Who Is Egypt's Next President?

Egypt would benefit most from a president who does not hail from the military.

al-monitor People walk in front of defaced posters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie in downtown Cairo, Aug. 29, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh.
Bassem Sabry

Bassem Sabry

@Bassem_Sabry

Topics covered

mourad mowafi, moneim abul fotouh, june 30 protests egypt, hamdeen sabahi, egypt, amr moussa, abdel fattah al-sisi

Sep 22, 2013

If the current roadmap holds, Egypt could see its next presidential elections to select its fifth head of state sometime in the second quarter of 2014. A minority has been calling for holding the presidential elections earlier before the parliamentary polls, but all signs indicate the current administration is adamantly opposed to amending its roadmap.

Of course, it is a bit premature to speculate about who the (un)lucky winning candidate is likely to be. But it is not too soon to begin surveying the environment, especially as the national discussion has begun to heat up amid growing public calls for army head Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to run.

A bit over a year since Mohammed Morsi had won the country's first free presidential elections, Egypt has starkly changed. The January 25 Revolution is not the holy defining buzzword that it was with June 30 substantially taking over the mantle, although most Islamists obviously fall on the other side of the June 30 bandwagon. Anti-Mubarakism appears to be less potent an idea than it once was at first, though it still carries substantial influence. The revolutionary camp is now divided beyond what appears to be obviously achievable repair: Morsi's controversial and increasingly autocratic year in power on one hand, and Morsi's ouster, the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and allies and the fall of hundreds of his supporters on the other have made national reconciliation virtually unthinkable at the moment.

A heated wave of nationalism is taking over the country, with the military and Sisi at its heart. The anti-Islamist media has monopolized the airwaves with a quasi-McCarthyist rampage, while no pro-Islamist media is present to counterbalance, with the exception of Al Jazeera, which is facing growing barriers to operate. Most of the Brotherhood's top leadership is now in official custody pending investigations and trials, leaving the country's largest political force effectively decapitated and ostensibly less capable of pushing for any potential candidate in such elections.

Meanwhile, virtually all of the country's parties are not exactly in the most healthy of positions, as I recently discussed, and their capacities to run strong national campaigns appear significantly lacking. The influence of Egypt's deep state and security apparatuses seems to be on the rise once more. If everything stays the same, the candidate who is more likely to win such presidential elections would be the candidate who has (or at least appears to have) the backing of Sisi and the military. While Islamists will likely make a strong showing still in any parliamentary elections, it would be very difficult for an Islamist candidate to win the presidency in particular, unless secular-leaning votes get divided over too many candidates. However, even the Salafi Al-Nour reportedly stated it's not planning to field or support an Islamist candidate.

Most of the presidential candidates in the 2012 elections stand a worse chance today than they did in 2012. Morsi is not exactly in the position to run for anything, being detained virtually incommunicado and the subject of criminal investigations. The Brotherhood might find it obviously quite challenging to field a candidate given the current crackdown and predominantly hostile public mood.

Mohamed ElBaradei, already a long shot to the presidency following smear campaigns against him by the Mubarak regime and the Brotherhood, has lost even more public support following his resignation from the vice presidency in the aftermath of the violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins; the possibility of his staging a political comeback is profoundly difficult.

Amr Moussa is a former Arab League secretary-general, Mubarak's former foreign minister and current head of the Constituent Assembly. At 76, he has repeatedly announced he will not seek to run another time. Also, his fifth-place finish in the past elections came as a shock to many, as he was seen for some time as the almost unchallengeable front-runner.

Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a moderate Islamist who was expelled from the Brotherhood when he had decided to run for the presidency, and a candidate who had placed in fourth place last year following a campaign that was officially based on curbing Islamist-Secular polarization, is also seen as considerably much less popular than he was a year ago. Aboul Fotouh has also stated that he would not run again. Salafi leader Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, other than being in official custody as well presently, still legally cannot run given the controversy surrounding the dual nationality of his mother.

Of all the 2012 elections candidates, two still stand out. Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak's last prime minister and Morsi's run-off opponent (scoring more than 48%), arguably is the most popular political figure in the country right now after Sisi, but would still prove to be very divisive for the non-Islamist camp in the country. Also, he is 72, but that apparently doesn't seem to stop anyone in Egypt. The other candidate, Nasserist and populist politician Hamdeen Sabahi who surprisingly placed third in the previous elections, is widely regarded to be less popular than he was right after the elections. But for many - especially with the secular-leaning side of the revolutionary camp and within the National Salvation Front - he might be the only obvious candidate to field, and it has been allegedly a general understanding within the NSF that he would be their candidate. At 59, Sabahi is young by Egyptian politician standards, and he has a good enough relationship with the military that would allow them to work together.

Both Sabahi and Shafik have stated they would not run if Sisi ran and that they would endorse him in such an event, but Sisi's official position remains that he will not seek the presidency. For many reasons, this is arguably the better course for Sisi to take. Still, it would be premature to fully discount the possibility of Sisi changing course and running, whether due to the mounting public and media pressures, with too many Eisenhower and De Gaulle references being made, or in the event of the lack of a strong candidate that Sisi could work with, or at the very least not pose any serious potential troubles.

Non former candidates currently being circulated include SCAF's former No. 2, 65-year-old Sami Anan. It has been speculated for long that he's envisioning a run for office, and yesterday's officially-denied report that he was running for office caused a remarkable mixture of discussion, uproar and endorsement over social media. There is also much disagreement over whether or not he would actually have Sisi's backing if he ran. On one hand, he was his superior at the military and allegedly still has some support within the institution, and it's possible to see Anan winning such elections. On the other, It was Sisi who effectively ousted Anan and Tantawi from power in August 2012. The mess of Egypt's 2011-2012 political transition represents political baggage for Anan as well, and his candidacy might also prove divisive for the current frail coalition running Egypt. The idea that Anan might run his own defiant campaign is not impossible to envision.

Another name being heavily circulated is Mourad Mowafi, Omar Soleiman's former successor as head of the intelligence, who was also ousted in the aftermath of the deadly attack on Egyptian soldiers on a border outpost in Rafah in August 2012. It has been recently rumored that a group of businessmen had met with Mowafi to encourage him to run, but Mowafi seemed against it. Mowafi has since denied the allegation that this meeting ever happened, and said that it was too soon for him to finalize his position on the subject. Of course, the intelligence failure of August 2012 would likely pose serious political baggage, and his hailing from the security establishment could also be substantially divisive.

Yet another name being increasingly floated is Mostafa Hegazy, the interim president's political adviser. Hegazy, a younger, eloquent American-accented strategic adviser, management professor and a member of the world bank advisory committee who has been predominantly popular with Egypt's intelligentsia, witnessed a sudden rise in popularity following his recent stints as supporting spokesperson for the presidency. Hegazy would be a very interesting candidate. He is seen as both a progressive democrat and as relatively hawkish in current defense of the government, gaining him popularity with the pro-June 30 camp. He would also represent a more attractive civilian-led image for Egypt. His current position within the presidency would definitely help him in building national appeal over the upcoming months.

Again, over the next few months, so much could happen in Egypt, least of which could be the roadmap amending schedule. Obviously, new faces could suddenly appear on the scene as well and carve a space for themselves as potential candidates. But while it is not necessarily taboo for a military man to don civilian clothing and run for office, Egypt would benefit the most from having a civilian leader helm the country, and help it move a step closer to becoming a true civilian democracy.

Bassem Sabry is an Egyptian political writer and commentator. On Twitter: @Bassem_Sabry

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