Egypt, which is holding its first free presidential election since coming under dictatorship 60 years ago, is inching forward between an army concerned about losing its privileges and an Islamist movement undergoing fundamental changes.
The voting that begins on Wednesday is the greatest prize won by the crowds who took to the streets to overthrow Hosni Mubarak in the string of people-power uprisings that upended the Middle East in last year’s Arab Spring.
“Since 1952, the year of the military coup [led by Nasser] and the overthrow of King Farouk, these are the first elections with civilian candidates,” said Swiss Arab expert Hasni Abidi.
The generals who have run the country since Mubarak stepped down will in principle be replaced by the winner of the elections on May 23 and 24.
The stakes don’t come any higher for a Middle East driven to boiling point by the bloody impasse in Syria, the nuclear programme of Iran and the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
The United States, with its own presidential election in November, and Europe, paralysed by a financial crisis, are both more concerned than ever that Egypt remains relatively stable, especially when it comes to foreign policy.
“Obviously Israel is closely following the election of whoever will direct foreign policy, as is the US,” said Abidi, director of the Geneva-based Study and Research Center for the Arab and Mediterranean World.
He pointed out that Washington had appealed for unconditional collaboration with the Islamists.
“The United States has a pragmatism that borders on opportunism, something the Europeans struggle with, concerned as they are with the respect for freedoms, minorities and women,” he said.
Abidi added that the fate of the military was therefore crucial.
“The army is today aware that time is not on its side. Sooner or later, it’s going to have to come up with a new formula and retreat from the political – and above all economic – scene,” he said.
“But the process will be very slow. Given the difficulties with the economy and with the transition, the army still sees itself as the guarantor for stability.”
Role of army
Patrick Haenni from the Fribourg-based Religioscope organisation believes the army has been the big loser over recent months, when it has played on splits between the parties to maintain the essentials, such as the secrecy surrounding its budget.
“[The army] finds itself on the defensive in order to keep a minimum of assets. Everything centres on talks between the army and the parties. But these behind-the-scenes negotiations aren’t an issue in these elections.”
The main candidates are not directly questioning the power of the army over Egypt’s economy and its foreign policy, notably the peace agreement signed with Israel.
Haenni says the candidates’ personality will play a greater role than their policies. But although the Muslim Brotherhood , the country’s strongest political movement, which was banned under Mubarak, remains a major player, it has seen splits appear in its ranks faced with the democratisation of post-Mubarak Egypt.
“With the Muslim Brotherhood we’re seeing a sort of implosion among a youth which carried the hope of an uprising and a frightened old guard,” said Swiss Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, grandson of Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Brotherhood in 1928.
Although the Brotherhood initially announced it wouldn’t field a candidate, it changed its mind following success in parliamentary elections last year and a surge by its ultra-orthodox Salafi rivals.
“All this pussyfooting has affected its visibility and credibility,” said Ramadan, who is still not allowed to enter Egypt, despite his many requests.
Haenni added: “The Brotherhood has shown great durability and a lot of continuity. They don’t realise that Islamism has diversified considerably. They find themselves sandwiched between liberal Islamists and the Salafists. It’s revealing for the political scene of tomorrow.”
Ramadan says that by supporting Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, who promotes a more
inclusive line, the Salafists “are playing a pragmatic game basically in order to damage the credibility of the Brotherhood”.
Abolfotoh’s growing strength is one of the surprises of the election campaign. The 60-year-old was ousted from the Muslim Brotherhood last year after he announced his presidential bid. His liberal views and Islamic credentials could draw votes from both camps, as well as from the Coptic middle classes and the youths in Tahrir Square.
Since Hosni Mubarak was toppled on February 11, 2011, Egypt has been ruled by the military in a tumultuous transition.
Protests against the generals have repeatedly turned into deadly clashes killing dozens. A series of military-installed interim governments have been largely ineffectual, hesitant to make significant decisions. Police, angered and humiliated during the anti-Mubarak uprising, have often refused to work, letting crime increase.
With big money earners like tourism and foreign investment plunging and fuelling unemployment, the government has burned through more than half its hard currency reserves to prop up the Egyptian pound.
Islamists won the first post-Mubarak parliamentary election and stand a good chance of capturing the presidency. Divisions run deep, with some fearing the imposition of Islamic rule, and others that the military is angling to keep a grip on the country.
This week's landmark presidential election should end six decades of effective military rule in Egypt, but it remains unclear how much authority the generals who took over from Hosni Mubarak will cede to the elected leader.
All of Egypt’s four presidents since the overthrow of the monarchy in a 1952 coup have come from the military. The nation’s most powerful institution, the military has over the years built a seemingly unshakable image as a bastion of patriotism and the defender of the nation.
Retired generals have consistently been given top government jobs as cabinet ministers, ambassadors, provincial governors, chairmen of key state-owned firms or key posts in the private sector. Combined with the powers of the president, a loyal police force and a coterie of very wealthy businessmen, they have held a stranglehold on Egypt.
High on the list of their worries is whether the armed forces’ budget will be subjected to public debate in the legislature, currently dominated by Islamists, most of whom are at sharp odds with the military.
There is also the question of whether the military’s vast economic interests – giant construction companies, farms, water-bottling facilities and a nationwide chain of gas stations – would come under civilian oversight or be forced to compete for lucrative government contracts like everyone else.
(Adapted from French by Thomas Stephens), swissinfo.ch