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USIP’s Daniel Brumberg discusses the significance of Egypt’s election for the country and the region.

Egypt Prepares for Historic Elections
Photo courtesy NYTimes

USIP’s Daniel Brumberg discusses the significance of Egypt’s election for the country and the region.

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This week, Egypt will hold its presidential election. What is its significance for Egypt and for the wider Middle East?

It would be no exaggeration to say that this is the most important election to take place in Egypt in more than 50 years. The president has been the lynchpin of political power since 1954. As such, the entire electoral machinery was periodically mobilized to ensure the president’s reelection. Supplied with enormous constitutional powers, the office of the president symbolized the essence of Egypt's system.

Given this historical context, it was hardly surprising that the one goal shared by all factions of Egypt’s revolution was to secure a democratically elected president under the umbrella of a truly democratic constitution, and in concert with a democratically elected parliament. This week’s presidential election will provide Egyptians with the opportunity to achieve most—although not all—elements of this vision.

It’s a historic moment of unparalleled importance.

You note that it is a chance to achieve “most—although not all” of the democratic opposition’s goals. What do you mean by this? What are the key obstacles to electing a president capable of pushing the democratic transition forward?

There are really two immediate challenges, both of which are intimately connected.

First is the challenge posed by deep ideological and social divisions in Egyptian society, and within the political elite itself. There is an Islamist-secular split, as well as a sharp divide pitting mainstream Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood against the Salafists. There is also a generational divide between the younger activists who favor a more profound political transformation, and older actors, some of whom are ready and even eager to forge compromises with leaders and sectors drawn from the previous regime.

These divisions have undermined the democratically elected parliament’s efforts to create a constituent assembly charged with the task of creating a new constitution. In the absence of political consensus, Egypt is not only going into elections without a new constitution, but without a united opposition that can articulate a common vision, particularly regarding the key issue of what powers the military will wield the day after the elections. And this raises the second challenge: how to encourage the military to support a democratic process that could very well produce an elected president whose authority is not dependent on or subordinated to the military itself.

Press reports indicate widespread concerns that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, could move to undercut the authority of a new president. Are such fears justified?

I understand such concerns but I believe that it is far too late to turn the clock back, and that the military understands this. Indeed, the fact of the matter is that the SCAF is not preventing a free and fair presidential election, and has even allowed foreign observers, including former President Jimmy Carter, to monitor the vote. There has been a four-hour televised debate between two of the leading candidates (Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh and Amr Moussa), as well as open campaigning for the first time in modern Egypt’s history. This dynamic is creating facts on the ground that pose the most severe political challenge the military has ever faced.

While the SCAF’s decision-making process is opaque, I would guess that its 20 members have been engaged in vigorous debate about how to balance the legitimate interests of the military with the legitimate requisites of a democratizing Egypt.

That seems like a difficult balancing act? How will the candidates respond to this challenge?

It is a difficult balancing act and huge challenge, but one that is hardly unique to Egypt. Indeed, absent a complete collapse of the old system – as was largely the case in Tunisia—transitions of this kind usually involve some kind of negotiation, some process of give and take. One key challenge is for the opposition to find a measure of consensus regarding the kinds of compromises they will try to sell to the military. Such a consensus has been in short supply, in part because Egyptians themselves have different points of view on the matter. Some, particularly those who fear a radical break with the old system, view Ahmed Shafiq --a former prime minister with military past who openly calls for compromises that would sustain the military’s influence -- as their best bet. Others who share this desire for continuity, but nevertheless seek a leader with a measure of greater independence and legitimacy, favor Amr Moussa.

As a veteran politician with extensive foreign policy experience, Moussa has the advantage of name appeal, and advocates a kind of middle ground position on a host of issues that reassures many sectors, including secular Egyptians, Coptic Christians, the business community, and the military itself. Finally there are the Islamists candidates, including Muslim Brotherhood Leader Mohamed Mursi, and Dr. Abul Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader who espouses a more liberal vision of Islam by comparison to Mursi. Both candidates have indicated some readiness to reach a compromise with the military, although statements from veteran Muslim Brethren leaders suggest a lively debate within the movement’s Freedom and Justice Party. Thus, for example, party leader and veteran activist Dr. Esam el-Erian has stated --in one breath mind you-- that his party “will not allow (the military) to wield political influence in the new state,” but that “dismantling the army’s hold on the civil state is a gradual process because any quick decision will led to a civilian-military confrontation.” It will not be easy to square this circle, but that will be in the challenge in the coming years. It is a long process.

Does such a multiplicity of positions concern you?

Answer: Not really, they are natural, part and parcel of a democratic process. Indeed, to see these various positions compete for popular support after 50 plus years of autocracy, that is something to behold. That said, too much fragmentation among the opposition on essential issues could also present a problem. After all, it’ s a negotiation, and thus leverage is key. But this is why the presidential election is such a crucial moment. Whoever is elected will be presented with an historic opportunity to preside over the remaining, but vital key steps in the transition, the most important of which will be forging a new constitution. Suddenly, the issue of leadership has become pivotal to Egypt’s future. Hold on to your seats.

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