Another surreal turn in Egypt's presidential election

Egypt's presidential elections will take place less than four weeks from now and we still don't know who's running. As I've said before in this column (this sentence is fast becoming a fixture of my assessment of Egyptian politics): if it sounds ridiculous, that's because it is.

So far the list of candidates being served up by the Electoral Commission seems as changeable as the menu du jour of a capricious chef. The Commission's website, with no irony whatsoever, is displaying a blank candidate list on its homepage with the date "26 April 2012" in small characters below it, the date the final list is to be announced.

Over the weekend, the electoral commission disqualified 10 of 23 presidential candidates for not fulfilling the conditions to run for election. The commission gave them two days to submit appeals. By law, the decisions of the commission are final.

The three critical candidates to be disqualified are:

Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's intelligence chief, chief enforcer and vice president during the last days of his reign, was disqualified for failing to achieve the required geographical distribution of his signed declarations of support. He was short one governate. (He's shown in the poster held by one of his supporters in the image above.)

Hazem Salah Aboul Ismail, a niche television preacher who skyrocketed to the rank of a serious contender thanks to fiery religious rhetoric that sharply attacked both the West and Egypt's current military-dominated government, was disqualified because his deceased mother turned out to have acquired U.S. citizenship before she died. The electoral law requires that the candidate and both of his or her parents should be Egyptian nationals.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Khairat El-Shater was removed for having served a criminal sentence under Mubarak. It's widely believed that the charges in question were trumped-up, just the sort of thing the old dictatorial regime used to discredit its opponents. But the crime still counts as a crime, and so it falls under the election law prohibitions.

Two days before the commission made it decision, a new law was passed banning Mubarak-era officials from running for office, which would affect both Suleiman and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, who is also running in the elections. (In order to come into force, however, the law needs to be approved by the ruling military junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is unlikely to approve it.)

While none of the disqualified has conceded, we're now left to puzzle out the rest of the field. Just to be clear: the three disqualified candidates were the front-runners in the election, so now we have to sort out the most likely contenders from the second-rank figures who are left. Chief among these are Amr Moussa, former Arab League secretary general and Mubarak's Minister of Foreign Affairs for a decade; Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a long-term Muslim Brotherhood leader who was expelled last year for deciding to run again the organisation's wishes; then, bringing up the rear, are Khaled Ali, lawyer and activist, and Hamdeen Sabahy, a Nasserite journalist.

And already the Muslim Brotherhood is scrambling to put forward its backup candidate, Freedom and Justice Party President Mohamed Morsi -- earning him the moniker of "the spare wheel" in social media circles.

Now what? With the three frontrunners gone (pending appeal, of course), voters and political groups are scrambling to identify their second-best choice. Amr Moussa, who dominated opinion polls in 2011 but whose thunder was stolen by Islamist and army candidates, emerges as the most likely beneficiary of the disqualifications. He'll probably be making an effort not to seem too giddy in the coming days. Abdel Moneim Aboul Foutouh, who despite his decades-long membership in the Muslim Brotherhood is widely seen as the closest thing to a "revolutionary" candidate as we're going to get, will have to work diligently to try to poach some of Shater's and Abou Ismail's supporters, especially since the Muslim Brotherhood appears to be dragging its feet with regards to Morsi's nomination.

The entire process looks remarkably haphazard, a bit like an election for class president. Minus the well-developed electoral programs, of course.

There is one thing to be said in favor of the electoral process, though: for the first time in decades, we don't know who will win the elections months before they've taken place.

Mohamed blogs at His twitter handle is @eldahshan 


Democracy Lab

Democracy Lab Weekly Highlights, April 13, 2012

In "Pictures at a Revolution," Luke Allnutt explores how visualizations of social media data can help to track the dynamics of social upheaval.

Oliver Kaplan and Michael Albertus argue that land reform holds the key to drying out the drug trade in Latin America.

In his weekly column, Christian Caryl wonders whether the planners of NATO intervention in Libya paid sufficient attention to the possible side-effects of their actions.

And Greg Rushford explains why state-owned enterprises in Vietnam (see photo above) and Malaysia are holding back economic development in the region.

And from our blogs:

Jackee Budesta Batanda sees a political awakening among young people in Uganda.

Endy Bayuni examines the growing dysfunction of political institutions in Indonesia.

Franciso Toro reflects on the unlikely tale of a chavista's fall from grace.

Min Zin analyzes Aung San Suu Kyi's options as she and her National League for Democracy enter parliament in Burma.

Mohamed El Dahshan asseses the Muslim Brotherhood's attempt to monopolize the drafting of the next Egyptian constitution.

And now for this week's recommended reads:

In his article "Leave Room for the Unbelievers," Commentator Hussein Ibish explains why the Arab Spring has yet to fulfill the promise of genuine religious freedom.

Washington Post commentator Fred Hiatt criticizes U.S. President Barack Obama for not doing enough to defend pro-democracy movements around the world.

In its latest survey of the prospects for economic development in Asia, the Asian Development Bank arrives at the conclusion that rising inequality is the biggest threat to the region's prosperity.

In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, John Stifton of Human Rights Watch takes Malaysia's prime minister to task for claiming that other Southeast Asian countries can take the credit for recent reforms in Burma. The International Crisis Group offers a handy overview of the past year of political change in that country.

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea released its second report on the gulag system in North Korea.

Alex Thurston, author of Sahel Blog, argues that NATO's intervention in Libya was a mistake.

Chinese novelist Ma Jian assails the British government for its decision to invite Beijing's censor-in-chief to the London Book Fair.

And in a piece for FP's AfPak Channel, Anjana Ravi and Eric Tyler describe how "mobile money" can help to combat corruption in Afghanistan.