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Analysis: An Agenda for Egypt’s Next President

A scene in Cairo on election day, May 13, 2012 (AP).
A scene in Cairo on election day, May 13, 2012 (AP).
All eyes are on Egypt this week as the democratic birth-pangs that began with last year’s Tahrir Revolution seem to be undergoing their final convulsions. Two days of voting May 23 and 24 mark the main event – the heavily anticipated presidential election, the first after the ouster last of long-time president Hosni Mubarak. With this week’s round of votes and a presumed run-off next month, the nation of more than 80 million will decide on which man will set the tone of executive leadership in Egypt’s new era.

Who will it be? Publications, online and print, are littered with polls – both scientific and unscientific – each suggesting a different candidate will emerge victorious, indicating the race is still wide open.

A poll by the University of Maryland earlier this month puts moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood member, in the lead with 32 percent followed by Mubarak-era foreign minister Amr Moussa with 28 percent and former Mubarak prime minister Ahmed Shafiq with 14 percent. A poll conducted by our sister Arabic-language news organization, Al Hurra, on their Facebook page puts populist Arab nationalist Hamdeen Sabahi in the top spot with 34 percent and Aboul Fotouh in second spot at 19 percent, with more than 20,000 participants.

The numbers will likely shift once again during a presumed run-off June 16 and 17, when the field narrows to the two frontrunners. Regardless of which candidate emerges in the victor’s position, he will be faced with pressing social and economic problems exacerbated by last year’s revolution whose demands, analysts believe, must be addressed in the first 100 days of a new presidential administration to restore in Egypt at least a semblance of stability.

Analysts who spoke to VOA said that the laundry list is long:

“The number one priority is to restore security to Sinai and the rest of the country. Second, is to launch the process to making the permanent Egyptian constitution. Third, is to put the economic house in order once more,” said Abdel Moneim Said, a writer on Egyptian politics and former director of the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies.

“[The next president] needs to reform as much as possible the Interior Ministry and also try to get as much foreign direct investment in the country as possible,” said Omar Ashour, director of the Middle East Studies program at the University of Exeter and a fellow and the Brookings Institute in Doha.

If elections go smoothly and lead to a reasonable balance of power, the interim period of governance by the country's military rulers may soon draw to a close. But with Egypt having long faced security and economic problems, observers have narrowed down what specifically must be tackled in the first 100 days.

Security issues

Under Mubarak, few Egyptians could have imagined storming the Interior Ministry building, causing a melee in a soccer stadium or tearing down walls surrounding the Israeli Embassy. Now, expressions of dissent are commonplace. Million-strong marches in Tahrir Square have contributed to a sense of defiance among youth. To the average Egyptian, this has brought a sense of lowered personal safety. Women report increased sexual harassment. People are robbed in cars while driving on the highway. The uptick in crime has also had an effect on Egypt’s ability to lure European and North American tourists.

Egypt’s Central Security Forces – which should not be confused with the State Security Forces, disbanded after Mubarak’s ouster – are still in place. Although the force is estimated to be as strong as 300,000 men, it has been unable to effectively address the persistent sense of lack of safety. The next president will have to tackle security issues head-on, while simultaneously reforming the layers upon layers of security, police and intelligence services traditionally more accustomed to spying on citizens than enforcing law and order.

A solid constitution

Egypt has a checkered history when it comes to constitutions. In the 1950s, president Gamal Abdel Nasser, aiming to ensure his movement’s dominance in the country’s politics, wrote appropriate measures directly into Egypt’s constitution. That document survived four years until the formation of the United Arab Republic – the eventually doomed union of Egypt, Yemen and Syria in the 1960s – which rendered Egypt’s constitution obsolete. Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, attempted to reform the constitution by allowing multiple parties but, following his assassination, his National Democratic Party was co-opted by Mubarak as a means of pushing the presidential agenda.

Experts widely agree that Egypt’s next president must get the constitution right this time. The mandate is all the more significant as newly-empowered constitutional law experts and youth activists will be watching the process closely.

This week, the country’s interim rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), granted temporary powers to the next president to dissolve the People’s Assembly and bestowed upon the Assembly the right to dismiss the president’s cabinet. Muslim Brotherhood dominance of the Assembly is a known quantity; the president is not. So SCAF has put in a temporary mechanism to potentially neutralize a conservative Assembly until a permanent constitution is written.

Omar Ashour of the University of Exeter suggests that these presidential powers should remain permanent so that Egypt can emerge with a strong presidential system.

“[SCAF] wants to try to counterbalance the influence of the Muslim Brothers… The Constitutional Assembly in the end will be the entity in charge of putting together the constitution, and the Muslim Brothers will have a significant influence due to their majority in the Assembly…. We have a president whose mandate will keep changing at one point by SCAF and then once again at a later stage.”

Alternatively, Abdel Moneim Said says Egypt’s president can’t be granted too much power. “My personal opinion is they should have a presidential system that is the same as in other countries, such as the United States or Mexico, where you give a separation of powers without the ability to dissolve parliament,” says Said.

Whatever happens, the president will be instrumental in spearheading a just constitution that suits the needs of the nation, not his personal interests.

A strong military under civilian supervision

Egypt’s Armed Forces are held in fairly high esteem by the general populace, and their role in national defense is deemed essential. But the Armed Forces are also a colossal construct, with financial interests in everything from real estate to hotels to food production. The Army’s output contributes greatly to the Egyptian GDP, employing tens of thousands of people and accounting for up 10 to 15 percent of the Egyptian economy, according to some estimates.

The Egyptian Army will always be a force, but Said suggests that it may have grown tired of direct rule. “I think the military are getting out happily right now,” says Said. “They feel their role to leave power has been accomplished and they are worried that the security of the country is not in good shape… They began talking last year about creating a National Security Council where the structure of the armed forces will be decided. Most presidential candidates support this.”

For the first time in Egypt’s modern history, the odds of a career military man becoming president are remote, unless Ahmed Shafiq, who was not only Mubarak’s last prime minister but who is also a former Air Force pilot, emerges victorious. Civilian oversight over the military is therefore highly likely, but experts caution that the next president will have to strike a delicate balance, recognizing the unique power of Armed Forces while simultaneously asserting himself before the Egyptian people as the man in charge.

Economy and education

The now-dominant Muslim Brotherhood or the more conservative an-Nour party may have been dreaming of a social re-engineering of Egypt based on Islamic principles. But many agree that Egypt’s priorities will revolve around the economy, especially around efforts that will aim at correcting an economic structure that rewarded a narrow class allied with the old Mubarak regime while perpetuating unemployment and illiteracy among the general populace.

If there is to be any social re-engineering, many experts agree that it will have to take a back seat to economic concerns. Egypt’s budget deficit estimate for June 2012 will be around U.S. $24 billion, according to research firm Thomas White. The instability of the past year has also depleted Egypt's foreign currency reserves by some 60 percent.

There is general agreement that in the first 100 days, Egypt’s next president will have to make sure economic reforms dominate both in the national discourse and in the People’s Assembly. Also, bold statements and actions on security will boost the tourism sector, which is already showing signs of life again, having jumped 151 percent in April 2012. A tax-incentive program to boost private sector hiring by multinationals which have already set up shop in Egypt is widely seen as a measure that would give unemployed youth and entrepreneurs reason to hope that prosperity is not linked to the army or a shadow economy.

There is also consensus among observers that Egypt’s next president must acknowledge that primary education in the country is broken. According to the CIA World Factbook, two out of three Egyptian males and almost half of all Egyptian women can’t read. Public spending on education accounted for only 3.8 percent of the Egypt's GDP in 2008, according to the World Bank. Increasing teacher salaries and jump-starting literacy programs by allocating more federal funds to education is therefore deemed crucial.

The outcome of the presidential race will also to a large degree determine the direction of education.

I think with polar issues you will find deep polarization where you have Islamists who want a more conservative agenda putting their beliefs in the education system,” says Ashour. “But the liberals will want to keep things as free as possible without influence from the state.”

With progress often being dependent on consensus among those governing, few venture to predict what an ideologically opposed president and parliament might hold for the future of Egypt. But history is also replete with precedents of necessity creating strange political bedfellows and driving compromise.