State of chaos prevails over Egypt's divisive candidates
No one can tell you where Egypt is headed.
Not the revolutionary groups that have become a sideshow as politics has moved from the streets to parliament and the courts. Not the politicians who, even if they were not spending most of their time bickering and manoeuvring for advantage, are bound by rules that are a bundle of contradictions. Not the generals now nominally running the country, who sulk at the ungratefulness of their subjects and have lost whatever moral authority they may once have had. Not even the country's leading presidential candidates, all of whom may be barred from the race on various technicalities by the time of the vote. And certainly not the Egyptian people, hostage to all this political confusion, who have seen their "glorious revolution" go from crisis to crisis since Hosni Mubarak was forced out over a year ago.
Egyptians have a dark sense of humour, and are used to making light of their misfortune. The present situation offers them plenty of material, but even so the jokes often seem half-hearted. Never over the tumultuous events of the last year has the country seemed more on the brink, or has there been more talk of a potential military coup or some other sort of political earthquake.
The transition process is falling apart under the weight of its contradictions, from a court ruling putting a stop to the work of an Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly to the possibility that arcane nomination rules will block some of the more popular candidates from running.
Perhaps most worryingly, each of these leading candidates represents a scenario, if he were elected, that many thought was unthinkable just a year ago, and would be a catalyst for yet more political tension.
The Muslim Brotherhood had said it would not run a presidential candidate, on the grounds that it could be destabilising, and even kicked out members who disagreed. Yet it now claims that, for the sake of the revolution, it must run Khairat Al Shater, its long-time strongman, for the post.
Mr Al Shater's candidacy is in effect a showdown with the ruling military council, but not one to salvage democracy as the Brothers argue. It is about maximising their negotiating position with the generals, who are not going anywhere anytime soon, and are consolidating their hold on legitimate political centres.
Whatever hope that the Brotherhood would act as an inclusive political force, uniting civilians against the military, was put to rest several weeks ago when it made it clear that it did not care to even discuss the composition and mission of the constituent assembly with non-Islamists. Its strategy of only being revolutionary when it's politically expedient has discredited it in the eyes of more consistent activists, and is beginning to make it look cynical and power-hungry to the broader population.
Likewise, Omar Suleiman - Mr Mubarak's former spy chief and, for a brief 14 days, his first and last vice president - had repeatedly assured everyone that he would not run, before also throwing his hat into the ring. Many in the Brotherhood say his candidacy is the main reason Mr Al Shater decided to run, but the reverse could be equally true.
A full partner and overseer of the worst human-rights abuses and political trickery of the Mubarak era, Mr Suleiman now claims to want to reclaim "the revolution that was stolen from the youth by the Muslim Brotherhood". He is at least credible on wanting to oppose the Brotherhood, and some in Egypt are reassured by his strongman credentials. In this regard, Mr Suleiman and Mr Al Shater have something in common: as leaders respectively of an old establishment and an ascendant one, they both project strength and authority, which are easy to confuse with charisma in a country that craves stability.
Some, of course, look for reassurance not in those who wield power but in those who challenge it. Hazem Abu Ismail, a fiery preacher who has gathered around him the most devoted followers of any candidate, has combined religious radicalism with an anti-establishment streak. But his facile populism does not provide any answers, and there is no greater irony than that this candidate who embraces the xenophobic, anti-cosmopolitan trend in Egyptian politics is the one most likely to be irrevocably disqualified - because his mother, in contravention of narrow-minded eligibility rules, held an American passport. But his campaign has had at least the merit of sustaining real enthusiasm and, arguably, of being the least calculating.
The destabilising prospect of these three candidates, who are thought by many to have the best chance of winning the election, is why the presidential electoral commission's recent decision to exclude them on eligibility grounds (because Mr Suleiman has insufficient qualifying endorsements, Mr Al Shater is a former convict, and Mr Abu Ismail's American mother) may turn out to be a blessing, no matter how unfair.
The fact is that among ordinary Egyptians and the country's fragmented elite, the victory of any one of them would be difficult to stomach. There are those who reject the Brothers' societal project just as there are those who could not stomach the restoration that a Suleiman victory would symbolise, while the populist antics of Mr Abu Ismail are the stuff of nightmares for both those camps.
There are still another two weeks before the final list of candidates is known, and in this time of politics as "lawfare", court decisions, last-minute laws passed by parliament and electoral commission decrees could still introduce more surprises. And so could the actions of some of the followers of these candidates, who have threatened unrest if their man is ruled out.
Now is the time for the other candidates, those who represent a more inclusive Islamism, a more pragmatic revolutionary current or a less tainted experience in the Mubarak regime, to show they represent a real alternative.
Issandr El Amrani is an independent journalist based in Cairo who blogs at www.arabist.net
Updated: April 17, 2012 04:00 AM