As the candidates enter the final stretch of campaigning, the still-undefined power structure has cast a pall on what could be the most consequential election in Egypt’s modern history. The Islamists who dominate the country’s newly elected parliament have voiced support for a system with a weaker presidency, setting up a potentially bruising fight between lawmakers and the new president.
“It’s really anybody’s guess how these powers are going to be enumerated,” said Steven A. Cook, a foreign policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who has studied Egypt’s democratic transition closely. “It’s going to be a struggle between a parliament that can claim a popular mandate and a president who will also claim a popular mandate.”
Shortly after Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011, the military laid out a transition timetable that included drafting a revised constitution before a new president was sworn in. Efforts to assemble a body to draft the document that would have redefined the power structure have failed as a result of bickering between political factions and suspicion that the military council was underhandedly trying to shape the process.
Stephen McInerney, director of the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy, said the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces might issue a constitutional amendment that keeps the Mubarak-era system largely intact. But he noted that some have suspected the generals could have broader changes in mind. Under Mubarak, the military enjoyed elite status, and its budget and large commercial enterprises were not subject to scrutiny or criticism.
“There is some speculation that SCAF would limit the powers of the presidency and retain some key protection for themselves,” he said.
News of the council’s plan was reported on the English-language Ahram Online news service, which is run by the state, and by several local newspapers. The reports cited unnamed military officials.
The unresolved questions about the country’s power structure speak to the relative lack of progress the council has made toward laying the groundwork for a smooth transition to democratic governance since it abruptly took power after the winter revolt last year. Since then, the rise of Islamist political parties, spasms of violence and the military’s continued reliance on police-state tactics have created a culture of distrust and acrimony among Egypt’s ascendant powers.
While the contest that will culminate in the May 23-24 presidential vote is widely presumed to be a fair, open one, many Egyptians see it as just one more step in the ongoing struggle to dislodge the remnants of Mubarak’s government.