Egypt’s Presidential Election: Don’t Hold Your Breath

One would think that the presidential election in post-Revolution Egypt resembles what takes place in democratic countries: Contesting candidates; vigorous campaigns; heated public debate over candidates' portfolios and chances of success; even the Western-style televised presidential debates. Except that Egypt is not a democracy.

Not even close to becoming one.

In democracies, voters know what the president's formal, constitutional powers are. And they know for certain. But in Egypt, with no constitution in place yet, voters will go to the polling stations with no knowledge of what authorities are vested in the president and whether the candidate who will win the poll will have enough powers to implement the portfolio on which he based his electoral campaign.

The People's Assembly has not yet succeeded in accomplishing its primary task that is forming a committee assigned to write a permanent constitution, one which will specify the system that will guard Egypt's political arena; a system that might as well be presidential, parliamentary or mixed, with each system carrying different possibilities for the nature of the president's post.

Although the interim constitutional declaration, which was imposed by the ruling Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) in March 2011,does state the powers of the president (albeit murkily), the document is supposed to become obsolete once a new constitution gets drafted and enforced within weeks or months.

Vicious Cycles

The existence of an interim declaration doesn't make things clearer, even if temporarily. The document lacks consensus and is subject of much controversy and ambiguity. Former IAEA chief and key politician Moahmed el-Baradei described it on his Twitter account on May 13 as "premature": "Electing a president based on the premature constitutional declaration carries with it the seed of dispute between the authorities," he tweeted.

The interim declaration's articles get interpreted differently by various political entities at different points of time.

A case in point was the debate on the declaration's entailment as to which should take place first: electing a president or writing the constitution that would designate the president's powers. For months, the country's legal experts were divided over the issue – and conflicting statements were made by political forces, including SCAF members themselves, although SCAF is the very entity that enforced the transition's roadmap. Military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi reportedly told representatives of Egyptian political forces in a meeting in April that a constitution should be drafted before the president is elected (official newspaper al-Ahram, April 16). But former judge Tarek el-Bishri, who was appointed by SCAF to draft the constitutional amendments that constitute part of the 60-article interim declaration, wrote in al-Shorouk on January 8 that presidential elections should be held first.

And so, Egypt goes on and on in a vicious circle of sophistry and uncertainty. Electing a president in these circumstances is not necessarily a reflection of emerging democracy. The parliament was also elected, in an election hailed by the international community as "free and fair." But on the ground, it achieved so little and failed to lead Egypt to democratization. In the context of the constitutional void that Egypt is going through, the parliament's authorities have been unclear. The parliament's weakness vis-à-vis the military rulers was clear amid the frenzy over its attempt to pass a no-confidence vote against Kamal Ganzouri's cabinet. For weeks, MPs, the cabinet and SCAF publicly contended the parliament's powers and whether it was authorized to dismiss the cabinet. (The crisis ended with a limited reshuffle of four secondary ministers only.)

In the absence of a permanent, nation-wide acknowledged constitution, the real outcome of the presidential election could be similar to that of the parliamentary election.

Civilian Leadership

Even after a permanent constitution gets eventually drafted and the president's authorities get revealed, a civilian ruler is not expected to fully exercise his legitimate powers – not as long as SCAF is still in session and the Armed Forces are not accountable to the people, not subdued to elected civilian officials and institutions. A Wall Street Journal report published on May 18 predicts what SCAF has already hinted to several times over the past year: that it will not relinquish its upper hand over foreign policy, which includes Egyptian relations with the United States, the provider of an annual military assistance to Egypt. The Army is also expected to seek to protect its budget from public scrutiny and parliamentary accountability.


Because democracy essentially entails the subservience of the military to civilian authority, Egypt is not a democracy yet. The mere existence of an elected parliament and the carrying out of presidential elections are no indication that the country is on a solid track of democratization. Not when there is no nationally-respected constitution in place and there is constant dispute over the powers of the parliament and president, with the ultimate answers always lying with 19 military generals who were never voted into office and who continue to keep the country under the state of Emergency Law.

Unless elections are deemed to constitute an end in and of themselves, rather than a means toward peaceful transition of power within a democratic framework, there is no point in having high expectations of Egypt's upcoming presidential election.  

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