Disqualifications reshape Egyptian presidential race

This weekend’s decision by Egypt’s Presidential Elections Commission to disqualify ten candidates (out of 23) in the upcoming Egyptian presidential election on May 23 — including the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, a former top official of Hosni Mubarak’s regime and another popular Salafist candidate — appears to have closed a topsy-turvy chapter in the race.

The latest drama started when Salafist preacher Hazem Abu Ismail (above, top) began gaining traction in the race.  A hardline Islamist, Abu Ismail’s campaign targeted a smaller role for the Egyptian military in public life and a correspondingly greater role for Islam.  A proponent of Iranian-style reforms, he would make the veil mandatory for women.  He also advocated a ban on alcohol consumption, including for foreign tourists, and the closing of gambling casinos, currently open to foreigners.

While this hardline agenda is fairly popular with not just a few Egyptians, it essentially terrified everyone else in Egypt — from the secular military to Egypt’s vocal minority of Coptic Christians to the tourism industry, which would rather not scare away any more Western visitors.  Meanwhile, the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, which had previously pledged not to field a candidate for the presidential election, also saw Abu Ismail as a threat.  In sitting out the presidential election, it ceded to Abu Ismail the full spectrum of Islamists, conservative and moderate.  But, more existentially, as Abu Ismail’s tone and support began to sound alarm among those who want to perpetuate Egyptian’s secular state, it risked being lumped together with the Salafists.

Note that in the Egyptian legislative elections completed in January — after the protest in Tahrir Square led to Mubarak’s downfall in February 2011, Egypt conducted elections in late 2011, but those were marred by allegations of corruption and fraud — the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters took 235 — nearly half  — of the 508 seats (many under the banner of the newly formed Freedom and Justice Party, which is closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood), while the Salafist bloc took 121 seats, the second-largest bloc (most under the banner of the Al-Nour Party, which would institute sharia law in Egypt).  The secular New Wafd Party finished third with 38 seats and the secular liberal Egyptian Bloc won 35 seats.

Accordingly, the Brotherhood announced at the end of March that it would support Khairat al-Shater (above, middle), a charismatic businessman and former deputy chairman of the Brotherhood, who supports economic liberalization and takes a far less strict line than Abu Ismail on the role of Islam in public life.  This seems to cause even more alarm, as it threatened to turn the election into a race between two competing visions of an Islamic Egypt, threatening to leave behind one-time frontrunner Amr Moussa, who served as former Egyptian foreign minister from 1991 to 2001 and as Secretary-General of the Arab League from 2001 until July 2011.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has governed Egypt since Mubarak’s fall, was equally horrified, and is believed to have encouraged Omar Suleiman (above, bottom), Mubarak’s longtime intelligence chief and Mubarak’s vice president in the last, hectic days of the Mubarak regime in February 2011, as a counterweight to the perceived threat of a race shaped by Islamists.

Saturday’s disqualifications, then, can be seen as reversing the political one-upmanship of the last month:

  • Abu Ismail’s late mother apparently lived in California and held U.S. citizenship, was therefore ineligible because of a parent with an American passport.
  • al-Shater, who was imprisoned from 2007 to 2011 by the Mubarak regime, was ineligible because he was imprisoned within six years of the election.
  • Suleiman was largely seen as a puppet of the Mubarak regime who would threaten the move to true democracy — the Egyptian parliament last week passed a ban on former senior Mubarak officials from running (although the ban is subject to SCAF approval).
  • Secular reformer Ayman Nour, who contested a quixotic race in the 2005 presidential election against Mubarak and who had also been imprisoned in the past, was also disqualified.

The candidates have had 48 hours to contest the disqualification, however.  A final list will be announced on April 26.

For now, though, the race resets back to a kind of status quo ante, despite ongoing protest from the disqualified candidates.

Moussa, of course, has to be seen as the leading beneficiary of the disqualifications, and remains a frontrunner to win the election, especially given the decision in January by Mohamed El Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, not to seek the presidency.

Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former opposition leader affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood until 2011 and currently the secretary-general of the Arab Medical League, is also running liberal campaign (while still sympathetic to the Brotherhood), will also benefit greatly.  He is a progressive who is perhaps best placed to win votes among revolutionary liberals who distrust Moussa, Shafiq and former Mubarak officials and who also distrust Morsi and more Islamic-oriented candidates.

The Brotherhood, just prior to El-Shater’s disqualification, also announced its support of Mohammed Morsi as an alternative candidate.  Morsi, who is seen as less popular and charismatic than al-Shater, currently serves as the leader of the Freedom and Justice Party, and will now likely become a key player in the race.  The Al-Nour Party, which had previously back Abu Ismail, will decide this week on endorsing a new candidate — senior Brotherhood figures said Morsi was the natural second choice of former Abu Ismail supporters, although the party could also back Aboul Fotouh.

Meanwhile, Ahmed Shafiq, prime minister under Mubarak from January 2011 to March 2011, was not disqualified, and may pick up votes that may have otherwise gone to Suleiman.