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May 21, 2012 | 10:01 GMT

Egypt's Election and the Civil-Military Balance of Power

VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

Egypt's presidential election will be held May 23-24. After several weeks of campaigning, candidate disqualifications, changes in the lineup of competitors and an attempt to suspend the election, two front-runners have emerged in the race. Former Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa is the best hope for the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), while Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh has emerged as the Islamist candidate with the best chance at victory.

The outcome of the election is far from certain, but one implication is clear: The Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which currently dominates the country's parliament, is not likely to control both the legislative and executive branches. Thus, the SCAF will have some room to maneuver in managing the country's tenuous political transition during the drafting of the constitution. 

The military and the MB are the two principal centers of power in post-Mubarak Egypt. The transition from a single-party to a multi-party system — triggered by former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's downfall — centers on the struggle between these two players. Since the MB emerged as the largest bloc in parliament, the presidential election (and the drafting of a new constitution, which is stalled because of a dispute over the composition of the constituent assembly) is important for the SCAF in its struggle to retain power.

From the SCAF's perspective, it is essential that the MB not control both the legislative and executive branches of government. In fact, the SCAF hopes to use the presidency to keep the MB-dominated parliament in check. The council achieved a partial victory when it engineered the disqualification of the MB's star candidate, Khairat el-Shater. The MB replaced el-Shater with a much weaker candidate: Mohammed Mursi, head of the MB’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party. This is why the presidential contest is now a race between Moussa and Aboul Fotouh. The SCAF would score a complete victory if Moussa (who, despite his independent-mindedness, is a product of the Egyptian establishment) becomes president.

The presidency would be an important tool for the SCAF in its efforts to keep an MB-dominated legislature in check, because the president appoints one-third of the upper house of parliament. The parliament has not yet assumed any significant powers, and the SCAF hopes that having its preferred man in the presidency and an executive with sufficient powers under a new constitution will allow it to limit the MB's policymaking authority as the largest bloc in parliament (and thus in the prime minister's position and the Cabinet).

The Candidates

Polls conducted by a state-owned think tank show Moussa in the lead, but several factors could lead Aboul Fotouh to an electoral victory. First, many respect him as a non-partisan national figure, and he is not regarded as a typical Islamist. Aboul Fotouh has attracted a broad range of supporters including liberals, Salafists, Coptics and women, and many MB members likely will vote for him. Furthermore, many liberals and secularists do not want to see the SCAF retain power with Moussa as president.

However, this does not mean Aboul Fotouh will win. Given the state of relations between Aboul Fotouh and the MB, the Islamist vote could be split, especially in the election's first round in which many MB voters likely will vote for Mursi, especially since the MB has carried out an aggressive campaign for its candidate. As a result, Moussa could clear the 50 percent requirement to prevent a second round, which is what the SCAF would prefer. If a second round is triggered, the race likely will be between Moussa and Aboul Fotouh, in which case the Islamist vote likely will consolidate behind Aboul Fotouh and potentially give him a victory.

For Moussa to win, the Islamist split in the first round will be an important factor. Numerous other factors are working in his favor, including support from the SCAF and a large number of business elite, as well as foreign support. He is not as tainted with Mubarak's legacy as some others, such as former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman — who was disqualified from the election — and former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, who remains in the presidential race. Although Moussa served as Mubarak's foreign minister for a decade, his portfolio had almost nothing to do with the internal suppression the regime practiced. It became well known that Moussa was not completely in line with the Mubarak government in 2001, when he left the government to become the secretary-general of the Arab League. This position allowed Moussa to champion pan-Arab issues and the Palestinian cause while building his image as an elder statesman.

From SCAF's point of view, these are good attributes because they want someone with whom they have dealt before to get elected. Of course, Moussa's lack of military background and his independent streak will mean that the military will have to negotiate with him. Moussa will also need to maintain distance from the SCAF if he takes office to avoid the appearance that he follows the military's every order.

The SCAF's Strong Position

Even if Aboul Fotouh wins the election, it will not pose a major problem for the SCAF. Although the Islamist candidate would push for greater democratization in Egypt, he is far more pragmatic than the MB and is unlikely to make any radical anti-establishment moves. An Aboul Fotouh presidency likely would come with a lot of bargaining and compromises, with a focus on managing the faltering economy — a key issue for any future president. More important, Aboul Fotouh is a way for the SCAF to keep the Islamists divided, given that he is a rallying point for anti-MB Islamist forces (to both the right and left of the MB on the political spectrum), though he will need to balance between the expectations of Islamists and non-Islamists should he become president.

Whoever wins the presidential election, it will be to the SCAF's advantage (albeit to varying degrees) in its effort to keep the MB's power in check. Although the election likely will occur as scheduled, last-minute disruptions caused by the SCAF issuing a constitutional declaration about presidential powers in relation to parliament are always possible. The SCAF wants to be in a good position to influence the creation of the new constitution, which will be the main event in the political struggle between the military and the civilian political forces in Cairo after the election. 

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