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Egypt's ruling junta consolidates its position

With parliament dissolved, a retired air force general and long-time Mubarak crony in a runoff for the presidency, and democracy activists in disarray, Egypt's ruling junta is in the catbird seat.

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Did the court do the technically right thing? Perhaps. The law on disqualifying senior officials was broad and vaguely written. The parliamentary election was run under a byzantine set of rules that reserved two thirds of the seats for political parties, and one third for "independent" candidates. Ahead of the election, electoral officials allowed politicians affiliated with parties to run as independents. Shafiq was also allowed to run in the first round of the presidential election (the vote tomorrow is a run-off) without a ruling being made on the constitutionality of the law seeking to disqualify him.

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As a practical matter, these questions should have been decided before Egyptian's went to the polls – not after, or mid-stride. The political effect of the decisions has been to spread more confusion, and disillusion. It's a basic rule of political transitions that the sooner military rulers are removed from the scene, the better the chances of fundamental change. Egypt's junta originally promised to be out of the governing business by October 2011.

The new Egyptian parliament had little power in practice, with a set of extra-constitutional rules written by the SCAF, hanging over them. But the legislature at least represented something new in Egyptian politics: A body freely chosen by the Egyptian people. That, at least, gave it some moral heft and a potential bully pulpit in dealing with the generals and the winner of the presidency.

Sitting generals have manipulated Egyptian politics, either overtly or in powerful ways behind the scenes, since Lt. Anwar Sadat was dispatched to inform the world of the Free Officer's Coup in 1952. The officer's Revolutionary Command Council made Gamal Abdul Nasser president, and when he passed in 1970, it was military men who decided that Mr. Sadat, Nasser's vice president, would be allowed to succeed him. 

But before he was allowed to take the reins (never mind that was the formal legal solution), the senior generals demanded Sadat agree to a set of conditions that would protect the Egyptian military from civilian control. Sadat agreed to give the senior generals then running the Arab Socialist Union a voice in all major initiatives, effective veto power over major initiatives. Only then, was he allowed to take power.

Egypt's next president is almost certain to be presented some version of those demands. Already, the generals sought to impose a set of principals on civilian politicians that would leave their empires beyond the reach of elected officials.

Is all lost? No. Egypt is poor, and struggling. But you only have to look at Iraq after Saddam Hussein was removed from power in 2003, or Syria today, to see what a truly horrific transition looks like. Wisdom and compromise may yet prevail. But those qualities have been tragically absent until now.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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