who implicitly carried the hopes of many supporters of the former regime, the military, and probably also a sizable swathe of secular opinion—and Abu Ismail—who was destined to fight the Brotherhood candidate for the Islamist vote—with few political options.
Although the electoral commission had been expected to trim the field, the elimination of the three highest-profile candidates nevertheless represents a huge surprise, and has added further to the feeling that Egypt is about to enter another period of prolonged tension in its political transition.
Adding to the sense of confusion is the continued suspension of the commission charged with rewriting the constitution. A court ruling on 10 April suspended the commission after constitutional experts, political parties, and liberal and secular politicians expressed concern over the composition of the commission, which they claimed was heavily weighted in favour of Islamist parties. While the 100-member commission is made up of 40 MPs, most of whom are drawn from Islamist parties, concerns that liberal, secular and Christian groups were under-represented have led to the a judicial review of the commission.
This review is ongoing and risks casting a confusing shadow over the presidential election as Egyptians will essentially be asked to vote for a president whose powers will remain largely undefined. Egypt's military leader Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi sought on 15 April to calm fears of a damaging political crisis after the presidential vote by stressing that the new constitution would be in place by 30 June—the date specified by the military for the handover of power to the new president.
Yet this constitution—which is likely to dilute the powers of the president and bolster those of parliament and the prime minister—will probably need to be approved in a national referendum, meaning all involved are operating to a very tight schedule. Many Egyptians may well question the wisdom of forcing through decisions on such fundamental issues as the rights and role of women and religion in society, the new division of powers between the reformed institutions of state and the role of the military within such a tight timeframe.
Moreover, differing parties clearly have different agendas. For example, liberal and secular parties will probably be keener to place more limits on the prospective powers of a potential Muslim Brotherhood president. Likewise, the Brotherhood may be tempted to place more limits on a president not from its ranks. Discussing these issues against a backdrop of what is likely to be a tense and divisive presidential election campaign is far from ideal, and will open the constitutional process up to the vagaries of party politics in a potentially significant and damaging way. This will worry those Egyptians concerned that the constitution be written in a calm and non-partisan fashion.
Outlook and Implications
These problems, though, are all of Egypt's own making. Having originally outlined a transition plan in 2011 that envisaged the transfer of power back to civilian authority in late 2012 or early 2013, the military then accelerated the process under political pressure. The new timetable may be more popular with political parties but it risks producing a hurried, imperfect constitutional outcome that could secure Islamist domination of Egyptian politics for the foreseeable future. The Brotherhood remains at pains to suggest that it does not want this, but the group's widening split with the military since March (when the two failed to agree on a consensus presidential candidate) and its moves to dominate the constitutional process and the presidential election may yet result in a liberal-secular backlash. Whether this will be strong enough to deny the Brotherhood the presidency remains to be seen, but it is becoming harder to see Egyptian politics in the future defined in any other way than a prolonged contest between pro- and anti-Islamist forces, with the army attempting to arbitrate between the two.
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