Egypt’s presidential elections filled with intrigue

Story to watch: Egypt's presidential elections

Michael Fitzgerald By Michael Fitzgerald

Americans who find themselves cynical or even bored over  presidential politics here will find intrigue and drama galore in Egypt. The first presidential elections since Hosni Mubarak‘s ouster will take place on May 23-24 and the various campaigns have been scrambling in these final weeks.

One of Omar Suleiman's supporters wears his loyalties. (Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

The President holds vast power in Egypt, appointing the Prime Minister and heading the armed forces as well as the Executive Branch. Parties are submitting multiple candidates for the race, other candidates are being disqualified over things like their mother’s passports, and Hosni Mubarak’s vice president slipped into the race. The most popular party wasn’t even going to put forth a candidate, and then changed its mind, angering some Egyptians.

All in all, at the moment there are  23 declared candidates for president. Some, though, have already been rejected.

The Egyptian State Council administrative court disqualified Ayman  Nour, a liberal who lost to Hosni Mubarak in 2005, on grounds that he’d been imprisoned until recently (even though the conviction looked like political retribution and he was recently pardoned). Egyptian law says that Egyptians cannot run for office until six years after their release from prison.

Khairat al-Shater, the presidential candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party. (Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

That may also disqualify Khairat al-Shater  the preferred candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s dominant political party. The Muslim Brotherhood released a statement cited in the al-Jazeera story above and elsewhere, noting that “There are attempts to create barriers for some candidates.” The statement added that “because we are protecting the success of the revolution and all of its goals … we have decided as the Brotherhood and its party to nominate Mohammed Morsi as our backup candidate for president.”

The Brotherhood had initially said it wasn’t going to run anyone for president. That was because it dominated elections for the Egyptian parliament, and it wanted to show that Egypt would not be a one-party state.

Meanwhile, Hazem Abu Ismail, an imam seen as an ultraconservative, has been disqualified because his mother apparently became a naturalized U.S. citizen shortly before her death, and traveled using a U.S. passport. Egyptian election rules require Egyptian citizenship for candidates, their parents and their wives (the only woman who declared herself a candidate for president failed to garner enough signatures to run). Ismail’s supporters have flooded U.S. President Barack Obama’s Facebook re-election campaign page with requests that the U.S. government reveal documents related to her citizenship.

Finally, former general and Mubarak vice president Omar Suleiman stepped into the race just an hour or so before Sunday’s deadline.  Some Egyptians immediately assailed him as the candidate for the status quo, the person the military would back so it could appear as if it were supporting democracy without giving up real power. But Steven A. Cook, an Egypt watcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that the military does not actually appear to have much love for Suleiman.

“He is not a member of the military council, and there are rumors that the [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] was somehow involved in a botched assassination attempt on Suleiman during the uprising,” Cook notes.

As a bonus for politics junkies, Egypt’s election cycle makes the U.S.’s look glacial. Egypt’s elections happen May 23 and 24, but the election field won’t even be set until April 26.


  • mffitzgerald

    I emailed with our correspondent in Cairo, Magdi Abelhadi. Magdi said a couple of things I wanted to share:

    This is set to be the first genuine presidential election they ever had. they only tried it once under mubarak, [ed. note: in 2005, when Nour lost to Mubarak] and that carefully managed to ensure that mubarak wins.

    I can tell you that Egyptians are riveted by the campaign — something they have never seen before. They are experiencing for the first time one of the delights of democracy : the private lives of presidential candidates are subjected to scrutiny as never before. Most captivating has been the revelation that the mother of a staunchily anti-American firebrand-preacher-turned-presidnatial-candidate is/was in fact an American citizen. His histrionic denials and threats to America and the ruling military junta, alleging that it was all a conspiracy, has spawned many hilarious jokes.

    Adding to the tension and excitement, parliament — which is controlled by Islamists — is debating a bill that could ban senior figures from Mubarak regime from contesting the vote. It was hastily put together after Mubarak’s former intelligence chief — ultra conservative General Omar Soliman, entered the race. If parliament approves the legislation, the military junta may overrule it and that could significantly raise the political temperature and pave the way for a serious show down between the two forces that control Egypt today : the military junta and the Islamists.