Mubarak's Old Stalwarts Vie for Supremacy

As Egypt's historic presidential election looms, key figures from the old regime scramble and scheme to make their mark on postrevolutionary politics.

In late May, Egyptians will vote in the first free presidential election in their history. But despite parliamentary elections and other inklings of democracy, the forces of the old dictatorship under deposed President Hosni Mubarak still hold the cards.

The Muslim Brotherhood planned massive demonstrations in Cairo on April 20 to protest actions by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that banned three leading presidential contenders, including its candidate, Khairat el-Shater. The military also barred General Omar Suleiman, former Egyptian intelligence chief and vice president, who announced his candidacy earlier this month.

The army now appears to support former Mubarak-era foreign minister Amr Moussa for president. To the brass, led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Suleiman is not an ally—indeed, more of a threat than Shater. Tantawi and Suleiman rose through the ranks of the military together and served Mubarak loyally for decades, but it was Suleiman who was tapped for vice president. Tantawi kept the regime intact through the transition while seeking to undermine other Mubarak associates, including Suleiman, in hopes of establishing new political legitimacy for himself.

But in alienating Suleiman and the powerful domestic-security apparatus, Tantawi faltered in his role as national leader. In the year since the revolution, the lack of coordination between the military, the police and intelligence agencies has caused street crime to rise dramatically across the country, and the pipelines carrying Egyptian natural gas to Israel and Jordan have been blown up more than a dozen times.

The Islamists have a range of candidates. They tried Freedom and Justice Party leader Mohamed Morsi, who lacks charisma. They advanced Salim al-Awa, whose unconditional support for Tantawi cost him nearly all public support. The most popular now appears to be a genuine democratic Islamist: Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh, whom they had earlier kicked out for being too liberal. Fotouh is quite popular among liberals and even Coptic Christians.

Yet the army is denying the Islamists the opportunity to run and undermining their domination of the constituent assembly, which is charged with drafting the new constitution. Fully 75 percent of the members will be replaced with figures from outside the parliament. If the army were to dissolve parliament altogether, the Brotherhood would have nothing left.

In this vacuum, Suleiman is one of the few men of influence. Until recently, his candidacy would have been unthinkable, but growing fears of “Iraqinization” have created an opening for a “law and order” candidate—especially after the Muslim Brotherhood broke earlier promises not to run for more than 30 percent of the seats in parliament, not to “bigfoot” the constituent assembly and not to advance its own presidential candidate.

A poll conducted earlier this month by an Al Ahram-newspaper affiliate showed Suleiman with 31.7 percent popular support, followed by seeming army favorite Amr Moussa at 22.8 percent, Salafi candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail with 21.4 percent and Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat el-Shater with 4.3 percent.

Though the army denied Suleiman’s appeal, the fact that he hasn’t issued any public condemnation of the decision suggests that he may be making a deal. Suleiman and Tantawi may yet settle on Moussa as a neutral candidate, who would provide them both with immunity from prosecution under a new regime. Moussa is running on a liberal platform and would likely defend democratic ideals if given a chance. He has already received the support of the leader of the liberal Wafd party.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Tantawi enabled the Muslim Brotherhood to dominate the political scene in hopes of outmaneuvering Suleiman, but he soon found himself losing control of the country. And while the generals exchange recriminations with the Brotherhood in public, they cannot seem to cooperate with the intelligence and police forces—the only other people who can muster guns and international support.

Ordinary Egyptians are eager for the new parliament to deliver on its promises of economic progress, and many who voted earlier for the Islamists now support Suleiman. Had he been able to requalify for elections, he could have won.

Without a constitution accepted by the army, no one knows what powers the new president will have, but Tantawi’s heavy-handed response to Suleiman suggests he understands that it matters who fills the seat.

A Moussa presidency would benefit Tantawi and signal a reconciliation with the hundreds of thousands of functionaries who served former dictators Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, many of whom understandably fear being thrown under the bus in the new order.

To Moussa’s credit, early on the Arab Spring, while he was secretary general of the Arab League, he declared that “reform is the name of the game” in the region. Since then, he has shown ideological sympathies with the secular, liberal Wafd party. He could unite the Egyptian people.

Yet if Tantawi attempts to abandon democratic pretenses altogether and anoint Moussa as the next Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood may make good on its promise to start a second revolution.

From those ashes, worse things would rise.

Khairi Abaza is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former official in Egypt’s Wafd party.