CAIRO - It was pushing 40 degrees Celsius in Cairo as Egypt’s presidential runoff election was in its second and final day. But as voters around the country cast their ballots for a successor to ousted president Hosni Mubarak, they did not know what powers their new leader would have, nor what checks on his authority there would be.
At polling stations around Egypt’s capital, voters traded arguments for and against both runoff candidates - the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq.
Dr. Wajeeh Mahmood Al Jizzar, a middle-aged veterinarian in the Cairo neighborhood of Shubra, said he supports Shafiq because he wants stability, and because he is against the “religious country that [Morsi] seeks to create.” Meanwhile, Ahmed Mohamed Ridha, a 24-year-old medical student from Mounira and a Morsi supporter, argues that Shafiq is a holdover from the old regime, no better than Mubarak himself. He believes Morsi is the only “revolutionary candidate,” citing the popular uprising against Mubarak and his regime early last year.
However, according to Emad Gad, an analyst for the Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies, no matter who wins Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential election, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) currently ruling the country will ultimately be the one in charge.
“The incoming president will have little authority,” said Gad. He will only be a president on the surface, without any depth of power.”
The temporary Constitutional Declaration, which the SCAF issued after Mubarak stepped down last February, is silent on the matter of presidential powers. The process to write a new, permanent constitution was derailed twice after liberals and secularists argued that Islamists were trying to dominate the Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting the charter.
The problem was further exacerbated last week by what many referred to as the military’s power grab or ‘soft coup’ - after a Supreme Constitutional Court ruling that declared the law governing November’s parliamentary elections unconstitutional. The SCAF then dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament and the Constituent Assembly, and is now set to unilaterally outline the president’s powers in an addendum to the current Constitutional Declaration.
Morsi, Shafiq, and the SCAF
Consequently, Gad argues that if Morsi were to finish first in the runoff, his authority as president would be highly circumscribed by the military. The limits would be further constricted by the dissolution of parliament, which before the court ruling was the Muslim Brotherhood’s main source of institutional power in the country. Last November, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) took many by surprise when it won 47 percent of seats in Egypt’s lower house of parliament. Thus, it stands to lose the most from the body’s dissolution. And without parliament’s backing, a Morsi presidency would be much weaker.
Consequently, the MB has pushed back against what is being perceived as the SCAF’s power grab.
Mohamed Hussein, a representative from the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) insisted that, as Egypt’s next president, “Morsi will be the one to convene a Constituent Assembly that will write the constitution and outline what the next president is able to do - not the SCAF.” He added that the body would be inclusive, and “speak for all Egyptian parties.”
On Saturday, the MB officially rejected the court’s ruling. “[The] SCAF is but one of the authorities ruling the country. The people are the ones that have the legitimacy,” Hussein said. He asserted that the Brotherhood would try to use the presidency to undercut the SCAF’s power, so as to protect Egypt’s revolution.
However, experts believe that such attempts are unlikely to change the events of the past week. Emad Gad says the Brotherhood does not have the power to reject the court’s decision. “Their refusal doesn’t mean anything judicially,” he said.
Gad surmises that Shafiq as president would probably have more powers than Morsi. He explained that if Mubarak’s ex-prime minister wins, then the perceived military-backed candidate, unlike Morsi, would be allowed to “control some of the country’s institutions, although not all of them,” stressing again that the military would be making the most important calls. Moreover, as a stalwart of the old regime himself, Shafiq would be expected to clash less with the SCAF on policy matters than Morsi would.
Reactions from the street
Another factor potentially constraining the power of the new president is the expected reaction on the street to the election results.
If Shafiq wins, activists have promised to stage large-scale demonstrations - which may grow even larger should Shafiq make good on his promises to crack down on demonstrators.
The MB, observers say, would likely be part of that street response. “If Shafiq wins,” Hussein said, “the people won’t agree. They’ll make another revolution much harsher than the one before.” And in that struggle, he argued, the people will come out on the side of the Brotherhood because “the FJP is on the side of the people.”
Many voters in polling stations around Cairo also promised to take to the streets in the event of a Shafiq victory. Ridha, the medical student and Morsi supporter, said that if Shafiq becomes president then “Tahrir Square will ignite with all national factions that took part in this revolution.”
By contrast, experts believe that a Morsi win would be unlikely to meet the same kind of response in the street, which would arguably give Morsi more space to govern. They say that last week’s court ruling galvanized many revolutionaries, who were previously set on boycotting the elections, to vote for Morsi, suggesting that at this juncture, voting in an Islamist candidate would be much more palatable than voting in a member of the old regime.