Cairo, Egypt – Egypt’s recent presidential debate, reportedly the first in Arab history, represents an important milestone for the region. In just minutes, the centuries-old image of a distant, infallible dictator as head of state was erased. Two candidates – former foreign minister and secretary-general of the Arab League Amr Moussa and former Muslim Brotherhood leader Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh – were brought face-to-face to answer set questions and rebut each other’s criticisms. For the first time, potential Arab leaders were forced to defend themselves in front of a people who can now hold them accountable for their words.
As the moderators opened the debate, they emphasised that the Egyptian citizen is to be the ultimate judge – and that their choice will be made on election day. The remarkable shift in dynamics between ruler and ruled, one unimaginable a little more than a year ago, is testament to the achievements of the popular revolution that shook the region.
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The debate and the circumstances under which it took place, however, are far from ideal. Critics question the unexplained reasoning behind the choice of the two candidates and suggest that it reveals the biases of the host media outlets. While many suspect that Moussa and Aboul Fotouh are the two leading candidates, polling data are variable and unreliable. Further criticisms were raised in regards to the partiality of TV station owners, some of whom have stated their support for certain candidates in the past. The lack of a live audience and the inability of members of the public to contribute with questions is also a point of disagreement. Some viewed the debate, which was broadcast for several hours, as a primarily commercial effort.
But more problematic than these relatively minor flaws in the debate is the larger framework in which the elections are proceeding. For Egyptian expatriates, voting has already begun. Some activists, however, remain sceptical. The elections are not what many revolutionaries envisioned: They will take place under military rule, much of the Mubarak regime is still in place, and a constitution has yet to be written.
Controversy around the constitution
The constitution has been a point of contention since the fall of Mubarak. Many leading activists, to whom the constitution represents the key to the nature of governance, insisted that drafting a new document should be the first step towards establishing democratic rule. In March 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) used the power vested in it by the fallen dictator to host a referendum that gave people the choice between keeping the current constitution, with amendments, until elections – or immediately drafting a new one. The core issues of the vote were highly skewed by state media and Islamist groups, which portrayed the referendum as primarily relating to the religious nature of the document. The overwhelming vote to keep the constitution with amendments now poses several problems.
In recent months, the lower house of parliament was charged with forming a body to draft a new constitution. The resulting constituent assembly was reflective of the Islamist domination of parliament, rather than the scope of the population. Many non-Islamist delegates, approximately a quarter of the total 100 members of the assembly, withdrew from their positions in opposition to the unbalanced body. In the weeks that followed, polls indicated the unpopularity of the committee and an administrative court deemed the assembly unrepresentative of the Egyptian population and suspended its activities.
In the recent presidential debate, both Moussa and Aboul Fotouh indicated that they would establish a body that was representative of the breadth of the Egyptian population to draft a constitution. The two spoke on the faulty assumption that they, as president, would have the right to form the committee. An important question left out of the debate was whether a new constitution, one that would presumptively bring with it a change in the role of political powers, would necessitate new elections, which would allow the people to choose representatives according to the modified positions.
Questions about the High Elections Committee
Another element marring the elections is related to the primary body overseeing the process. The High Elections Committee currently in place was not changed after the fall of Mubarak, and consists mainly of the same individuals who oversaw the 2010 parliamentary elections, widely viewed as fraudulent, and one of the many driving forces of the uprising that began only months later.
Most recently, this committee used its power to remove several candidates from the race. Among the disqualified candidates, the three most provocative were Salafi leader Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, Muslim Brotherhood member Khairat al-Shater, and former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Their ousting resulted in a mixed response; their supporters, particularly in the case of the Islamists, protested for weeks, while many others expressed relief at the disqualification of the polarising candidates. But the larger issue with the disqualifications is the lack of transparency in the process. No official reasons or evidence were publicly presented for barring the candidates in a case where such information was crucial not only to set a standard and ensure fairness, but to prevent the violence that followed.
In the following weeks, parliament proposed a set of reforms to prevent any room or speculation for corruption on part of the High Elections Committee. Among the suggested reforms was the barring of members of the committee from assuming particular official positions during the presidency of the candidate whose election they oversaw. In response, the committee claimed that it was “insulted” by parliament and threatened to suspend its activities, thus delaying the elections. While it now seems likely that voting will move forward as planned, the episode has revealed much about the body charged with overseeing what may be Egypt’s first democratic presidential election.
Critics of the elections have deemed it a “play” put on by SCAF to convince people that, by electing their leaders, they live in a democracy, when in fact all will remain subservient to Field Marshal Tantawi. But with the tremendous flaws of the election process, few alternatives are apparent. Over the past year, youth activists have taken to Tahrir Square, and while some of their demands have been met, they were often greeted with violence.
While the current situation leaves much to be desired, the very notion of democratic presidential elections would have seemed impossible a little more than a year ago. And although the vision that protesters had in mind may not be complete, it should not be forgotten that hundreds gave their lives to secure greater rights for their fellow citizens. Although Egypt may not have fully attained popular rule yet, it is important to exercise the privileges for which so many sacrificed.
Sarah Mousa graduated from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2010, and was a 2010-2011 Fulbright Scholar in Egypt.