Egypt’s ever-turbulent political transition has been particularly volatile in the past few weeks, as the country approaches a highly anticipated presidential election scheduled to begin later this month. A series of deadly street clashes in the run-up to the poll have left at least a dozen people dead, hundreds wounded and hundreds more in detention facing military trials. The violence comes amid a deepening sense of uncertainty and a questioning of legitimacy regarding nearly every aspect of the political process, from the drafting of the constitution to the presidential vote to the terms of the military’s handover of power.
Three candidates are widely viewed as the leading front-runners: Amr Moussa, who served as Hosni Mubarak’s foreign minister in the 1990s and who is the former Secretary General of the Arab League; Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a liberal Islamist and a former prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood who left the group last year after defying its now-broken pledge not to field a presidential candidate; and the Brotherhood’s current official candidate, Mohamed Morsi, who head’s the group’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.
The poll is scheduled to take place on May 23 and 24. If no one wins above 50 percent, the top two candidates will enter into a run-off scheduled for June 16 and 17, with a final winner to be announced on June 21.
While excitement is building over the vote, anxiety and confusion are also mounting as the country staggers into the final stages of an erratic transition process overseen by the military that still threatens to come apart.
The political turmoil began to deepen in late March over the formation of an assembly to draft the country’s new constitution. In Parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood allied with ultraconservative Salafist MPs to force through a last-minute change to include fifty parliamentarians in the 100-member body while stacking much of the remaining half with Islamists or their sympathizers. The move sparked outrage and widespread criticism that the body did not reflect the diversity of Egyptian society, prompting a mass walkout by liberal parties, union representatives, the Coptic Church and even Al-Azhar, Egypt’s main Islamic authority.
An Administrative Court subsequently suspended the assembly after ruling in favor of a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of its formation. Negotiations over the formation of a new constituent assembly have remained deadlocked ever since, leaving open the question of what powers the new president will have and on what terms the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) will cede authority.
In the wake of the constituent assembly crisis, shockwaves were sent through the political establishment with the eleventh-hour presidential candidacies of Khairet el-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood’s top strategist, and Omar Suleiman, Hosni Mubarak’s longtime spy chief. But scarcely a week later, the commission supervising the presidential election disqualified both men on technical grounds, along with eight others, including the popular ultraconservative Salafist preacher Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.
Abu Ismail was excluded after the commission ruled that his late mother had held dual Egyptian-American citizenship, a charge he claimed was fabricated. In response, his supporters began protesting in front of the headquarters of the Presidential Elections Commission before moving to Tahrir Square for the launch of an open-ended sit-in on April 20.
By this time, the Muslim Brotherhood had begun holding weekly protests in the square, marking a return to the streets after many months of cozying up to the SCAF and refusing to participate in demonstrations alongside revolutionary youth groups. Chief among their demands was for presidential elections to be held on time and for SCAF to handover power by June 30, as scheduled.
The Brotherhood had also been calling on SCAF for several weeks to dismiss the military-appointed government and allow the parliamentary majority to appoint a new one its place. On April 30, Parliament speaker Saad El-Katatni announced a one-week suspension of all parliamentary activity in protest of the SCAF’s repeated refusals to heed the Brotherhood’s calls to replace the cabinet.
The issue was one of several ongoing crises of legitimacy involving the government and parliament. The Supreme Constitutional Court is currently considering a case—first referred to it in February—on the constitutionality of the parliamentary elections that could dissolve the entire Parliament. The court is due to announce its ruling next month.
Meanwhile, a week into their Tahrir sit-in, Abu Ismail’s supporters decided unexpectedly to move their camp to an area adjacent to the Ministry of Defense, located in the Cairo district of Abbaseya, known as a stronghold of support for SCAF. The next day, the sit-in came under attack by assailants throwing rocks, firebombs and glass bottles. One person was killed and dozens wounded. In response, a small number of revolutionary youth groups joined the ultraconservative Salafis at the sit-in in solidarity.
The protest camp came under a second, more brutal attack by armed assailants four days later, sparking clashes that left eleven people dead and nearly eighty injured. Most of the deaths were caused by gunshot wounds to the head, according to hospital officials. While the clashes continued for hours, army and security forces stationed nearby did nothing to intervene. They eventually deployed armored vehicles and riot police to the scene and the clashes quickly ended.
The violence sparked an uproar, causing several presidential candidates to suspend their campaigns and a number of key political parties, including the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, to boycott a meeting with the SCAF over resolving the constituent assembly impasse.
The military council held a televised press conference the following day with three SCAF members taking questions from reporters while seated beneath a large banner that read “The Armed Forces are committed to what they promised.” The generals denied any responsibility for the violence, reiterated their pledge to hold elections as scheduled and denied that the military had sought a role in the drafting of the constitution in order to secure special political and economic privileges.
SCAF member Gen. Mokhtar el-Molla also pointedly warned protesters against approaching the military headquarters. “The right to self-defense and the honor of the military compel the armed forces to protect and defend the Ministry of Defense and all military establishments,” el-Molla said.
The warning did not have the desired effect. The next day, tens of thousands of protesters defied the general and marched to join the sit-in at the Ministry of Defense after Friday prayers. The crowd was a diverse mix of Salafis, revolutionary youth groups and political movements. The Muslim Brotherhood did not take part in the march, preferring instead to hold a rally in Tahrir Square to protest the military council.
When the march reached the site of the Abbaseya sit-in, they found hundreds of military police waiting behind a barbed-wire barricade leading the to the Ministry of Defense. Tensions were high, and it wasn’t long before clashes broke out with rock-throwing by both sides. Security forces gradually escalated their attack, dousing protesters with water cannons before bathing the area in suffocating clouds of tear gas. The army then pressed forward, firing live ammunition and riding armored personnel carriers to drive protesters out of the area.
Thousands of protesters fled into the neighborhood only to find armed security forces waiting along with people who appeared to be local residents armed with sticks, knives and handguns. Hundreds of people trapped in the area were swept up in mass arrests, including women, children and journalists. Videos later showed army soldiers dancing and celebrating in the streets. That evening the military council announced a curfew in the areas surrounding the Defense Ministry, which it renewed for the next three nights.
Nearly 400 people were injured in the clashes and an army soldier was killed. Meanwhile, military prosecutors interrogated hundreds of demonstrators, referring some 300 of them to fifteen days’ detention pending investigation into accusations of attacking troops and disrupting public order.
Two days after the violence, Parliament reconvened after its week on strike. In one of its first sessions back, the chamber discussed possible modifications to the presidential elections law, including ones to offset the highly controversial Article 28 of the constitutional declaration that bars any appeal of the decisions made by the military-appointed presidential elections commission. Severals MPs also criticized the senior judges on the commission, some of whom oversaw elections in Mubarak’s era of rigged polls.
In response, the commission announced that it was indefinitely suspending its work on the elections for what it viewed as a parliamentary encroachment on its affairs and called on the SCAF to intervene to resolve the standoff. For its part, the military council has vowed the elections will go ahead as scheduled in two weeks time.
As the poll date approaches, tensions are high, the political atmosphere is highly charged and the future of Egypt remains as unpredictable as ever.