Egypt finds itself in a political Catch-22, illustrated by the seemingly random disqualifications of presidential candidates.
Egypt's morass of legacy laws muddies water
On Saturday, Egypt's presidential race was turned on its head when the Supreme Presidential Election Commission disqualified 10 of 23 registered candidates. Among the stated reasons was that one candidate had not acquired enough signatures in one province, another's party was not represented in parliament, and the nationality of a third's mother was questioned.
The procedural validity of each of those decisions will be considered in the appeals process but, taken as a whole, the mass disqualification has thrown Egyptian politics into confusion. As our Cairo-based columnist Issandr El Amrani notes on the facing page, the sense of insecurity is at its worst since the fall of the Mubarak regime.
The disqualifications, if they stand, would reset the presidential race by excluding the presumed frontrunners, such as the Salafist candidate Hazem Abu Ismail and Khairat El Shater of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many Egyptians will welcome the move, in particular as it also excludes Omar Suleiman, the former security chief of the regime. The remaining eligible candidates are mostly moderate Islamists or liberals.
Just last week, Egypt's political scene appeared to be inevitably dominated by Islamists, in parliament and quite probably in the executive. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist monopoly in the constituent assembly (now under review) also caused concern.
But politics aside, there is a larger legal dilemma at hand in the new Egypt: the standards of disqualification are a mixed bag at best. Mr Suleiman, for example, did not get enough signatures as the law requires, a seemingly reasonable criterion. Mr El Shater, however, was denied because of his criminal record for opposing the Mubarak regime, an anachronistic rationale to be sure.
Some of these laws were written under previous regimes, and often designed to prevent, instead of facilitate, competitive politics. As each of the disqualified candidates works his way through the appeals process, the legal rationale for each decision has to be published and explained.
This is one of many Catch-22 situations in which Egypt finds itself. Should elections wait for a new constitution, or is a civilian government needed to oversee that constitution? These fundamental political institutions are being defined at a time of heated politics. As Salafists are expected to take to the streets in support of Mr Abu Ismail in coming days, the courts and elections commission must be seen to be as apolitical as possible.