Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Egypt’s Presidential Elections

by Isobel Coleman
April 26, 2012

Posters and banners showing Salafi preacher and barred presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail are seen while his supporters pray in front of the offices of the electoral commission during a sit-in to show their rejection of his disqualification, April 18, 2012 (Asmaa Waguih/Courtesy Reuters).


Egypt’s upcoming presidential elections are the latest episode in its transition saga. Although elections are less than a month away, the final list of candidates has just been approved today, for now at least. Last week, Egypt’s electoral commission eliminated three of the frontrunners along with seven other candidates for technical violations. Omar Suleiman, the former head of intelligence under Mubarak, was one of the frontrunners and was disqualified on the technical grounds that he had not met the geographic distribution of signatures required by the election law – he was short in one governorate. Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the fiery Salafist preacher-cum-presidential contender, was the second. He rocketed ahead in the polls on his anti-American and populist rhetoric only to be tripped up by the finding that his mother had adopted American citizenship when she moved to California some years ago. The election law requires that a candidate’s parents both be only Egyptian citizens. The third was Khairat el-Shater, the multi-millionaire businessman and former deputy chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was rejected due to a criminal record for what is widely believed to be trumped-up political charges under the Mubarak regime.

This week, the electoral commission disqualified former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq only to overturn that ban upon appeal. His candidacy was initially banned under a new law that the People’s Assembly and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces ratified this week. The law forbids senior officials, including prime ministers and vice presidents, who served under Mubarak in the last ten years from running for public office for the next ten years. Ahmed Shafiq was prime minister in the last fifty-seven days before Mubarak was ousted, and was the long-time minister of civil aviation. The election commission referred the law to the constitutional court, Egypt’s highest court, to review, drawing condemnation from the Muslim Brotherhood and others for meddling in the elections. They are concerned about Shafiq’s close ties to the Mubarak regime and the military, and the fact that Shafiq submitted an appeal after the final deadline given to other disqualified candidates. The court has forty-five days to issue its judgment. With the elections scheduled for May 23 and a run-off anticipated for mid-June, its ruling could fall after the completion of elections further eroding their legitimacy.

The presidential election will in part be a measure of how much Islam Egyptians want in their government, and the answer is probably a lot. The two leading Islamist candidates, however, present different visions for how democracy (or quasi-democracy assuming that the military will not relinquish its economic interests and broad security portfolio right away) would look in an Islamic framework in Egypt. Salafi voters could be a swing factor. With Abu Ismail knocked out of the race, the Salafist parties and voters who prefer a candidate with a distinctly Islamic platform are faced with a choice between the more conservative Mohamed Morsi, who has advocated in the past to exclude non-Muslims and women from the presidency, and the more inclusive, Aboul Fotouh whose views have evolved in the last thirty years to a focus on justice and political inclusion. Al Nour, the largest Salafist party, is still courting several candidates, and hopes that it can mobilize its supporters to tip the scales in favor of whoever they choose. While the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi may seem to be a better fit for the conservative Salafist, some advocate for Aboul Fotouh for president to place a limit on the Brotherhood’s ability to consolidate their political power. I write more about the current contenders – Moussa, Aboul Fotouh, and Morsi – in an op-ed today on

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