x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Egypt feels its way forward through politics

As presidential campaigns open in Egypt, it becomes obvious how much has changed, and how much change is still to come.

As recently as 15 months ago, Egyptians would have laughed at the idea of today's political reality: Hosni Mubarak swept away, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists the most powerful political parties after honest, if hasty, parliamentary elections, and now a free-for-all race for the presidency.

Egypt has come a long way. However, the final destination of the revolution is still not known. Much will depend on the result of the presidential election, now set to begin on May 23, with a winner announced on June 21.

It is still unclear just what the president's powers will be; a new constitution must be written in time for a ratification referendum on July 1. Tellingly, every bit of this timetable has been vetted by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces; the military is still the strongest state institution, as it was for the decades of dictatorship.

Despite the blank job description, many people want to be president; more than 150 inquired on Saturday, the first day of the registration period. To qualify requires, at most, the signatures of 30,000 voters.

So Egyptians seem sure to have many choices. But speculation swirls around the suspicion that the Muslim Brotherhood and the generals will reach - in some versions, have already reached - a grand bargain on some figurehead who will cloak future back-room compromises.

No matter who wins the presidency, however, the parliament already has a political legitimacy unknown to preceding legislatures. The political struggle that really matters, then, will play out within the institutions of the new constitution: at least some parties in parliament will push for new limits on the powers of the military; other lawmakers and perhaps the president will push back. The generals will not vanish from public affairs - or the economy - but their role will continue to be the topic of open political debate.

It must not, however, be the only topic. After a full year of economic drift and disorder, Egypt has pressing problems, from costly oil and bread subsidies to a struggling tourism industry. Beyond constitutional manoeuvring, there is a lot of governing to be done.

Some warn that the main danger for Egyptians at this exhilarating time is that their new power to choose their leaders could be stripped away again - the so-called "one man, one vote, one time" scenario. But the heirs of the Tahrir Square revolution, and the tens of millions who learnt with satisfaction of the parliamentary-vote results, will be unlikely to permit that.