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Egypt: Pity the Winner
A frightful mess of an election.

Amre Moussa, former Egypt foreign minister and head of the Arab League

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Elliott Abrams

Egypt’s presidential race is now down from 23 declared candidates to just a handful of real competitors. On April 14, the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission disqualified ten candidates, including Omar Suleiman, who had been President Hosni Mubarak’s intelligence-service chief; Khairat El-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate; Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the Salafi leader; and Ayman Nour, the man who had run against Mubarak in 2005.

This leaves Amre Moussa, the former Mubarak foreign minister and head of the Arab League; the Brotherhood’s substitute candidate, Mohammed Mursi; and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the former Brotherhood leader now running as a sort of “centrist Islamist.” The field may change again, for a newly adopted statute would also bar Ahmed Shafik, former head of the air force and briefly prime minister as Mubarak was collapsing, but the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces has yet to approve this new statute. The election will be held on April 23 and 24, with a run-off in June if no one gets 50 percent.

The rules governing this contest might strike a foreigner as bizarre. Shafik, for example, left the Air Force in 2002 and served as prime minister for only four weeks. He was Mubarak’s minister of civil aviation for nine years — but Amre Moussa served as Mubarak’s foreign minister for ten years (not to mention that, as head of the Arab League for ten years, selected by Egypt, he was not exactly in rebellion against Mubarak). A law that says Shafik is irreparably tarred by association with Mubarak while Moussa is a model of democratic probity is ridiculous.

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It is too soon to judge who may win. Fotouh declared for president against the wishes of the Brotherhood, which promptly expelled him — because it had decided not to run anyone for the presidency. Then it changed its mind and put up Shater, until he was sidelined, leading to the nomination of Mursi. Fotouh didn’t get the nod because he had broken party discipline. But Mursi is by all accounts boring and lacking in charisma, and he may prove a weak candidate; Brotherhood voters may well split now between the two. Salafi voters, deprived of Abu Ismail, may stay home, vote for Mursi, or go to the streets. Voters who wanted Omar Suleiman may vote for Shafik, if he is allowed to run, or Moussa, who is at least secular rather than Islamist (which is why he will, according to polls, get most of the Coptic vote). But what, actually, does Moussa stand for? The interests of Amre Moussa. He will use any convenient rhetorical tactic — such as attacks on Israel — that may gain him popularity.

Meanwhile, U.S.-Egyptian relations remain in crisis. Congress imposed a human-rights-certification requirement on the $1.3 billion in annual military aid, but allowed the secretary of state to waive that requirement in the interests of national security. So she did — but the Egyptian response was not exactly gratitude. Within days, Egypt demanded that Interpol issue arrest warrants for all the American NGO workers whom it had just thrown out of the country. Those Americans now travel abroad at their peril, uncertain of which country might arrest them. In Congress, the anger is growing and aid to Egypt is much in jeopardy.

This may strike you as a mess. If so, you would be right. The only upside is that by June the elections will be over and we’ll have a somewhat clearer view of just how far toward Islamism Egyptians seek to go. If Shafik is barred from running, that leaves two Brotherhood candidates — the official nominee, Mursi, and the somewhat more liberal Fotouh — and Moussa as realistic prospects for president of Egypt. Polls later in April will give us more insight as to how the campaign is going.

Pity the poor guy who wins, for he will be president of an Egypt whose economy is simply collapsing. Since Hosni Mubarak left office last year, roughly 1.5 million additional Egyptians have been born, and the population is now heading toward 90 million. Foreign-exchange reserves are falling, the Egyptian pound is weakening, capital flight has replaced foreign investment, the critical tourism industry is down one-third in visitors, and unemployment is rising. The Islamists have control of parliament, having won more than two-thirds of the seats. Those who oppose them must be wondering whether an Islamist victory in the presidential election, as well, might be advantageous in one way: If they are given full responsibility for the government and the economy, that sets up more liberal and secular forces to ask the local version of Ronald Reagan’s question when the next elections are held, five years from now: “Are you better off now than you were five years ago?” But of course, that won’t work unless there actually are free elections five years from now, and at this stage it isn’t even clear if and when a new constitution will be written — much less what it will say.

— Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration and deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.



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