No Quick Fix for Egypt: As Egypt Prepares for Its 'First' Post-Arab Spring Elections, It Becomes Increasingly Clear That the Path to True Democracy Is Likely to Be a Rocky One. Maria Golia Writes from Cairo

Article excerpt

In the run-up to their first open presidential elections (scheduled for 23 May) Egyptians seem more confused than excited. "How am I supposed to choose [a candidate] if I don't know his plans for national development?" asks a washing-machine repair man. "We need a strongman. Egyptians only work for someone they fear," according to a downtown Cairo shop owner. "Whoever can make our streets safe again, I'll vote for him," says a taxi driver, referencing the car-jacking and other crimes that have grown more frequent in the last year.

The voters' task is complicated, not least because the drafting of a new constitution is stalled due to a lack of parliamentary consensus (regarding who should write it). Presidential powers and responsibilities, and the contract between people and state have yet to be defined.

Twenty-three candidates claimed to have secured the necessary public and parliamentary endorsements, but with less than a month before elections, questions of eligibility remain. Ten contenders were disqualified in mid April, including three popular ones, sparking heated controversy and inspiring one of the largest demonstrations Egypt has seen in months.

A leader of the ultra-conservative Salafist Nour Party, Hazem Abu Ismail, was dropped when his (Egyptian) mother was accused of having a Green Card and/or holding dual American citizenship. As Abu Ismail is a vocal critic of American secular politics and culture, the nature of his disqualification added insult to injury. His supporters claim the accusation was merely a move to undermine his growing popularity, but it has a legal basis.

According to a recent constitutional amendment, presidential candidates may not hold dual nationalities, nor can their wives or mothers be foreigners or possess foreign passports. Many objected when this amendment was ratified by public referendum last March. Of course, Egypt's president should be an Egyptian citizen, but why be obliged to marry an Egyptian? Those who disapproved the amendment's parochialism nonetheless found it convenient when it took a hard-line advocate of Shariah law out of the presidential race.

Egypt's Presidential Election Committee also disqualified Mubarak's long-serving chief of military intelligence, Omar Suleiman, whose candidacy enraged supporters of the revolution. Suleiman was nonetheless popular among those nostalgic for the so-called 'stability' of the Mubarak era, and fear Egypt's shift to a religious state. Tellingly, Suleiman was not eliminated because of his affiliation with the ousted regime or for fostering its most reprehensible aspects (including arbitrary arrests and torture) but because his endorsements, on careful recounting, fell slightly short of the required amount.

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The third popular candidate, a Muslim Brothers' leader Khaled Al Shater, was disqualified because he had served a jail sentence. Supporters argued that his imprisonment by Mubarak for belonging to the then banned religious group only underlined Al Shater's validity. The political arm of the Brothers, the Freedom and Justice Party, swiftly replaced Al Shater with the lesser-known Mohammed Mursi. Although they dominate Parliament and are the most organised political group, the FJP has lost credibility in the scuffle. For a year it promised not to field a candidate at all so as to prove that unlike the former regime, it was here to serve Egypt, not control it.

Some feel that the elimination of these three contenders was 'a blessing', since each had a significant number of followers and represented an agenda that would be unlikely to lead Egypt forward. The question is, who can, and what have voters got to go on? …