Who Should be Egypt’s Next President?

Egyptians are preparing to vote for a new president and complete the transition to civilian rule. With candidates vying for an ill-defined but crucial position it is imperative for voters to ignore the political demagogy that has led Egypt astray so many times since the Revolution. Rather, while deciding who should be president, they should take into account three issues that will determine the success of Egypt's transition to democracy.

Since its revolution, Egypt's steps towards democracy have been unravelling into those of a whirling dervish at times. Nevertheless, Egyptians are set to vote for a new president and complete the transition to civilian rule. After the disqualification of a number of high-profile candidates by the Higher Presidential Elections Commission in April, only a handful of viable candidates have remained – Amr Moussa, a secular-leaning former diplomat; Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former senior Muslim Brotherhood leader; Ahmed Shafiq, Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister; Mohamed Morsy, chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood; and Hamdeen Sabahi, a revolutionary Nasserite candidate.

More than anything the presidential race has once again exposed the deeply partisan nature of Egyptian politics. Egypt's soul-searching over the past year has been marked by a wide array of forces — Islamists revolutionaries, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and Copts — trying to shape the future of the new Egypt to their own making. What has been uncommon and markedly different from other societies searching for a new national identity is that this power struggle has taken place in a constitutional void with the potential to undermine Egypt's democratic transition.

With candidates vying for an ill-defined but crucial position, and with political illiteracy high among voters, it is imperative that voters ignore political demagogy in choosing who should be Egypt's next president. Unfortunately, old-fashioned speculation, conspiracy, and political know-how have dominated the presidential campaigns. The Muslim Brotherhood is speculated to desire a monopoly over power, so the military is plotting a silent popular take-over, and so the liberals will make Egypt into a secular bastion of US interests. And all of this with the revolutionaries standing by watching their revolution being stolen from them. In reality, three issues merit the consideration of voters wishing to see a successful transition to democracy – the re-organisation of the state, the reconfiguration of Egypt's social contract, and the preservation of the revolutionary spirit.

Filling the Constitutional Void

Egyptian citizens face the unusual task of voting for a president whose powers and relationship to other government bodies remain vague. One of the first priorities after the transition to civilian rule will be to break the impasse between the Islamists and the liberals over a new constitution. And although the organisation of the state and particularly the role of the president are unclear for the moment, voters will expect the president to guide the country through this re-organisation. Two issues will prove to be instrumental if he is to be successful in this task.

The place of religion in the political order is arguably the most contentious issue in post-Mubarak Egypt. In Egypt's post-revolutionary landscape, the president will have to address the concern of liberals and Copts on one hand, and firmly protect equal citizenship and religious freedom. On the other hand, to satisfy the demands of Islamist groups, the newly elected president will have to bridge the dichotomy between Islam as the religion of the state and the religion of its people. Although all contenders have pledged to protect fundamental freedoms and equal citizenship, Aboul Fotouh, as a moderate Islamist, might be particularly fit to develop and harness a “conciliatory discourse”. In a recent television interview he sketched its contours: “Some people think that you can force people to pray or punish them for not praying. Forcing people against their individual rights create a hypocrit[ical] person.”

Secondly, the debate on a new constitution will further lay bare an existing disagreement over the role of different branches of government and the army. More liberal factions, unlike Islamists, prefer a French-inspired, mixed presidential-parliamentary system that would create a strong executive check to a parliament dominated by Islamists. Marina Ottaway and Nathan J. Brown of the Brookings Institute have warned that such a system could risk a Turkish model where the military, backed by other key institutions and secular political parties, acts against Islamist movements. With this example and Egypt's own history in mind, a president with lesser executive powers would make a lot of sense and will likely be the compromise on which Egypt will have to settle.

What is relevant for voters in these elections however, is not the exact configuration of such a system but its basic premise – that for the remainder of his term Egypt's next president will be a power broker between the military and a civilian government. This will require him to provide balance against either force while at the same time maintain good relations with both. Former Foreign Minister Moussa fits this description well. He would be an acceptable choice to both the military and parliament and could rely on his statesman-like stature to bridge differences between both. At the same time, he would be able, even with limited powers, to galvanize enough support to keep either force in check. While Moussa's perceived pre-disposition towards the military has been raised as a concern, other contenders such as Shafiq, Morsy, and Sabahi seem either too biased to act as an intermediary, or too inexperienced to form the politically expedient coalitions necessary to act as a power-broker without the kind of Mubarak-esque presidential power. Aboul Fotouh is a dark horse – he certainly has credibility and seniority but he has remained rather ambivalent about his exact relation to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Real Solutions for Real Problems

As rightly pointed out by Clifford Young and Julia Clarke recently in a Reuters article, “most of the analysis has focused on the political actors involved (…) as well as individual political players”. In contrast, they argue, “little attention has been paid to the most important actor of all – public opinion”.

Whether a good leader will rule by popular consent or by his expertise, “real problems need real solutions”. “Most important problem questions” are often a good indicator of real problems. Such questions have consistently ranked jobs, public safety, and corruption at the top of the list of citizens' concerns.

In essence, such voter demands reflect what the Egyptian revolution has been all about – “bread, freedom, and dignity”. Particularly among the youth there is a strong conviction that the government must become more responsive to the needs of the people. They want to feel like a part of a social contract and are committed to holding the government to its promises. This re-configuration of Egypt's social contract would at least entail a strategy to tackle Egypt's structural economic problems – the government's strong hold on the commanding heights of the economy, a semi-rentier economy confined to a small number of entrepreneurs, and a faltering education system. Preferably it would also include a reform of justice and law enforcement.

Given the urgency and severity of these problems Egypt faces, the programs of all candidates are rather light on detailing how to tackle Egypt's working class problems. Candidates such as Aboul Fotouh, Morsy, and Sabahi, might be more suited to deliver on security sector reform since they have never been part of the government apparatus. However, none of the candidates provide the kind of real economic programmes that take distinct steps to empower Egypt's economy. As Angus Blair, founder of the Signet Institute, a Cairo-based think tank, told CNBC in a recent interview: “Former regime associates will continue on the same path, Islamists would take the liberal path with an Islamic flavor, while leftists would have to face the reality of funding their promises”.

Doomed to Fail?

Egypt's new president will battle for power in a political arena that will threaten Egypt's first steps toward civilian rule. At the same time, according to Thomas Demmelhuber, a political science professor at the University of Hildesheim Foundation, voters demand "a socio-economic revolution dividend". Egypt's fragmented political landscape of many (vested) interests, and the looming threat of national insolvency will make this a very hard task. Yet, the expectations of a new president and a new era of civilian rule are sky-high. Many commentators have recognized this and argued that whoever wins the presidency will therefore be doomed to fail in his mission.

What Egypt needs is a charismatic leader, “the one that emerges by definition at a time of crisis or national yearning, and perhaps a vacuum in that nation’s institutions”, as New York Times correspondent Kate Zernike put it eloquently many years ago. A president that will give hope to a new generation, and fight to make sure that the ideals of the revolution for which so many have died, will be reflected in each of Egypt's steps toward democracy. A leader that, in the words of Robert Caro in his biography of Lyndon Johnson, “restores their confidence by his confidence”… But also a leader that on the basis of that charisma can manage expectations and buy time.

Although none of the current candidates might have this “X-factor”, independents such as Aboul Fotouh and Sabahi have proven links with this new generation and have a strong revolutionary record. Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq do not have those revolutionary credentials having been part of the former regime and not having taken part in the revolution. Morsy's role as leader of the Muslim Brotherhood that allied itself with the revolution and the military at the same time, makes him less credible for such a role.

And the Winner is….
Drawing up the balance sheet on these issues gives Aboul Fotouh a narrow edge over Moussa and to a lesser extent over Sabahi. Though Moussa has the seniority and credibility to act as Egypt's new power broker, Aboul Fotouh is able to bind opposing groups – liberals and Islamists – to a discourse that transcends the old battle lines of "Islamist" or "liberal" and that would protect civil liberties. Although Aboul Fotouh is the most outspoken of all candidates on government spending and health care, in the absence of what Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute has called “a real discussion on economic recovery, security-sector reform, or how to fight income inequality”, it is hard to say how his plans will be different from the approaches that have failed in tackling Egypt's problems so far.

This is not an endorsement of Aboul Fotouh. It is a reminder to Egyptians that relying on political demagogy has led Egypt astray many times in the past year and will fuel further growing polarisation and fears. To avoid an “Algeria scenario”, Egyptians should pay attention to the issues that will determine the course of the country in the coming years instead.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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