x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Egypt begins countdown to presidential election

The election will determine the balance of powers among the Islamist political groups, the military and the fragmented protest movement .

CAIRO // Egypt has begun the 74-day countdown to the country’s first presidential elections since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak.

The registration period for candidates that began yesterday and ends on April 8 is expected to narrow the race to 10 or so frontrunners.

“The significance of the registration period is that instead of having everyone walking the streets saying they will run for president, we will actually know who are the real candidates,” said Ashraf Swelam, a campaign adviser to Amr Moussa, former head of the Arab League and foreign minister under Mubarak.

Mr Moussa hinted at a possible presidential bid even before the protests last year, but he now has the challenge of creating a campaign that separates him from the old regime despite his once strong ties to Mubarak.

He is a prominent contender for the presidency, along with Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a physician, moderate Islamist and former member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Mr Aboul Fotouh has also been trying to distance himself from his former patron to gain broad support from liberals and Islamists. After announcing his bid in May, he was expelled from the Muslim Brotherhood for launching an independent presidential campaign against the wishes of the group. He had been a senior member since the 1970s.

Among others to announce their candidacy are Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a prominent Salafist; Mansour Hassan, a former minister under Anwar Sadat who has won the support of the liberal Al Wafd political party; and Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force commander who was prime minister for a month after Mubarak appointed him last January to appease protesters.

Mr Shafik, a veteran of the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israel wars, fits the long-time presidential mould of a strong military man, but he is unlikely to gain support from the new political parties that are seeking to mark a new era of civil governance.

The election is hugely important in determining the balance of powers between the Islamist political groups that dominated parliamentary elections, the military and the fragmented protest movement that kickstarted the uprising.

But the period is also emerging as one of the most complex in the country’s transition to democracy. A committee to rewrite the constitution has not yet been appointed, meaning that the president will probably be elected while the committee’s 100 members are still debating what powers the executive branch will have.

“We don’t know whether the political system will be a parliamentary one or a presidential one,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University who was previously a member of an advisory council to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf).

“It’s still a big mess. Everyone is expecting the new president to take the country out of the current crisis, but we don’t even know what powers he will have.”

No matter what the shape of the new government, who becomes president may answer the question of what role the military will have in the future, Mr Nafaa said.

“The country’s choice for president will show us whether they will govern from behind the scenes or if they will go back to the barracks,” he said.

To officially register, candidates have three options: obtain a nomination from a political party with at least one seat in the parliament, acquire signatures from 30 members of parliament, or obtain the signatures of 30,000 registered voters.

Presidential elections are set for May 23 and 24, with run-offs planned for June 16 and 17 if no candidate wins an outright majority.

A decisive moment in the run-up to the elections will come in April when the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party dominated elections for the upper and lower houses of parliament, is expected to announce its support for a candidate.

Together with Al Nour Party, whose members ascribe to a more hardline strain of Islamism, the Freedom and Justice Party will have the power to influence millions of voters. The two parties, along with smaller Islamist allies, won more than 70 per cent of the seats in both the lower and upper houses of parliament.

“If they can agree on a candidate, then that would be a huge support,” said Mazen Hassan, a professor studying electoral systems at Cairo University. “This is the thing to watch.”