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As Egypt votes, eyes on the presidency

Egypt’s parliamentary elections began in a mood of relative calm and optimism. Turnout was high, despite the fact that more than 40 democracy protesters had been killed in the past week. While there’s still much that could go wrong in a multi-stage parliamentary election that will stretch into next year, the start was about as good as could have reasonably been hoped for.

But it’s worth remembering that the parliament, when it sits some time in the new year, will have limited power. Egypt currently has a highly centralized presidential system, and the parliament won’t have the ability to appoint a government. That power lies with the presidency, currently held by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

SCAF’s continuing power was the driver of the protests ahead of the election, but it also means it will retain significant influence over the next parliament, which is supposed to supervise the writing of a new Constitution. In response to the protests last week, the military promised to hold presidential elections by July of next year.

If that promise is kept and those elections are fair, it will be the beginning of the military’s withdrawal from direct politics and the winner will have a lot of influence on what comes next in Egypt.

Amr Moussa is hoping he’ll be the winner. A decade ago, as Egypt’s foreign minister, he became too popular for then-President Hosni Mubarak’s liking — there was even an Egyptian pop hit titled, “I hate Israel and I love Amr Moussa.” So he was shuffled off to run the Arab League. Now Mr. Moussa is back, leading early polls to be Egypt’s next president. An urbane Arab nationalist who joined the Egyptian foreign service in 1958, he’s the polar opposite of the youth activists that drove the Egyptian uprising. But his name recognition, political experience, and reputation among many as independent of Mr. Mubarak make him a formidable contender to lead Egypt — if the military gets out of the way.

The future
Speaking at Harvard’s Arab weekend in mid-November, he was mostly upbeat about Egypt’s future and dismissed concerns the military will maintain its long-running position as the power behind the throne. He was only mildly critical of the ongoing use of military trials against bloggers and activists, though he added, “I don’t think that demonstrating under present circumstances is really a crime.”

His comments neatly foreshadowed the events of the past few weeks. He said the military has “played a positive role” and that “we shouldn’t call for them to just leave. This is a call for anarchy.” But he also added: “The transitional period should not be extended. Therefore they have to hand over the power to a civilian president, not just to leave … but to hand over properly after elections.”

When he spoke, the military hadn’t yet committed itself to presidential elections, but had given every indication of pushing them off to some time in 2013. Moussa said elections should be held by the middle of 2012, a position the military came around to last week after swelling protests and a violent crackdown against dissent.

Egypt’s transitional process as currently mapped out is one of the most convoluted on record anywhere. Parliamentary elections started today, but will stretch over several months and will have multiple ballots. Voters will be allowed to cast ballots not only for parties but for individuals as well. The next parliament will guide — though not fully control — the writing of a new constitution, which will then be put to a popular referendum. That referendum will probably be after the presidential elections now promised for July — but no one appears to know for sure. The real power in Egypt lies with the presidency in the current Constitution, and the longer the military fills that role as interim leader, the more comfortable it will be in that position.

US pressure not helpful
Some in the US Congress have proposed tying Egypt’s military aid to a full democratic transition. That’s something that President Obama has rejected — and Moussa agrees with that position.

“Democratic transition will come. And in order to come and come quickly, there must be Egyptian pressure. Not foreign pressure, Egyptian pressure,” he says.

“We insist on that. And I believe the military council also understands that stability will only come with the transition of power to a civilian president. That’s what we believe. As for the foreign component, it has a certain role. But not the role of pressuring or threatening or upsetting or sending the wrong messages at the wrong time.”

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