NB – Accompanying images were all taken from a rally on Tahrir Sqaure on 13 April 2012 by supporters of Salafi Islamist presidential hopeful Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, but I talk about the wider presidential race.
From the original timetable of elections within six months of Mubarak’s departure (all of 15 months ago), the presidential competition is finally happening in Egypt. The first round is scheduled for the end of May with the a possible second round run off vote in the middle of June. Despite how close at hand the election day is, officially and legally the candidates are not supposed to be campaigning yet because the final list of eligible candidates has not been confirmed. The closing date for entering the race was the 8th April last week. Candidates had to present their forms along with signatures of support from either 30,000 registered voters or 30 members of the parliament. So far so good. However, an Presidential Elections Commission (PEC) has since been scrutinising the applications and applying a more exacting list of criteria that include the nationality of parents and spouses (read wives) and criminal convictions.
The result? Ten have been struck off the list leaving only 13 potential candidates in the field. Those falling foul of the election officials include some of the biggest names running. How could this happen? It’s not entirely clear as the officials refused to comment on why individuals had been barred. They simply have until the evening of Monday 16 April to appeal the undisclosed decisions. It’s democracy in action, but with Egyptian characteristics.
Ultra-orthodox Islamist candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, whose posters have been an inescapable part of life in Cairo for some months now, was apparently struck off because his mother took American citizenship. To qualify both parents of the candidates must be Egyptian citizens with no claims to dual nationality. The threat to Abu Ismail’s candidacy presented by his mother’s legal status was leaked some weeks ago and since then a debate has raged about whether she had full US citizenship or just a Green Card work permit. Rumours abound that US authorities have sent copies of documents proving she took full American citizenship to the Egyptian government. The barring of Abu Ismail is one of the most potentially explosive situations as his supporters are both vocal and numerous and have threatened popular action to get him reinstated.
Another front runner casualty has been the Muslim Bortherhood’s Khairat al-Shater. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB), before they won the 47% of seats in the Egyptian parliament, announce that they would not field a presidential candidate. Although there was clearly discussion through the ranks about who they might support in an unofficial capacity. However a recent spate of public and parliamentary arguments between the party and the ruling Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), lead to a change in direction by the MB leadership. Provocative comments by Field Marshal Tantawi, head of SCAF, included telling the MB to avoid confrontation and thereby avert ‘the repetition past mistakes’ with a reference to the years under president Nasser when the MB was actively persecuted and its members thrown in jail and tortured. In making their policy u-turn the MB caused both internal rifts and external concerns that the organisation was seeking to take over all the levers of power in the new Egyptian political settlement.
For their candidate they turned to Khairat al-Shater, the man who has successfully guided the finances and organisational structure of the MB for many years. It is also noted that his own wealth as a financier and owner of several companies rose in step with the fortunes of the Brotherhood. However al-Shater has a criminal record, which is not unusual in itself as there was no way you could be a powerful figure outside of the government in the Mubarak years and expect an easy ride. Ex-convicts are allowed to run for president if six years have elapsed since serving the full penal sentence and the individual has been issued with a court rehabilitation order. Al-Shater was sentenced to six years imprisonment in 2007, but was released on ‘health grounds’ after the revolution in March 2011. Having not even served the full sentence he is possibly ruled out of presidential elections for many years yet. Reports came out that the SCAF military rulers has issued al-Shater with a retrospective pardon last month, although this act of grace remained a secret, but the electoral commission apparently took a different view.
Which brings us to Omar Suleiman. He is, or was, possibly my favourite candidate. By favourite I don’t mean he appeals to me as an individual, by all accounts he is a thoroughly unsavoury man with a taste for torture, but because he shows how far out of kilter the forces of political gravity can become in post revolution Egypt. During his 18 years as head of Egyptian military intelligence Suleiman supervised the detention and torture of countless political opponents, Islamists and activists, and oversaw Egypt’s program of ‘extraordinary renditions’ during the War on Terror years. Throw in a short stint as Mubarak’s deputy in the days at the beginning of the revolution in 201,1 and you get a man who is about as tarred by the former regime as any man can possibly be. Yet he stood for president of the ‘new’ Egypt with a promise to protect the revolution and he actually did garner public support in the process. He explained at a press conference that just because he was head of intelligence (without mentioning his length of service in this tainted office) and vice-president ‘for a few days’, it didn’t make him part of the old regime. That he said all this with a straight face is also quite a feat.
It was felt, with some justification, that he was the SCAF’s preferred candidate who would protect the interests of the military. However, the electoral commission ruled that he could not run. The reason was that he apparently did not get enough endorsement signatures. Suleiman arrived at the candidacy office in the Heliopolis suburb of Cairo with 20 minutes to go before the close of nominations. At the time he had only 22,000 signatures with him, the rest were ‘stuck in traffic’. What also distinguished his entry to the presidential race was the guard of military police who accompanied him to the electoral office, a service not extended to any other of the candidates. Whether or not SCAF or another sympathetic government body can retroactively assist Mr Suleiman in this regard remains to be seen.
Other leading candidates who did make the cut include former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, Abdul Moneim Abul Fatouh, and the MB’s back-up candidate Mohammed Morsi.Above: Potester holds a picture that blends together the images of former president Mubarak and former spy chief Omar Suleiman.
Is that clear? If not don’t worry, it’s no meant to be. While steering clear of the concept of ‘conspiracy’ meaning malevolent forces acting to weaken Egypt to further the goals of US imperialism / Zionism / the lizard men, I get the impression that rational actors have made deliberate choices to keep the political situation opaque. That and because of incompetence. If everyone is kept guessing about what the rules of the game are, then no one can plan for effective political campaigning. Also, the chances are that everyone will break an undefined rule at some point. This meta-infraction can then be brought up in a court case to challenge the legality of the person of organisation. Dark and wild fantasy? Court cases are still pending on the legality of the parliament that has been functioning since January of 2012, and the 100 member committee formed to write a new constitution is also in state of limbo after a court suspended its work pending a review into how it was formed.