Today, Wednesday 23 May and tomorrow, Thursday, 24 May, Egypt will hold its first free presidential election. This election is critical and perhaps the most important one to he held in the region in over a half century.
Egypt, one of the three most populous countries in the Middle East, is pivotal both geographically and politically sitting as it does between the Maghreb countries to the East and Iraq and Iran to the West, and in control of the Suez Canal a vital artery for the movement of oil. It is a stone’s throw from Yemen itself in the throes of violent change and regarded as a safe haven for Al-Qaeda.
Having acting as an arbiter in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for the last forty years, it has been regarded as a moderating influence and relatively impartial party in that dispute. All that has been altered with the removal of the Mubarak regime. The Muslim Brotherhood long suppressed by successive secular governments is now free to participate in the electoral process and recently scored an impressive showing in the recent parliamentary elections.
The political complexion of Egypt will now change, but how it will do so is open to question. Although the Brotherhood with the surprising showing of the Salafists now hold a majority of seats in the parliament, it remains to be seen how much actual power will be ceded to that parliament by a military, the entrenched power behind Egyptian governments since Nasser in 1956. The other question to be decided this week and in what will most certainly be a run-off election in June is the office of President.
There are four leading candidates vying for that post: two Islamist and two secular ones.
- Mohammed Musri is a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He is considered by many to be the leading candidate and a moderate Islamist.
- Abdel Monein Abu al-Fotouh was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood for decades and he’s a devoted Islamist. Al-Fotouh is also now backed by hardline Islamists known as Salafists who want to roll back rights for woman and Christians.
- Moussa: Moussa is the 76-year-old former Egyptian foreign minister who is favoured by Washington as one who would not radicalise Egypt. His downside is his former close association with Mubarak and the United States.
- Ahmed Shafiq, another secularist, was the last prime minister appointed by Mubarak.
- Hamdeen Sabahi a populist with appeal amongst the downtrodden poor. Although not classified as an Islamist, he is not a fan of the US, and is more of a nationalist throwback to Nasser.
In summary it is difficult to see how a former member of the Mubarak regime could be acceptable to the supporters of the revolution or have the support of a parliament controlled by Islamists.
Should the Islamist prevail in the presidential election, this could have a knock-on effect in the Maghreb where both Tunisia and Libya are in the process of defining themselves politically. Both also have a strong Brotherhood following and an Egyptian win could garner more support for the Brotherhood in those countries.
That is merely one of many influences the elections in Egypt could bring to bear on the region but, there are many others:
How will this redound on negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis? Hamas has strong ties to the Brotherhood.
Egypt supplies 40% of gas to Israel. How might this be used in dealings with Israel?
What role would Egypt play with regard to Iran and Syria?
How about to the south and the tumult in Sudan?
Relations with the United States?
There many permutations and questions, but one thing for sure, Egyptian elections will presage a geopolitical transformation in the region.