In just over a month Egyptians will go to the polls to vote for their next president. It will be the first truly democratic election for the country. It’s important not just for the Egyptian revolution, but reform movements throughout the Middle East. As the largest Arab state, the election in Egypt will be watched closely. If it fails or will be prevented it will be a damaging blow to democrats throughout the region. The campaign has already been marred in controversy, with numerous problems with the candidates.
The front-runner is currently Amr Moussa, an experienced diplomat who was Secretary General of the Arab League until he stepped down last year following the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. Moussa is arguably the most palatable victor for western governments. He has made overtures towards Israel (an important consideration for the United States), and also spoken out in favor of the new constitution being careful to protect minorities, particularly women and Coptic Christians.
Under Mubarak and his predecessors, the Muslim Brotherhood had been Egypt’s main opposition. But as they were officially banned they were more of a civil society movement rather than a political party. The transition to a player in politics has not been an easy one, and the Brotherhood has lost ground participating in the messy world of electoral politics. The Brotherhood established their own political party, Freedom and Justice (FJP), in an effort to keep the Brotherhood itself outside of politics. FJP is modeled on Turkey’s mildly Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP). It has been very successful in recent years, simultaneously bringing economics development and better relations with its neighbors, while also weakening the role of the military in Turkish politics.
Originally, FJP was going to sit out the presidential election and focus on parliamentary elections, in the belief that in the new Egypt the parliament would be more powerful than the president. Instead, under the constitution written by the SCAF (the military transitional government), the presidency is still very strong and the Brotherhood has had problems in Parliament despite winning recent legislative elections. Backtracking, Khairat Al-Shater, a MB leader announced that he would run for the presidency. Al-Shater is a very powerful but controversial figure, and many had though he would contend himself with playing kingmaker, rather than run for office himself. He is currently polling in low single digits, and his campaign could further undermine the Brotherhoods strength. Though as he only recently joined the race he shouldn’t be counted out yet, especially with the organization strength of the Brotherhood behind him.
The Salafist Al-Nour is a hard-line Islamist party, and will be represented by Abu Ismail. Al-Nour has done much better than expected in the last twelve, and the United States is particularly worried about their winning as they are the only party running on an explicitly anti-American platform. But Abu Ismail may be disqualified from running after it was discovered that his mother held a US passport. Under Egyptian electoral law this makes him ineligible to run. If the ruling body decides against him, he can appeal, and observers are unsure how the dispute will turn out.
Perhaps the most interesting candidate is Omar Suleiman. Previously the head of Egypt’s intelligence service, just before Mubarak resigned he was appointed Vice President with the idea that he would take over as a transitional figure. This didn’t work out as Marshall Tatwani has been the dominant figure, and Suleiman has been little heard from in the last twelve months. This changed on April 6th when he announced his candidacy for the presidency. This surprised many, and there are a number of conspiracies over what group the old spook actually represents. He seems to be running as the candidate of the old regime, attacking Islamists for the protests and disorder that have roiled Egypt since Mubarak fell. Activists of all stripes have reacted harshly to his candidacy, seeing a win for him as a reversal of last year’s revolution.
Finally there is the liberal candidate Mohamed ElBaredei, former head of the IAEA. He was a favorite of western governments, but has fared poorly in electoral politics. He dropped out of the race in January in what was a major blow to liberal prospects. Liberal parties have been very disorganized, especially when compared to the Islamist parties, and have had little success since the revolution. ElBaredei finally formed his own political party this week, so in future elections they may be better represented.