x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Concerns that Egypt's next president will be bereft of power

Analysis After the trauma of the Mubarak regime, and because the new president’s role will be decided only after the election by a committee dominated by Islamist politicians, there's a real risk of making the presidency almost powerless.

The Egyptian presidential candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi, greets his supporters during a campaign rally in the Nile Delta city of Al Manzala, some 160 kilometres north of Cairo on Saturday. Mr Sabahi heads the Karama party, an offshoot of the Nasserist party.
The Egyptian presidential candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi, greets his supporters during a campaign rally in the Nile Delta city of Al Manzala, some 160 kilometres north of Cairo on Saturday. Mr Sabahi heads the Karama party, an offshoot of the Nasserist party.

CAIRO // In December 2010, less than two months before the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution, Mohamed ElBaradei launched a shot across the bow of the Hosni Mubarak regime.

The longtime champion of Egyptian domestic reform posted an angry 12-minute video on his Facebook page essentially warning Mubarak that his government faced "a last chance to review itself, and begin again the process of democratic reform".

The system, he said, "gives the president imperial powers" that are incompatible with a truly democratic society. Mr ElBaradei's description of modern Egyptian political life at the time couldn't have been more accurate; Mubarak was an emperor posing as a president.

Egypt under Mubarak had all the external trappings of a functioning democratic system - formally defined executive, legislative and judicial branches of government and a constitution to govern their interactions. But over the course of Mubarak's 29-year reign, that system had been altered and corrupted to the point where the executive branch had literally no checks on its authority.

Now as Egypt continues to stagger through a messy post-Mubarak transition, a very different threat looms. There is a real possibility that Mubarak's trademark "Imperial Executive" branch could be replaced by an equally unhealthy Imperial Legislature.

The country's first post-Mubarak presidential elections begin on Wednesday, with run-offs if necessary extending into late June. Nationwide campaigns are in full swing, with polls indicating a four-horse race featuring the former foreign minister, Amr Moussa, the former Muslim Brotherhood official, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the former air force commander and Mubarak-era prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, and Mohammed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood.

One of the best indicators of the confused state of modern-day Egypt is that nobody knows exactly what powers and authorities the winner of the election will inherit. Those decisions lie with the committee to draft the country's new constitution.

In theory, there's no problem with that scenario. However, responsibility for forming and overseeing the committee lies with Egypt's recently elected parliament, which is dominated by Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist forces.

It's an unmistakable conflict of interest, one which critics charge is a natural consequence of the backwards planning of Egypt's post-revolutionary phase. The fact that the parliament now has a controlling stake in the process of deciding how much power the parliament should have going forward is evidence for critics of how badly the last year has gone.

"The administration of the transition has been a real mess," said Cairo University political science professor, Hassan Nafaa, a former adviser to Mr ElBaradei.

"The only hope is the presidency. The personality of the president will determine what will come next. We need a strong president who is not linked to the [Mubarak] regime."

But what if Egypt's next president doesn't have the power to launch the kind of sweeping, multi-level reform that the country and its institutions need? There have already been signs that the new parliament intends to severely limit the powers of the executive branch, transferring much of that authority to itself.

Voters will have to approve the new constitution and social sentiment could lean towards weakening the president's powers. There's a real risk of overcompensating and making the presidency almost powerless - which would, of course, serve the interests of an ascendant Islamist-controlled parliament.

Wael Nawara, a veteran secular activist, frames the issue as a naked Islamist power-grab rather than a mere question of checks and balances.

"It's not a question of legislative versus executive. It a basic question of the fact that the [Muslim] Brotherhood wants to control the country," he said. "If they knew they would control the presidency, then they would have no problem with a strong president."

In many ways, this battle was lost more than a year ago. In March last year, one month after the revolution hounded Mubarak from office - Egyptians turned out in droves for a referendum that, among other things, determined the shape and timeline of the post-revolutionary transition.

Among the proposed items for approval was a plan to hold parliamentary elections as fast as possible, then empower that parliament with authority to oversee drafting the constitution.

Most of Egypt's secular activist forces - who are credited with sparking the revolutionary protest wave that the Muslim Brotherhood belatedly joined - rallied around the idea of "constitution-first" and lobbied hard against the referendum. But the Muslim Brotherhood mobilised its network in favour of a "yes" vote and the measure was easily approved.

The actual drafting process has been fraught with conflict, complications and delays. Islamist parliamentarians - both Muslim Brotherhood and its sometime allies among the Salafist bloc - first rammed through a decision that the 100-member committee would be 50 per cent stocked with sitting MPs. Then the first session to choose the committee membership immediately devolved into partisan conflict. Secularist MPs walked out over what they said was a combined Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist power-play to stock the committee with their own cadres.

The drafting process has now essentially been frozen by court order and is subject to closed-door negotiations between the country's various political factions and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. In theory, the constitution was supposed to be finished before the presidential elections, but that deadline is clearly not going to be met.

Once presidential elections conclude next month, Egypt's new president will probably play a quiet role in the process as well - introducing yet another conflict of interest and further muddying Egypt's transitional picture.