Egypt's frenemies turn presidential race into a tragicomedy

By Hani Sabra and John Watling

Egypt's presidential election is devolving into a comedy of errors, but with potentially tragic consequences. It is no longer primarily a contest about who voters believe is the most credible and trusted politician to lead Egypt through a potentially tricky transition. Instead, it is turning into a war of wills between the Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). These natural antagonists have accommodated one another for the past year in an effort to marginalize the young revolutionaries who ignited regime change. But the tensions inherent in the relationship have turned them into frenemies. The process has been particularly apparent during the past few weeks as their interests have diverged. When and how that relationship unravels completely -- and the presidential election is a key element -- is critical to Egypt's future.

On 31 March, the Muslim Brotherhood reversed the position it had maintained since Hosni Mubarak's ouster and announced that it was fielding a presidential candidate. The Brotherhood had claimed for more than a year that it would not do so, ostensibly because it wanted to reassure Egypt's political class that it was not interested in dominating power as Mubarak's National Democratic Party had done. The more likely reason was an understanding with SCAF about the division of power; the Muslim Brotherhood would get domestic policy portfolios (the premiership and control of the cabinet) while SCAF would control the security and foreign policy portfolios by having a weak and friendly president. Yet, the Brotherhood became both cocky and nervous. At the same time that it saw broad public support, it was losing confidence that SCAF would hold up its end of the bargain. Finally, the Brotherhood's leaders decided that without a new constitution and with no guarantee that the president's power would be reduced, that the group needed to contest the election. Indeed, the courts today disbanded the assembly that was set to write the constitution, and which was dominated by the Brotherhood and other Islamists, signaling that the Brotherhood was perhaps right to be concerned.

Additionally, in a dramatic scene fit for inclusion in a political thriller, Omar Suleiman reversed his decision not to run and submitted his candidacy papers less than an hour before the 9 April deadline. Suleiman is a stalwart of the old regime; he was Mubarak's right hand man, the director of internal intelligence, a friend to Israel, and a sworn enemy of the Islamists. But unlike Mubarak's other confidantes, who have been arrested, several signals hint at possible military support for Suleiman, including a military escort when he filed his papers. Even though SCAF denies that Suleiman is their candidate, the optics and timing suggest his candidacy is intended at the very least to send a message to the Muslim Brotherhood. While Suleiman is not popular, SCAF still has strong influence over Egypt's courts and other resources that will help his candidacy, like the state-controlled media. 

But the comedy of errors continues. Critics of Hazem Salah Abou Ismail, a hardline Salafist and the only candidate with an explicitly anti-U.S. platform, recently revealed that his mother was a U.S. citizen at the time of her death in 2008 and apparently had even registered to vote in California. Under Egypt's tough electoral laws, he is now technically disqualified from competing in the election. It is also possible that Khairat el Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood's senior policy chief and presidential candidate, will also be disqualified based on his felony conviction during the Mubarak era.

The tragedy is that this maneuvering may mean nothing. Egypt's economy is suffering and none of the candidates has outlined a real rescue plan or a vision for the future. Economic collapse would change the calculus completely, given the likelihood for widespread societal discontent.

Hani Sabra is an analyst with Eurasia Group's Middle East and North Africa practice.

John Watling is a senior editor with Eurasia Group.

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