18 May 2012
Louisa Loveluck
(Former Chatham House Expert)


On 23 May, Egyptians head to the polls to elect the first president of the post-Mubarak era. Whilst this is likely to be the freest election in Egyptian history, the process faces a number of constraints.

Accusations abound that the ruling military council (SCAF) has used indirect pressure on the levers of state – especially the courts – to limit the choice of candidates on offer. The most significant activities have taken place in the Supreme Presidential Elections Commission (SPEC), a judicial body whose independence from the junta remains tenuous at best. In April, the SPEC provoked consternation by its decision to disqualify ten candidates, including three front-runners from the race. Although disqualifications were based on previous legal rulings, the Muslim Brotherhood's preferred candidate, Khairat al-Shater, had particular reason to feel aggrieved: his disqualification was based on Mubarak-era criminal convictions which were widely believed to be politically motivated. 

Skeptics argue the official reasoning belies a different motivation. After a year of pragmatic political alignment with their Islamist counterparts, the junta has more recently been at odds with the Brotherhood over the role of parliament, the issue of whether the cabinet should be changed to reflect the election results, and over who is entitled to write the new constitution. 

With this in mind, the SCAF may well have favoured the removal of a candidate whose selection would only cement the increasing power of a Brotherhood that already holds 47% of seats in parliament. Thanks to a series of constitutional amendments, for Shater and others the SPEC's decision was final, and nullified months of hard work. 

The Front-Runners

Yet despite these apparent interventions, the election result is anything but a foregone conclusion. Opinion polls suggest that the lead continues to change as up to 54% of voters remain undecided. Buoyed by appearances on the region's first ever American-style television debate, the front-runners are former Arab League chief Amr Moussa and independent Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. Assuming there is no late surge for old regime candidate of choice - former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq - then a Moussa presidency would seem preferable in the eyes of the military. 

Amr Moussa, the self-styled candidate of experience served as foreign minister under President Mubarak, making him more of a known quantity than his Islamist and leftist rivals. Appealing to the growing constituency who fear continuing political uncertainty, he sticks to a script peppered with the old regime's language of stability. In pronouncements on bloody clashes between the military and street demonstrators, he avoids direct criticism of the former whilst branding the latter ‘anarchists'. His approach to establishing a civilian state is likely to be cautious and piecemeal. Whilst he pledges that the armed forces will continue to play a role in industrial production, he argues that the political dimension of civil-military relations is too delicate a subject to be discussed in public. 

Aboul Fotouh, on the other hand, represents more of an enigma for the military. The independent Islamist with revolutionary credentials – he joined demonstrators outside the Supreme Court on the day the uprising began in January 2011 and later helped to set up field hospitals for injured demonstrators – attracts a broad coalition of support that includes both the ultra-conservative Al Nour Party and liberal activist Wael Ghonim. His cross-ideological appeal makes him a consensus candidate for many who seek a move away from a politics increasingly polarized between Islamist and liberal forces.

It is difficult to predict how Aboul Fotouh's presidency would look in practice and the reach of his authority would depend on a range of external constraints. He is likely, however, to present more of a challenge to the military than Moussa, particularly given campaign promises to replace upper echelons of the military with younger blood. This scenario would be particularly worrying for a junta that reportedly faces rising internal dissent on account of low wages and a rigid command structure.

A Step Forward

The new president's constitutional role has yet to be determined, but it is safe to assume they will wield significant power. Ability to exercise this, however, will always be constrained by the individual's ability to cooperate with forces in parliament, the street, and the international community. But in a contest of uncertainties, one point remains assured: Egypt's military commanders will be nervously awaiting the result on 21 June. Although the election of a new president will not signal a definitive break from Egypt's military past, it has the potential to hasten this trend in the right direction.

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