This spring seems to be the season of hotly contested presidential primaries around the world. Now that the Republican primaries in the U.S. have been decided in favor of Mitt Romney, and Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande are facing off in France, perhaps the most critical presidential ‘primaries’ of all are being fought out in Egypt. Everything is at stake here, arguably not just for
Egypt, but for the region and the world.
The future of the Arab Spring hangs in the balance, with three possible scenarios: Egypt’s elections return a hardliner Islamist for president, setting it on the path of Ayatollah Iran, confirming the worst fears of the West; or the military re-asserts its role in the power balance, along the lines of traditional Turkish politics; or, in a case of Mubarak redux, an old regime loyalist is brought in to protect the interests of the beleagured business elite.
In a region that has consistently demonstrated the validity of the mantra ‘as
Egypt goes, so goes the Arab world’, the United States has vital interests, from Iraq to Israel;
the run-up to the June-slated presidential elections is closely watched from Washington to Moscow.
So it is intriguing that the process of elimination of candidates is taking
place in the courts rather than at the polls.
The explanation for the critical role of the courts lies in a constitution riddled with Mubarak-era amendments jerry-rigged to ensure, in effect, that no one but the former president, or his offspring, stood a real chance of running for president of
Egypt. One such
rule, excluding anyone convicted of any misdemeanor, even on blatantly
political, trumped-up charges, was intended to disqualify Ayman Nour, who had
dared to run against Mubarak. After the revolution, the same rule was applied
to disqualify Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat Shater, jailed under Mubarak
for his Islamist activities.
Moreover, after the revolution, the Islamic-dominated new parliament voted into law new hurdles for presidential candidates, designed to exclude certain figures from the old regime or certain candidates it deemed too secular. On the one hand, Ahmed Shafiq, a Mubarak-era prime minister and the current military rulers’ candidate-of-choice, was recently disqualified according to the new rule against any ancien regime top ministers running for president. On the other hand, it was with considerable schadenfreude that many saw the most radical hardliner among the Islamist candidates, Abu Ismail, a vociferous reviler of the Unites States, disqualified by the courts on a technicality: although born of Egyptian parents on both sides, his mother had become a naturalized American citizen at some later date.
But in this game of arbitrary court-decreed elimination, the ‘Mubarak redux’ lobby was dealt a blow of its own, when the courts disqualified Omar Soliman, Mubarak’s long-time spy chief, top liaison official with Israel, and eleventh-hour vice-president in the final days before Mubarak’s resignation. Soliman was excluded from running for the presidency on a technicality involving a mere 31 votes, a blow to the military rulers of the country, who considered Soliman, himself a military man, one of them: he was never caught in the wide-ranging net of prosecution that swept up the major cabinet and business elite figures associated with Gamal Mubarak, and is widely believed to have retained much of his behind the scenes power.
As have many of the old establishment, even those currently behind bars. Western observers who follow the trials of Mubarak, his sons and his loyalists focus on the ‘humiliation’ of ‘the cage’, as they call the traditional dock with bars, ubiquitous in
Egypt and in
some European countries. What Egyptians are more likely to note are the
obsequious salutes with which these Mubarak politicians are greeted by the
policemen assigned to guard them as they enter the courthouse, a clear sign
that these men in white prison garb still wield power to be reckoned with, even
behind bars, and that they have the tacit protection of the military rulers of
So in the run-up to the June election, as one candidate after another is knocked down by the courts on a technicality, schadenfreude is short-lived, and new candidates pop up in their place: the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood and the fundamentalist Salafis are already fielding new candidates in place of their first choices, whereas the ‘secular-liberal’ movement is left with nothing but compromise options.
The first choice of the young revolutionaries and most liberals would have been Nobel Prize winner Dr. Baradei, but he has refused to throw his hat in the ring, opting instead for the rather Utopian goal of building a new, progressive party that would be ready to contest free, fair elections next time around. That decision may partly have been dictated by his lack of popular appeal among a certain sector of the masses which suspects Baradei of American bias, ironically, given that he was anathema to the Bush administration for his obstructionist role as head of the U.N. Atomic Energy Agency in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War.
The compromise candidates before the secular liberals at the moment are narrowed down to two: Amr Moussa, former head of the Arab League and former Foreign Minister under Mubarak, but less tainted than he might be by this association on account of his reputation as an independent, nationalistic politician; and Abou El-Fotouh, a moderate former Muslim Brotherhood member who resigned from the party over his differences with them.
But there is still over a month to go till the June elections, and typically skeptical Egyptians predict that the military rulers of the country will step in and pre-empt them. Recent demonstrations against just such a scenario have united a broad spectrum of the population, Islamist and secular, but there is yet another contingent of the electorate that would welcome a military take-over in the name of ‘a return to security and economic stability.’ Meanwhile, the courts play an unpredictable game, disqualifying one candidate after another, and issuing equally arbitrary rulings in other cases: one of Egypt’s most popular comic actors was convicted on a charge of ‘insulting Islam’ in his films, only to be exonerated of the self-same charge in an identical case. The power struggle between the different political currents in the country is playing itself out in the courts, and if that is any indication, this will be a hot election season in