x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 September 2017

Will Egypt's generals produce a last-minute champion?

Letter from Cairo Islamist popularity has weakened since the parliamentary polls, and there is so far no front-runner among the Mubarak-era players looking to lead Egypt. But you can pretty much write off the undertaker who has filled out an application.

Islamist popularity has weakened since the parliamentary polls, and there is so far no front-runner among the Mubarak-era players looking to lead Egypt. But you can pretty much write off the undertaker who has filled out an application. Youssef Hamza, Foreign Correspondent, reports

The race for Egypt's highest political office is showing the world a nation that has in many ways changed beyond recognition.

Nearly 1,000 Egyptians from all walks of life have taken the first step to run as president in the May 23 to 24 election - collecting the free candidacy application from the Supreme Election Commission offices in a Cairo suburb over the past week.

Many of them will never meet the qualifications. But the media waiting outside to hear their stories demonstrated the disappearance of fear in a country that has for decades been ruled by authoritarian leaders.

Teachers, cleaners, lawyers, coffee shop owners, a housewife, judges, college lecturers, constitutional experts, restaurant owners, an undertaker and intelligence officers were among the hopefuls who proudly clutched the application forms.

Some wore flip-flops, one came on a motorbike and many of the men were in the flowing Egyptian robes known as galabiya.

One identified himself as a "repentant thief". Another admitted he was arrested for possession of narcotics.

The public feasted on the stories of the more unlikely hopefuls and the throngs provided rich material for satirical writers.

It will not be easy for the many hopefuls to become registered candidates and join the others, independents and those linked to political parties, who have been unofficially campaigning for months.

Independent candidates must secure 30,000 endorsements from 15 of Egypt's 18 provinces or the support of 30 politicians. Parties with at least one sitting member can field a candidate without these endorsements.

But at least this time there will be options on the ballot.

The former presidents in Egypt - four since the overthrow of the monarchy nearly 60 years ago - secured their jobs through heavily rigged referendums in which no other names appeared.

A "yes" vote by 99 per cent or more was not uncommon. The only exception was in 2005, when Hosni Mubarak allowed other candidates to run.

He won that vote comfortably but later jailed Ayman Nour, the politician who finished a distant second, on drummed-up forgery charges.

The candidate who finished in third place, Noaman Gomaa, lost the leadership of the Wafd party soon after the election.

By the time he was ousted 13 months ago in a popular uprising, Mubarak was in office for 29 years, the longest term of any leader of Egypt since Mohammed Ali, the Ottoman-era Albanian general who took over in 1805 and ruled until his death in 1849.

Like his predecessors, Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Mubarak ruled unquestioned, with a coterie of aides manufacturing an image of him as a leader who could do no wrong.

Today that notion of the president's position is gone. And the election, at least for now, is about more than the collection of unlikely presidential hopefuls.

The vote will present the newly empowered Islamists with the challenge of repeating their impressive run in parliamentary elections and placing their candidate in the presidential palace by the end of June. That is when the ruling generals who took over from Mubarak say they will hand back power to a civilian administration.

The Muslim Brotherhood, by far the largest of all Islamic groups, says it will not field a candidate or support one linked to an Islamist party, but it insists the next president must have an Islamist background.

It is beyond doubt that Egypt's next president must have the support of the Islamists - particularly the Brotherhood - but some commentators warn their popularity has been dented since their electoral triumph.

The Brotherhood is also facing an internal rebellion as many of its younger members support the liberal Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, who was expelled from the party for joining the race for president.

Suspicions that the Brotherhood has reached a secret understanding with the generals on the nation's political future have also hurt the group, prompting accusations that it was after power at any cost.

The People's Assembly, the more powerful of parliament's two chambers, voted last week to support a no-confidence vote in the military government.

Reports later said the country's military leader, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, had talked the parliamentary speaker, Saad El Katatni, out of taking any steps to bring down the government.

Not a word since has been said in parliament about toppling the government. Mr El Katatni is a Brotherhood member.

The bickering, the grandstanding and the lack of political skills by the Islamist politicians, broadcast live on television, has cast further doubt on their ability to run the country.

With the aura of the Islamists somewhat weakened, the uncertainty over the presidential race has deepened.

There is no clear front-runner among the field of Mubarak-era politicians, retired generals, Islamists and scholars who are leading the pack.

That has left many commentators speculating that a surprise candidate may emerge at the 11th hour, who will sweep the election with the backing of the Islamists and the ruling generals.

The military, Egypt's most dominant force since army officers staged a 1952 coup that toppled the monarchy, has publicly stayed silent on the campaign.

But it is suspected that the ruling generals have been working behind the scenes to ensure the next president will not be hostile to their interests, whether that is immunity from civilian scrutiny, the operation of their vast economic empire or the influence they hold on politics.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae