A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, May 3, 2012

SCAF Says Elections Will Be Held on Time, But Race is Still a Mess

Egypt's Presidential elections will be held on time, despite yesterday's violent confrontations near the Ministry of Defense, and the transfer of power to an elected civilian government will take place on schedule by July 1, Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) announced yesterday.

The election so far has hardly been a model for other democratic transitions. I've been trying to decide whether "debacle" or "fiasco" comes closer, and remain undecided. Ursula Lindsey opts for "fraught and chaotic." Three major front-runners, of course, were disqualified. The disqualification of Hazem Abu Isma‘il, the Salafi candidate, led to the Ministry of Defense confrotations, and to Salafi demonstrators cheering Muhammad al-Zawahiri, brother of Al-Qa‘ida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, and, on the day after the anniversary of Bin Ladin's killing, chanting, "Listen, Obama, we are all Usama." Offhand I'm guessing that is not the best way to get their candidate back in the race.

When the Muslim Brotherhood's chosen candidate, Khairat al-Shater, was also disqualified, the Brotherhood was ready: just before the deadline, it had registered a second candidate, Freedom and Justice Party leader Muhammad Morsi. Morsi has not caught fire as a candidate, and has suffered from a standing joke about him being a "spare tire," due to the last minute change. The Salafi al-Nour Party, which might have endorsed Abu Isma‘il if he had been allowed to run, declined to endorse Morsi instead, and gave its nod to "liberal" Islamist Abdel Moneim Abu'l-Futuh. Abu'l-Futuh has been endorsed not only by al-Nour but by al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya and the Wasat party, a broad spectrum of Islamist opinion from the hard core ex-jihadi to the quasi-liberal. He also has some support from liberals and even revolutionaries who, while they may be suspicious of his newfound "liberalism," (he was until last year a senior Muslim Brotherhood figure), see him as better than the other religious candidates and at least not a remnant of the old regime.

Because with the disqualifications, it's increasingly looking like a race between Abu'l-Futuh and Amr Moussa, the former Foreign Minister and Arab League Secretary-General. His Arab League post meant he did not serve under Mubarak in his last, and worst, years, but he is still a fixture of the system dating back a generation or more. Former Air Force Chief Ahmad Shafiq, Mubarak's last Prime Minister (disqualified, then reinstated, but with his candidacy still a little shaky) is seen by some as the military's choice.

Overshadowing everything else is the limbo into which constitution-writing has fallen. The Constituent Assembly named by Parliament was blocked by the courts and was collapsing anyway as members quit. But the formula for a new assembly is being hammered out and SCAF is still on record as wanting the Constitution in place by the transition. So we have a case where a President is being elected, but his exact powers are not yet clear as there's no Constitution. If SCAF gets to call the shots on the Constitution, the President may find himself relatively weak and the military looking over his shoulder.

It was already literally a bloody mess, and yesterday saw literal bloodshed. The first round of voting is still three weeks away, and it may prove to be a bumpy ride. Come to think of it, it already is.

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