Egyptians will head to the polls this month to vote for a new president with the country’s transition to democracy in some doubt. In a new Q&A, Marina Ottaway analyzes Egypt’s presidential election and the likely outcome. Ottaway argues that this election is hugely important, but without a new constitution in place a new battle could be looming on the horizon as the president’s powers are likely to be reduced during his term. 


Who are the main contenders in Egypt’s presidential election?

Marina Ottaway
Before joining the Endowment, Ottaway carried out research in Africa and in the Middle East for many years and taught at the University of Addis Ababa, the University of Zambia, the American University in Cairo, and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.
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There are only three major presidential contenders in Egypt after the High Election Commission banned a number of leading candidates. 

The frontrunners are Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister for President Hosni Mubarak who managed to escape the purges of the old regime because he had not served in the last ten years; Mohamed Morsi, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party; and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who was expelled by the organization after declaring that he would run for president as the Brotherhood had stated at the time that it would not field a candidate for president. 

It is essentially a three-way race, but it is worth mentioning a fourth contender, Ahmed Shafiq, who was appointed prime minister by Mubarak during the uprising in a futile attempt to rescue the situation—he was only prime minister for a few days. Shafiq was originally banned by the High Election Commission, but won his appeal against the decision.  

Who is most likely to win?

Public opinion polls at present indicate Amr Moussa is in first place, followed by Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, and Mohamed Morsi in third place. But most Egyptians say that they have not decided yet. 

Certainly the majority of the secularists will turn to Amr Moussa, but he is also likely to attract other Egyptians who are not enthralled by the Muslim Brotherhood. He is a known entity and had a good degree of popularity when he was foreign minister because he took a hardline on Israel. Afterwards, he became the head of the Arab League, so he benefits from a great deal of name recognition. 

It’s difficult to know between the other two. Mohamed Morsi has little personal appeal and was not even the Brotherhood’s first choice, but was picked to run after Khairat al-Shater was barred from running—Egyptians refer to Morsi derisively as “the spare.” Morsi has played many important roles in the organization, but he has always been behind the scenes so he does not do well in opinion polls. Regardless, the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to pull out all the stops and mobilize its organization on the ground to get him elected, so it would be unwise to underestimate his candidacy. 

Aboul Fotouh on the other hand is popular in several and disparate segments of the population. He has attracted the endorsement of many liberals, particularly among the youth, and also of the Salafis, and can even attract some secular votes from those who cannot stomach voting for Moussa (who, although not close to Mubarak, is still a holdover of the old regime). The youth of the Muslim Brotherhood also like him. 

With the Islamists splitting the votes, the most likely outcome is that Amr Moussa will run against an Islamist in the second round.

What is the significance of the recent barring of candidates, including three frontrunners, running for Egypt’s presidency?

The barring of some major candidates was a highly political decision. The head of the High Election Commission, Farouk Sultan, is also head of the Constitutional Court. He was a rather obscure judge from a lower court before he was plucked out of obscurity by Mubarak to gain control over the court. This raised a lot of eyebrows at the time as he was clearly a political appointee. It is fair to say that Sultan did not come up through an unimpeachable judicial career. 

That said, the political decisions were fairly balanced as he struck out several frontrunners indiscriminately. Khairat al-Shater, the number one candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood; Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s former spy chief; and Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a prominent Salafi Islamic thinker, were all kicked out for different reasons. All of the reasons were thin, but had grounding in the law. 

Ismail was kicked out because his mother was an American citizen and the law explicitly forbids this—she gained U.S. citizenship only in the last years of her life, though, after her daughter emigrated to the United States. Suleiman did not have the required number and distribution of signatures endorsing his candidacy, although the shortfall was minuscule. And Shater had been in prison, but had received a pardon, although by a court that did not have the right to do so. He had been in jail on political charges—he is not a criminal—but according to the letter of the law he could not run. This court decision was bolstered by the simultaneous banning of Ayman Nour, a liberal candidate who ran against Mubarak in the past and was jailed on trumped-up charges.

How important is the election for Egypt’s transition?

The election is all important. Egypt has a presidential system today and the country’s established political culture still emphasizes the role of the president and downplays that of the parliament. 

The problem is that the presidential election—in a serious mistake in Egypt’s transition to democracy—comes before a new constitution is in place. This almost guarantees that the president will be elected to a four-year term but that the new constitution will curtail his authority shortly after he assumes power. 

This is because some of the parties, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, want to move away from a presidential system to either a parliamentary system or a France-style setup where executive power is divided between a democratically elected president and a prime minister chosen by the parliament. Regardless of which option wins out in the end, the president’s power will fall during his term in office. Even if the system remains a presidential one, the Islamist-dominated parliament has already made it clear that it will not rubberstamp government decisions, but that it will be an independent voice. 

Trying to decrease the power of the president after he is already elected will cause tensions. But the extent of the problem depends on who is president. If an Islamist wins the presidency, the secular parties will be delighted if his powers are decreased and the Muslim Brotherhood will not mind given the fact that it would control both the parliament and presidency. If Amr Moussa is elected, then there will be an outcry with all the secularists banding behind him.  

There is a battle looming on the horizon. 

What is the status on drafting a new constitution?

A Constituent Assembly was elected by the parliament in late March to write the new constitution, but it was suspended by the courts. The problem is that there are competing ideals about how Egypt should write its new constitution and there is a great deal of maneuvering behind the scenes. The provisional Constitutional Declaration that regulates the functioning of Egyptian institutions gives the parliament the right to elect the Constituent Assembly, with no further restriction, but when the parliament elected a body dominated by Islamists, other political forces objected and were subsequently backed by the courts.

The Muslim Brotherhood accepted the disbanding of the first Constituent Assembly, but negotiations with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and other political parties are ongoing about the formation of a new body. Egypt is at an impasse. 

Is there a risk of renewed protests?

This is not a major concern before the elections, unless the military uses the continued demonstrations to postpone elections. This is unlikely. So the major problem is not right now, the problem is later. 

There is a real danger that Egyptians will not accept the election results and then massive protests are a risk. If any candidate wins outright in the first round, particularly Amr Moussa, there will be wide mistrust in the results.  

Beyond this concern, the scenarios that could make things ugly are if the military tries to revise the constitution or if it tries to interrupt the writing of the new constitution. And of course, any attempt by the military to retake power would undoubtedly bring people out into the streets. 

The military promised to step aside and allow the transition to democratic civilian rule by July 1, when the new president is expected to be in charge. But some officials have made noise that the military should not give up power until a new constitution is agreed on—this is something that would not be accepted. 

It is also important to remember that the Egyptian parliament was always controlled by the party of the president and was essentially a rubber stamp. This is no longer the case—the parliament has teeth and it is ready to use them. So the military has little room to maneuver in order to stay in power.