TSG IntelBrief: The Search for Clarity Amid the Chaos of Egyptian Politics
April 17, 2012
Bottom Line Up Front:
• The banning of three of the leading candidates for the Egyptian presidency presents a counter-intuitive chance for clarity in who the military truly backs.
• Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister and head of the Arab League, might benefit from the banning of Omar Suleiman, whose candidacy might have been positioned to pivot middle-ground support to Moussa.
As of mid-April 2012, Egypt might gain some clarity in its muddied presidential election campaign through an event initially assessed as yet another chaotic step on the path to May’s voting: Saturday’s decision by the Egyptian Electoral Commission to ban ten candidates from the upcoming presidential election, including three of the top candidates: Hazem Abu Ishmail, Khairat el-Shater, and Omar Suleiman. At first blush, this decision (made by military officials in what must be considered a strategic move to continue its hold on power despite the overthrow of Mubarak) would seemingly add to the confusion by eliminating candidates from across the political spectrum only five weeks before the election. The reaction to this decision, however, beyond the appeals already filed, might actually reveal more clearly the machinations, intentions, and capabilities of the Egyptian military and its supporters.
Of all the rival parties, the military is the most opaque; therefore, a systematic analysis of the election dynamics should begin with the military’s presumptive candidate and former regime official, Omar Suleiman. Running as the self-described security and stability candidate, Suleiman enjoys almost unparalleled name recognition in this first election after the revolution; at the same time, his campaign carries the obvious handicap of his status as the former right-hand man of Mubarak. Though some observers expressed shock that the electoral commission would, in effect, ban one of their own by the action against Suleiman’s candidacy, one possible explanation offers little cause for surprise: that Suleiman is nothing more than a stalking horse candidate for the military. In essence, his short-lived candidacy was designed not to win the presidency, but to create divisions among the Islamist vote and thereby enhance the probable success of another candidate. This may explain why the military didn’t object to losing last year’s parliamentary elections, dominated by the Islamist parties of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, as its overarching objective was to maintain power by winning the presidential election.
To that end, it makes sense for the military to put up Suleiman — who stated he only reluctantly entered the race because the Muslim Brotherhood broke its pledge not to run a candidate — as the most famous, but also most egregious stability candidate in an election allegedly all about changing course from the past. His entry into the race caused street protests by hard-line Islamists who claimed the military was trying to undo the revolution. The images of more dramatic protests is arguably not what many Egyptian voters want to see after a year of violent demonstrations and seeming anarchy, and the military may be stage managing events so that this would enhance the attraction to a candidate who appears well positioned to bring stability back to the shell-shocked nation.
By putting up Suleiman as a candidate, then having him banned, the ruling military council would be able to blunt some criticism of any apparent heavy-handedness in the campaign, while still effectively splitting the Islamist vote and highlighting the relative liberal, yet familiar and comforting candidacy of former foreign minister and Arab League chief, Amr Moussa. If Suleiman’s appeal is successful and he reenters the race, Amr Moussa could likely still be viewed as the reasonable choice for an electorate determined not to return to the Mubarak-era, but also wary of handing total power to the Islamists.
A key indicator of future events will be the military’s reaction after Tuesday’s expected decision on the appeals. A muted or even magnanimous response to the upholding of the ban for Suleiman could suggest the military was never vested in him and sees a chance to appear fair-handed and subject to the rule of law, even while shaping that law to a significant degree. State-run newspapers, such as al-Ahram, while reporting the decision as legal, might also endorse Moussa as a consensus choice for a tired and nervous voter.
The Muslim Brotherhood has already taken the position that if el-Shater is not reinstated, they will rally around their back-up candidate, Mohammad Morsi, who the Brotherhood placed in the race last week just for this potentiality. While the Muslim Brotherhood’s suspicions of last-minute back-room dealings by the military has shown to be prescient in the banning of el-Shater, it still leaves them with a divided electorate: some will vote for former Brotherhood official Abdel Abu al-Fotouh, while others will vote for Morsi. Yet a third possibility is that many former supporters might not vote for any Muslim Brotherhood candidate either out of anger that it broke its pledge, or out of fear of giving them too much power.
If el-Shater is reinstated, then the Brotherhood will effectively have three candidates instead of merely two, a difficult strategy to pull off as the group attempts to react to every perceived military move. Striving to be transparent in the aftermath of breaking its pledge not to run a candidate, the Muslim Brotherhood might have ended up publicly telegraphing its every potential move.
The banning of Abu Ishmail — a long suspected outcome due to his late mother’s alleged dual citizenship (Egyptian and American) — will cause additional street protest, but likely not generate major electoral shifts, as his hard-line supporters are not swing-voters in any sense and wouldn’t under any circumstance vote for el-Shater, Moussa, or Suleiman. In the unlikely event he is reinstated, he will draw a large share of the hard-line Islamist vote, votes that likely would not have gone to el-Shater were he to remain ineligible. The Salafis reaction will almost certainly be readily evident in the form of anger or celebration depending on the outcome.
While there will undoubtably be more twists and turns in the remaining five weeks before the first round of voting, an important degree of clarity will likely emerge in the next few days. That will be come from a careful analysis of the reaction — primarily from the military and state-run press — to rulings on the appeals from ousted candidates. This will undoubtedly reveal the true role of Suleiman’s candidacy in this election: either as a legitimate contender and the military’s preferred candidate, or as a disposable symbol of the regime that would ultimately help influence voters to more comfortably vote for the military’s true candidate, Moussa.
• The electoral commission will decide within days on the appeals by the banned candidates, with all parties seeking maximum public support and passion before the decision is announced.
• Keeping in mind that the long-term, in the current context of Egyptian politics, may involve only a matter of weeks, the military will maneuver to be seen as acquiescing to a legal decree if Suleiman’s ban is upheld, while simultaneously working to swing votes toward Amr Moussa, who could then be viewed by a large number of voters as a compromise candidate.
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