In the recently concluded Egyptian parliamentary elections, the system worked as it had been designed. Egyptians who bothered to enter the polling place were presented with alternatives—but not choices. Only pro-government figures (sometimes running against each other) were allowed become viable candidates. Many candidates from real opposition movements had been able to file for candidacy but when it was clear after the first round of voting that only a tiny number would be allowed to win, the two biggest movements (the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wafd) withdrew from the second-round runoffs.

The victorious National Democratic Party (NDP) emerged triumphant less by its own impressive performance and more by careful manipulation of the rules—and by breaking those rules when necessary to prevent unintended consequences. In short, the system worked extremely effectively to make challenging senior leaders futile. But can it handle its likely next major challenge—succession in the leadership itself? Many questions remain about the position of the Egyptian president—the state of the incumbent’s health, the date and the means by which he will leave office (will he retire at the end of his current term in 2011 or seek re-election and eventually leave under other circumstances?), and who will succeed him. While there are few clear answers to these questions, the patterns of succession in Egypt’s past as well as those in similar systems provide some insights and suggest four general rules:

1. Is there a clear successor? Highly centralized systems abhor vacuums and uncertainty.

Systems like Egypt’s are designed to operate well when there is a well-established figure at the top, but succession presents a deep potential challenge—so much power is concentrated in a single individual that it is difficult to plan for any alternatives. In Egypt, this has led powerful state institutions to rally quickly around the successor when the need suddenly arises. The Egyptian state is, as its leaders like to proclaim, a “state of institutions” but those institutions have trouble wriggling free of presidential control.

The open and barely hidden set of tools available to the president allow him to place limits on almost all aspects of Egyptian political life. As explained in an earlier article, the resulting system is one that “does not inspire respect or affection, but it does quite effectively present itself as inevitable. It is as legitimate as gravity.” The Egyptian system works well as long as other possibilities are unimaginable.

So who will fill the position should the need arise? President Hosni Mubarak has never named a vice president, perhaps mindful of the fact that the last Arab president to designate a clear successor (Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba) was shocked when his designated choice deposed him. Previous Egyptian presidents tried to forestall such an outcome by shuffling vice presidents (as Nasser did) or by turning to a non-political figure (as Sadat did  when he named Mubarak). Mubarak has simply never indicated a successor at all; over the past decade speculation has centered around his son Gamal. Arab monarchs often manage relations within their own families by naming their successor as soon as they take the throne; Arab presidents have now begun to take their thoughts on succession along with them to their graves while allowing speculation about close family members to flourish.

Succession issues often remain murky by design in republics; current rulers do not wish too much thought be given to their replacement. Yet that murkiness itself can become a problem, especially when succession actually occurs (or seems near). A system based on its own inevitability is unable to function well if the person at the top is leaving office or new and untested. In such situations, alternatives suddenly become imaginable. Uncertainty is disorienting and even threatening to such regimes. In succession crises, high officials can act in a confused or confusing manner, seeking to orient themselves toward an unknown feature.

When a clear successor does emerge, however, leading figures and institutions often reposition themselves quickly; within a short time a successor is able to establish himself, perhaps to the relief of those whose own position depends on their closeness to the person in charge. So leading figures of the Egyptian regime—those who might be called “the party of order”—will likely seek for a quick end to any vacuum. Their manipulation of the 2010 parliamentary elections was likely aimed to ensure that all constitutional tools remain in their hands so that they can be used swiftly and decisively when needed. Egypt’s last two successions—from Nasser to Sadat in 1970 and from Sadat to Mubarak in 1981—came unexpectedly but the new leaders grasped command quite quickly (with Sadat taking months to cement his position and Mubarak far less). On this occasion, by contrast, the party of order has been given advance warning that it may need to act. And it managed the elections accordingly, to drive the opposition out of those institutions that play a potential role.

2. When all else fails, read the instructions.

How does the party of order choose its candidate?

It is impossible to predict precisely who will emerge as Mubarak’s successor or when succession will occur, but it is likely that the process will follow the formal rules. Egypt’s past two successions both were carried out with firm fidelity to constitutional text. Egypt’s last extraconstitutional succession occurred in 1954, when Nasser overthrew Muhammad Naguib, a man who faded so quickly that he had to title his autobiography I Was a President of Egypt.

In 1970, Nasser was succeeded by his vice president, Anwar al-Sadat, as provided by the constitution. In 1981, Egyptians were surprised to discover that while they had a vice president, the provision having that figure succeed the president had been replaced by one designating the speaker of the parliament as interim successor (on condition he not be nominated to be the permanent replacement). Accordingly, Sufi Abu Talib was briefly president of the republic until Vice President Mubarak could be suitably nominated by the parliament and confirmed in a referendum—all in full, if rather hurried, accordance with constitutional provisions.

In 2007, Egypt’s constitution was amended once again, and the provisions promulgated then should be taken seriously since the party of order is likely to cling to them during any uncertain moment. The provisions will operate the same way whether the succession takes place at the conclusion of Mubarak’s term in 2011 or if they take place because of a sudden vacancy at the top before or after 2011. There is one difference—in the case of the incumbent’s incapacitation or death, an acting president serves very briefly, just as occurred in 1981.

The constitutional provisions are complicated, but their legal effects are clear. The NDP will be able to nominate whomever it wants.

Existing parties can nominate candidates if they are legally recognized and won a seat in a parliamentary chamber (qualifications only met currently by the NDP, the Wafd, the leftist al-Tagammu`, and four other virtually unknown parties). But the only names these parties can place in the race are top party leaders who have served in a senior party position for at least a year. This makes a presidential candidacy by any Muslim Brotherhood figure or by Mohammed ElBaradei unconstitutional for the 2011 elections, since they do not occupy such a position.

Nor could they easily run in any election after 2011 (such as one required by a vacancy in the presidency) since an existing party would have to place such a figure in a leadership position a full year in advance. If it used this route, the NDP would be compelled to nominate either Gamal Mubarak or one of a small number of figures who serve with him in the party’s top body.

But the NDP and the party of order actually has a second constitutional route to placing a name on the ballot if they wished to parachute in a figure not currently in the NDP leadership. This second route requires that a candidate produce a large number of signatures of elected officials from various bodies—a feat that only the current leadership could pull off.

With independents effectively ineligible and existing opposition leaders implausible candidates, the NDP candidate will win. The existing provisions make a small group of leading regime figures (including most prominently Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son) the only plausible candidates.

3. Get ready to enjoy Cairo spring.

Once a clear successor has emerged, how does he manage rule before he acquires the air of inevitability?

Political scientist Henry Hale has argued that what he calls “patronal presidential” systems—and Egypt’s would certainly qualify—often show cyclical periods of autocracy and liberalization sparked by succession mechanisms and processes. And FRIDE’s Kristina Kausch has just issued a paper exploring the implications for impending successions in the Arab world. Hale’s academic article and Kausch’s policy-oriented application merit full reading in their own right, but also provide insight on why a limited liberalization might follow an Egyptian succession.

New leaders have two reasons to loosen the reins a little. First, limited liberalization allows them to establish their own basis for rule and reach out to constituencies alienated by the old regime. Not yet able to take advantage of the “I am, therefore I rule” formula of long-time incumbents, new presidents often work to show that they are not prisoners of the stultifying restrictions on political life that emerged over the years. And such leaders may enjoy a honeymoon period as those suddenly allowed greater freedoms hesitate before criticizing the figure identified with the liberalization.

Second, liberalization is also a valuable tool for jettisoning old regime figures who are either too much of a burden or else a potential threat. New presidents are sometimes as shocked as Captain Renault in “Casablanca” to discover abuses and irregularities that implicate top figures—leaders of the intelligence services involved in torture or leading officials engaging in graft and corruption. Sadat’s “Corrective Revolution” of 1971 is the most extensive use of this technique but other new heads of state (including Mubarak in Egypt, Bashar al-Asad in Syria, and even an occasional monarch like King Muhammad VI in Morocco) have used it selectively.

4. Don’t throw away your winter coat.

The period after a succession is an unusual one in which tactically adept rulers have reasons to respond to challenges by allowing for more freedom of expression and organization. As new rulers solidify their control, they gradually slide back into less permissive practices. This occurred gradually and incompletely in Egypt beginning in the late 1980s; in Syria “Damascus Spring” was shorter and expired more clearly after a few years in the early 2000s.

Can such a process of limited, tactical liberalization get out of hand? Could the country’s rulers discover that they have conjured up forces they cannot control? The possibilities of succession leading to more than short-term liberalization is what led political scientist Tarek Masoud to speculate that a victory by Gamal Mubarak in the 2011 elections might be “more likely than the alternatives to keep open the possibility of an opposition success and a democratic future.”  That might be the best hope for would-be democrats, but it is still a slim one. What is far more likely—indeed, what has occurred in all past Arab springs—is that tactical liberalization withers over time.

The tools available to the president are so numerous, the sycophancy of top officials so deeply established, and the opposition so fractious and devoid of organizational strength that any Cairo spring is more likely to be followed by a new freeze as the new president finds it convenient to resort to the tools his predecessor left him.

These rules are based in part on past Egyptian transitions, but it should be noted that the past may be an imperfect guide in one respect: Nasser and Sadat both left the scene unexpectedly and suddenly. By contrast, the transition to the post-Mubarak era has been anticipated for more than a decade. And the possibility remains that Mubarak may become Egypt’s first voluntary former president if he leaves office while alive.

Will this make a difference? It should have given the party of order plenty of time to line up behind its favored successor—presumably one anointed, perhaps implicitly, by the incumbent. But that has not occurred. Gamal Mubarak has emerged, to be sure, as a leading candidate. But there has been no clear designation of him as successor. As long as the incumbent remains in office, there is a reason why he would remain wary of fostering the career of an eventual replacement and therefore might allow the emergence of a trusted family member as a plausible successor. But Gamal’s main asset—the fact that he is his father’s son—is of value primarily if his father steps down voluntarily; it may rapidly lose value after his father’s death. Thus the failure of Gamal’s supporters to render his succession seemingly inevitable a dozen or so years after the idea was first floated is a significant failing. They have, however, managed to stave off any clear rival from emerging.

In a system in which the absence of other possibilities is the major basis for legitimacy, that might just be enough to seal the deal.