With some fifty political parties registered by the time the election process officially opened on September 18 and more seeking to form every day, the Egyptian political spectrum is both complicated and in flux, with crisscrossing fault lines that defy easy characterization. In addition to the plethora of political parties typical of transitional elections, other political actors remain on center stage, above all the military and the protesters. There is no doubt that the Egyptian political scene is highly pluralistic. It is less certain that out of this disorderly pluralism a democratic regime can emerge in the short term.

Four different sets of players will determine the answer to that question: the political parties, the military, the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), and the protest movements.

Political Parties

There are broadly two categories of political parties in Egypt: those that can be considered “real” political parties even if they are weak; and those that are simply vehicles to get a specific person elected to parliament.

The second category can safely be disregarded. Experience of all countries in transition is that such parties tend to be ephemeral and rarely successful in getting anyone elected.

“Real” parties in Egypt are notable for several reasons. First, many tend to have a clear social profile and ideological line—they are Islamist, liberal, left of center, and so on. Second, each ideological group is becoming increasingly fragmented; Islamists in particular appear to be splintering in ways that in the past were typical of leftwing parties. Third, with the partial exception of Salafi parties and some on the extreme left, they have quite similar party platforms, essentially centrist ones. Most remarkably, even Islamist parties describe themselves as civil parties and call for a civil state, while liberal and leftist parties parties accept Islam as the religion of the state and advocate state intervention to moderate and correct the failures of markets and to promote social justice. In other words, even parties that have clear ideological affiliations are aiming for the center of the political spectrum.

There are two reasons for this convergence. First, Egyptian law forbids the formation of political parties that make references to religion in their platforms. The Building and Development Party, formed by al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, was denied registration because its platform was too explicitly Islamist. The second reason is political rather than legal—namely the uncertainty that prevails among all political parties about where the voters stand. For decades, Egyptian voters have been offered a choice between a well-funded NDP, with its promise of patronage for supporters, tired liberal and leftist parties, and Islamists in the banned Muslim Brotherhood participating in elections through a variety of subterfuges. As a result, election participation was extremely low, possibly below 20 percent. Now, more Egyptians are expected to vote, but nobody really knows how they will respond when provided with more meaningful choices. Hence parties are going for the center hoping to appeal to a wide range of voters.

No matter how parties represent themselves, however, the public sees them as quite different from each other. Islamist parties in particular are portrayed as extremists by their opponents, while attracting supporters because they are Islamists, not because they are “civil” parties. Nor does the willingness of liberal parties to accept Islam as state religion convince the public that they are not essentially secular in outlook.

This means that despite the similarity of the platforms, the division between Islamist and secular political parties is sharp. An early attempt to form a Democratic Alliance of essentially the pre-uprising political parties, no matter their orientation, failed. Most liberal parties have left the Democratic Alliance, joining instead the liberal Egypt bloc. The al-Wafd party has so far remained nominally in the alliance together with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, but the compromise the two organizations reached in order to remain together voids the alliance of any meaning: the Democratic Alliance will present two lists in the parliamentary elections, one headed by al-Wafd and one headed by the Freedom and Justice party, and other parties will choose which list they want to join. It is quite likely that this tenuous compromise will not hold and that the Wafd will abandon the Democratic Alliance, sharpening the split in the political spectrum between an Islamic and a secular wing.

The Military

During the last two decades of the Mubarak regime, military officers had become much less visible than the emerging stratum of wealthy businessmen in the political inner circle and there was even speculation that the days of the military in Egyptian politics were over. Officials in the NDP counted on the military to keep them in power, but even they were convinced that the military would continue to work to prop up the party, rather than act autonomously.

After the uprising, the military is playing an openly political role and the question is whether it will relinquish that role any time soon. There is some ambiguity on this point.

The members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) have stated from the very beginning that their role was purely transitional, promising elections and a return to civilian rule in six months. In reality, the period of openly military rule is going to last much longer. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to start on November 28, and, with three rounds of People’s Assembly elections and three of Shura Council elections, they will not end until early March. It will be late March by the time the two chambers of parliament can hold a joint meeting to choose the members of the committee to draft the constitution, a process likely to take months. The constitution will then be submitted to a referendum and the presidential elections will take place only after this entire process is completed. The rule by the SCAF is unlikely to end before late 2012 or, most probably before 2013.

Nevertheless, the SCAF continues to define itself as an interim body. There are indications that it is uneasy about its openly political role and would like to surrender it. It is less clear, however, that it is willing to relinquish its “behind the scenes” role. The situation is difficult to read. The SCAF has shown a propensity for making unilateral decisions without consulting political parties and civilian organizations. For example, after a referendum approved a narrow set of constitutional amendments, the SCAF took it upon itself to incorporate the amended articles with articles culled from the old constitution to produce an interim charter; in July, it amended the election law without public consultations. It is true that when political parties and movements protest, the military usually meets with them and responds to some of the complaints, but it is clear that SCAF members remain, at the heart, a military elite comfortable with issuing orders, not consulting.

Adding to the ambiguity about the intentions of the SCAF—or at least of some of its members—is the suspicion that Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, who heads the SCAF, is considering running for the president, perpetuating the tradition that the Egyptian president must be a military man. In view of Tantawi’s age—he was born in 1928—and his long association with Mubarak, the candidacy may appear unlikely, but the persistence of the rumor says a lot about the fears of many Egyptians that the military has no plans to relinquish its grip on power and will prolong the life of the old regime—without Mubarak and his sons.

The National Democratic Party

The possibility of a revival of the NDP worries many Egyptians—and conversely nurtures the hopes of others. The party was officially disbanded in April 2011 after two attempts to give it new credibility and keep it alive under new leadership. But up until this point, the military has not banned former members or even leaders of the NDP from political activity. The decision may be revisited: in response to repeated demands by other political parties and protest groups, Tantawi stated recently that the military is studying the possibility of reactivating a Nasser-era “treason law” to bar former NDP members or its leaders from political activity, but it is unclear what this law will entail and how far its reach will be. The old political elite are by no means out of the game yet.

The launch of new political parties by prominent members of the old NDP makes it clear that the old elite are fighting back. The return of NDP notables to politics is also facilitated by the fact that one-third of the seats in both the People’s Assembly and Shura Council will be filled by a first-past-the-post system rather than proportional representation; such system is particularly favorable to independent candidates and particularly to those who have strong local ties and support in a specific constituency, as is the case with many former NDP members.

The Protesters

The role of youth organizations was key to bringing down the Mubarak regime. It was the activists of the April 6 Youth Movement and the members of the “We are all Khaled Saeed” Facebook page and others who organized the first demonstrations on January 25. They were soon joined by youth from many other organizations. The Revolutionary Youth Council, which emerged even before Mubarak was deposed, brought together representatives from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Youth Movement for Justice and Freedom, the April 6 Youth Movement, the campaign to support Mohamed ElBaradei, the National Association for Change, the youth wings of the Democratic Front, al-Karama, Tagammu’ and al-Ghad parties, as well as independent activists. It is a loose coalition at best, since youth movements refuse strict hierarchical organization and well-defined leadership roles, but it has repeatedly proven its capacity to mobilize people.

Even as Egypt moves toward elections, the youth organizations and, more broadly, the people willing to go out and demonstrate in the streets remain an important feature of the political scene in Egypt. But the impact is unclear. At their best, protesters act as the conscience of the revolution, challenging the decisions of the SCAF and occasionally the willingness of political parties to go along with them. At their worst, protesters become a dangerous force, seeking to press the government into hasty decisions that may harm the transition. What is certain is that protesters remain an established part of the political process in today’s Egypt.

The Next Few Months

During the next several months, the relative weight of these players should become clearer, but as this happens conflict could increase in Egypt. The elections will of course provide the first indication of the support enjoyed by the various parties and put an end to endless speculation, but, if Islamists should get a high percentage of the vote, election results could also create a lot of strife in the country and possibly encourage the military to continue exercising power overtly. Election results could lead protest movements to fade away, at least temporarily, or to become mobilized again if they deem that elections reconfirmed the power of the old regime.

At this point, it is clear who the participants in Egypt’s political game are. It will be several more months before we understand their relative strength and considerably longer to know whether the emerging balance of power will allow a democratic transformation.