Egypt's ad hoc transition plan

Leading Egyptian presidential candidates have been tossed out of the race, distrust of Egypt's military rulers is rising, and the timeline for writing a new constitution has been tossed out the window.

By , Staff writer

Pity the reporters, political activists, and academics trying to keep up with Egypt's transition "plan." Every day, it seems, new moves by the ruling military, the courts, and the quasi-independent electoral commission turn expectations on their head.

It's human to want a see a pattern in all this, find a guiding hand behind all the maneuvering (a Machiavellian or a benevolent one, depending on your inclinations). Analysis is supposed to tease out the broader pattern, identify a narrative that helps make sense of events. But in the daily flow of statements, revelations, and warnings, I can't find anything but an unguided mess.

Writing at Foreign Policy, political scientist Nathan Brown calls "the phrase 'Egyptian transition process'... tragicomically oxymoronic in light of the dizzying series of developments over the past month."

The latest news is the disqualification of 10 Egyptian presidential aspirants a little more than six weeks from the scheduled May 23 vote. Most were no-hopers, but three are heavyweights.

Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a fiery, and to many frightening, salafy leader (he called Osama bin Laden a "martyr" after the Al Qaeda leader was killed in Pakistan) was tossed from the race because his deceased mother was a US citizen (it's Egypt's own birther controversy; Abu Ismail denies the claim).

Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's long-time intelligence chief and confidante, was kicked from the race because the Presidential Elections Commission ruled that his petition to run didn't receive signatures from a wide-enough range of locations (Egyptian rules require 30,000 signatures, with at least 1,000 of those from each of 15 different governorates). And Khairat al-Shater, the top Muslim Brotherhood political strategist, was disqualified because a 2006 security conviction by the Mubarak government hasn't been voided.

Others were disqualified because of political convictions during the Mubarak era, or disputes over the leadership of their political parties, and in the case of Ashraf Zaki Barouma, over allegations of draft-dodging in his youth.

With the election looming, it's unclear what comes next. Some may be reinstated, others not. Shater, Abu Ismail and Suleiman all lodged appeals of the ruling today. The electoral commission has promised a final candidate list on April 26, less than a month before the vote. Street power as a solution can't be ruled out. The Muslim Brotherhood called tens of thousands of its supporters to Tahrir Square last week, and a lawyer for Abu Ismail promised a "major crisis" if his man isn't allowed to run.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party appears best placed, since it nominated another candidate, Muhammed Mursi in case Shater was disqualified. But a recent poll by Egypt's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies indicates it may not do them much good. The disqualifications leave Ahmed Shafiq and Amr Moussa, two long-time servants of Mubarak, as front runners. The poll, conducted before the disqualifications, found Islamist voters had high enthusiasm for both Shater and Abu Ismail, but not for Mr. Mursi.

Mr. Moussa was Mubarak's foreign minister before a falling out, and went on to run the Arab league; Mr. Shafiq served as Mubarak's aviation minister for almost a decade, before being named prime minister by the president in the waning days of his rule last January.

So, yes, in Egypt's first presidential election since Mubarak was deposed in Feb. 2011, two lieutenants of his regime are in line to take power. And because of the now uncertain plan for writing a new constitution, that could give them enormous power relative to the newly seated parliament, dominated by the FJP and its Islamist ally, the salafy Al Nour Party.

On his Twitter feed in the past few days, former presidential hopeful Mohammed ElBaradei has attacked the current schedule for writing a constitution. Earlier this month, an Egyptian court disqualified the 100 member body selected by parliament after about 30 secular members walked out, complaining that the other members were all Islamists. The court said parliament erred in appointing a number of MPs to the body, but it was seen as a slap at the Muslim Brotherhood, which is trying to turn its success at the ballot box into real power. Under the current constitution, the president, not parliament appoints the government. Egypt's current prime minister and cabinet members are serving at the pleasure of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. As things stand now, that will be up to the next president.

Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, the officer who heads SCAF, has called for a constitution to be written by the start of the presidential election. That time frame alarms ElBaradei, a secular politician and former head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency. He hinted that the presidential elections should be postponed until the constitution – and a new, more equitable division of powers – is sorted out. In English, he wrote "result of bungled transition" and "the travesty continues." Switching to Arabic, he wrote "electing the president under the constitutional declaration is a continuation of electing authorities with incomplete powers. Who will be the commander in chief of the armed forces? Who will be able to declare war?"

The "constitutional declaration" he's referring to was a hasty set of principles drawn up after Mubarak fell, and ratified in a referendum with over 70 percent support.

Where real power will lie in Egypt, and whether its attempted revolution will yield a meaningful change in the way the country is governed in the years ahead is the big question. The military, with its vast business holdings and tradition of holding itself apart from civilian oversight, remains a powerful player with interests to protect. It is clearly maneuvering to massage outcomes to its liking, but some see a process that is beyond the ability of the generals, who have shown themselves frequently incompetent in navigating the new political clime, to control.

Brown writes the current mess is SCAF's fault, but in some ways they have a tiger by the tail.

"The lion's share of responsibility lies with the SCAF's generals who pursued an approach that was politically and legally incoherent. It was not one that has always served their interests very well, but they have been powerless to change it (as was clearly demonstrated by the failure of an apparent – and audacious – attempt to parachute in some "supraconstitutional principles" serving the SCAF's vision last fall). Hope for a transition to a more pluralist and democratic Egypt has certainly not died. Egypt's saving graces – the fact that the gunfire is mostly metamorphic; the continued strength of its political institutions, however deeply corrupted and implicated many are; and the inability of any single political actor to dominate the country –may still carry it through. But the lack of any controlling process or authority may make Egypt's political actors feel a bit like they are not only living in a Chekhov drama or deafened by the volley at the OK Corral but also as if they are trapped in Luigi Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author."

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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