x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Egypt's race for the presidency is everyone's and no one's

Mohammed ElBaradie's withdrawl from the campaign for Egypt's top job complicates the transition process.

In this December 2011 file photo, pro-reform leader and Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in his home in Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo.
In this December 2011 file photo, pro-reform leader and Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in his home in Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo.

With just less than five months before Egypt's presidential election, the race is wide open.

There are no front-runners and, despite the short time remaining before the June election, the powers of the next president are yet to be established in a constitution to be drafted and put to a vote in a referendum.

It is a cumbersome timeline that speaks to the messiness of the transition laid out by Egypt's ruling generals and to the growing suspicion that it may be deliberate, to benefit the Islamist parties whose disciplined supporters could, on short notice, swing the vote in favour of their leaders' candidate.

The office of the president has traditionally enjoyed sweeping powers in Egypt since a group of officers seized power in a 1952 coup that toppled the monarchy.

Hosni Mubarak, ousted by a popular uprising 11 months ago, and his two predecessors- Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel-Nasser - enjoyed near absolute powers.

That so much power is in the hands of one man resonates with many Egyptians who are convinced their nation's seemingly intractable and countless problems require a firm hand and not a leader challenged by legislators at every step.

The ruling generals and the Islamists who have won 70 per cent of the seats in the legislature will wield vast influence over the constitutional process, as well as who is elected president.

Conservative and out of tune with the dreams of the nation's majority young, the generals' objective will be to ensure that the military's decades-old, behind-the-scenes political domination and vast economic interests will not be subject to civilian scrutiny.

So their candidate of choice will have to be as conservative as they are. If not, then it will have to be someone who can accommodate their desire to remain the most powerful institution in the nation.

A candidate with a military background would be ideal.

The generals' chances of landing just such a candidate has been helped by last week's withdrawal from the presidential race by Mohammed ElBaradei, the country's top reform advocate and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Mr ElBaradei returned home in February last year after decades living abroad, first as a diplomat and later as a UN representative.

He has built a reputation as a relentless campaigner for a democratic and free Egypt and found common ground with the youth groups that engineered the fall of Mr Mubarak.

Unlike most of the country's politicians, he is not tainted by corruption although his liberal convictions have been used by his detractors to undermine his credentials.

"I had said from the start that my conscience will not allow me to run for president or any official position unless there is a real democratic framework that upholds the essence of democracy and not only its form," Mr ElBaradei wrote in a statement announcing his withdrawal.

Mr ElBaradei was subjected to a harsh defamation campaign during the year or so he spent in Egypt under the Mubarak regime. When the generals took over almost a year ago, they kept him at arm's length, chiefly because of his criticism of how they handled the transition and their human rights violations.

But his withdrawal has further chipped away at the generals' credibility as rulers when their reputation was already mired over the brutality shown by troops to protesters, especially the incident in December when they stripped a female protester half naked and kicked and stomped her while she lay on the ground.

But Mr ElBaradei's move may have also been inspired by his realisation that without the support of the Islamists or the military he would stand no chance of winning and his cause would be better served if he was to withdraw and return to grassroots activism.

With Mr ElBaradei gone, a potentially tough rival has been removed from the path of other candidates.

Amr Moussa, former Egyptian foreign minister and former Arab League chief, is potentially the chief beneficiary. But the likeable career diplomat who gained wide popularity from his tough talk on Israel can hardly be the choice of the Islamists or the military.

"He is too proud and too stubborn to make deals that will eat into the powers of the office he hopes to win," said a rights lawyer who was among a small group of activists that recently had a long lunch with Mr Moussa.

Also in the running is the Islamist Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fottouh, a longtime liberal within the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best organised political group, who has gained a degree of support among pro-revolution Egyptians.

Mr Aboul-Fottouh was dismissed from the Brotherhood because he entered the presidential race after the group said it would not field a candidate, something that would certainly rob him of most if not all the votes of the Brotherhood's supporters who gave their party - the Freedom and Justice Party - almost 50 per cent of the legislature's 498 seats.