Anti-military protesters chant slogans against military rulers during a rally outside the Egyptian Supreme Court in Cairo, May 6, 2012. Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
Egypt’s ever-turbulent political transition has been particularly volatile in the past few weeks, as the country approaches a highly anticipated presidential election scheduled to begin later this month. A series of deadly street clashes in the run-up to the poll have left at least a dozen people dead, hundreds wounded and hundreds more in detention facing military trials. The violence comes amid a deepening sense of uncertainty and a questioning of legitimacy regarding nearly every aspect of the political process, from the drafting of the constitution to the presidential vote to the terms of the military’s handover of power.
Three candidates are widely viewed as the leading front-runners: Amr Moussa, who served as Hosni Mubarak’s foreign minister in the 1990s and who is the former Secretary General of the Arab League; Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a liberal Islamist and a former prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood who left the group last year after defying its now-broken pledge not to field a presidential candidate; and the Brotherhood’s current official candidate, Mohamed Morsi, who head’s the group’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.
The poll is scheduled to take place on May 23 and 24. If no one wins above 50 percent, the top two candidates will enter into a run-off scheduled for June 16 and 17, with a final winner to be announced on June 21.
While excitement is building over the vote, anxiety and confusion are also mounting as the country staggers into the final stages of an erratic transition process overseen by the military that still threatens to come apart.
The political turmoil began to deepen in late March over the formation of an assembly to draft the country’s new constitution. In Parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood allied with ultraconservative Salafist MPs to force through a last-minute change to include fifty parliamentarians in the 100-member body while stacking much of the remaining half with Islamists or their sympathizers. The move sparked outrage and widespread criticism that the body did not reflect the diversity of Egyptian society, prompting a mass walkout by liberal parties, union representatives, the Coptic Church and even Al-Azhar, Egypt’s main Islamic authority.
An Administrative Court subsequently suspended the assembly after ruling in favor of a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of its formation. Negotiations over the formation of a new constituent assembly have remained deadlocked ever since, leaving open the question of what powers the new president will have and on what terms the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) will cede authority.
In the wake of the constituent assembly crisis, shockwaves were sent through the political establishment with the eleventh-hour presidential candidacies of Khairet el-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood’s top strategist, and Omar Suleiman, Hosni Mubarak’s longtime spy chief. But scarcely a week later, the commission supervising the presidential election disqualified both men on technical grounds, along with eight others, including the popular ultraconservative Salafist preacher Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.
Abu Ismail was excluded after the commission ruled that his late mother had held dual Egyptian-American citizenship, a charge he claimed was fabricated. In response, his supporters began protesting in front of the headquarters of the Presidential Elections Commission before moving to Tahrir Square for the launch of an open-ended sit-in on April 20.
By this time, the Muslim Brotherhood had begun holding weekly protests in the square, marking a return to the streets after many months of cozying up to the SCAF and refusing to participate in demonstrations alongside revolutionary youth groups. Chief among their demands was for presidential elections to be held on time and for SCAF to handover power by June 30, as scheduled.