A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, April 9, 2012

It's Official: Egypt's Presidential Race Now Weirder than US GOP Race

Until the past few days, Egypt's Presidential election was growing stranger and stranger, but it had not yet tipped over the edge into some sort of Orwellian tragicomedy. Over the past few days, ‘Omar Suleiman has joined the race, despite being the quintessential spook of the old regime; a second Muslim Brotherhood candidate has joined (but he doesn't really mean it!); Parliament has moved to bar Suleiman from running, but probably doesn't have the authority to do so; and . . . well, you get the picture. Up till now I've thought it would be hard to seem weirder than the US Republican primary campaign, though both have had a lot of debate about religion and rotating front-runners (anyone remember Herman Cain? Rick Perry?). Now, however, the Egyptian race is starting to look downright sinister, if it weren't so strange.

The rapid movement in the race was forced by Sunday's deadline for filing recommendations for President; unless supported by a Parliamentary party, candidates had to assemble 30,000 signatures from 15 governorates.

The Suleiman Candidacy: Suleiman allegedly did it in about 24 hours, and enough others have done so to remind us just how many people live in Egypt. Suleiman reportedly delivered his petitions with security escort suitable for a high official, not someone from a supposedly disgraced regime. Many people are talking as if he automatically becomes a front-runner. This leads me to ask, Why?

All of us policy types who've been writing about how the US is going to have to readjust to the new Egypt, with Islamists playing a major role, and how Israel also is going to have to adjust to an Egypt likely to keep the peace treaty but show little enthusiasm for relations, somehow neglected to add the caveat, "unless of course the most pro-American, pro-Israeli candidate with close links to the CIA and Mossad is elected by he same electorate that chose a Muslim  Brotherhood and Salafi dominated Parliament."

How did we fail to think of that option? Mostly because it makes no sense. So why the sudden attention being paid to Suleiman? (It's not just Western commentators: MB candidate Khairat al-Shater called the candidacy an "insult," and it's clearly drawing a lot of attention.) Why isn't everyone laughing this off, as a sad delusional move by an old man who doesn't understand he's been bypassed by history?

Partly because Suleiman knows where the bodies are buried. (This is not a metaphor: he actually knows where the bodies are buried.) He sat at the pinnacle of the intelligence/security/military establishment. (Before he took over General Intelligence, he headed Military Intelligence,so he knows both the uniformed and civilian side of the intelligence world.) He worked closely with the US (and according to many reports, this included the notorious prisoner renditions), and was and remains Israel's favorite Egyptian since the death of Anwar Sadat.

But of course, he's really the candidate of the revolution. No, really, he says so himself, in an interview with Al-Akhbar quoted by Reuters:
Asked about Egyptians who view his nomination as an attempt to reproduce the Mubarak regime they ousted, Suleiman said: "Let us say that you cannot turn back the clock. The revolution has formed a new reality ... and no one could ever revive a regime that has failed, ended, and was rejected by the public."
"And I have told the Egyptian youth and many others with whom I have met during the revolution period that I am in favor of their legitimate demands," he added.
Parliament is, of course, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi al-Nour Party. Egypt's Islamists seem convinced that the Suleiman candidacy is a plot by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to prevent the election of an Islamist. The fact that there are potential obstacles to the eligibility of all three of the major Islamist candidates does not help assuage these suspicions. (The other set of conspiracy theorists, who are convinced SCAF is working hand in glove with the Brotherhood, may have some problems with this data set.) Oh, and Suleiman has long been known for his profound personal antipathy towards the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and the like. How he could hope to be elected by the same electorate that chose an Islamist Parliament is difficult to fathom.

Fears of Disqualification. On the other hand, just because you're paranoid does not, as it has been wisely noted, mean they're not plotting against you. First, leading Salafi candidate Hazem Salah Abu Isma‘il was confronted with the revelation that his mother was a US citizen, which under the law should disqualify him from running. Then, more moderate Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Abu'l-Futuh was haunted by rumors that he, himself, had been issued a Qatari passport. At first these revelations seemed like a plot by the Muslim Brotherhood to clear the way for their last-minute candidate, Khairat al-Shater.

Then, on Saturday, an Egyptian court ruled that liberal candidate Ayman Nour, who had been pardoned by SCAF so he could run, was in fact ineligible for six years after his pardon. So what, you may say? No one expected Ayman Nour to win, presumably including Ayman Nour. Ah, but SCAF also pardoned Khairat al-Shater so he could run. The court ruling could lead to Shater's disqualification as well. (Nour is appealing, but the Brotherhood has a lot more clout and an explosion could result.) Anyway, just to be safe, the Brotherhood, which until a couple of weeks ago said it wouldn't run any candidate, put forward a second candidate over the weekend, Freedom and Justice Party chief Muhammad Morsi.

And, speaking of disqualifications, Parliament passed a bill prohibiting figures from the old regime from running. Several already are (Ahmad Shafiq among them), but this was clearly aimed at Suleiman. Since the Constitution is not yet written, no one knows if Parliament has the power to do this. It will likely have little effect.

Even before the weekend's developments, Mahmoud Salem was already growing disgusted with the whole comedy. It's a well-argued piece that proposes six points about the likely results of the election; it doesn't lend itself well to excerpting, so I'd refer you to the whole piece. Also see Magdy Samaan at the Atlantic Council, "Will Khairat al-Shater's Presidential Bid Cost the Brotherhood its Imperial Dream?"

Are you ready for a wild ride? Because remember, the campaigning has not even begun yet.

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