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Egypt's rough ride towards democracy


      By JAMAL KANJ ,  Posted on » Thursday, April 19, 2012

THE upcoming Egyptian presidential election has started with a wild ride. The contenders cover a wide political spectrum ranging from ultra-conservatives to leftists; from anti-dictators to Hosni Mubarak's subservients; from the solemn to the buffoons.

This is the essence of democracy, where everyone has an equal opportunity in the court of public opinions. And it comes with the promise that Egypt will never again get stuck with a president for life, or until another Tahrir Square revolution.

On the less cheery side, the absence of the young generation is disheartening as the average age of candidates is 75, especially since the youth was the vibrant blood that made democracy a reality.

Equally unfortunate is the sidelining of the genuine progressive opposition. Particularly when key candidates served the old regime at one point or another, or were members of political parties that enjoyed undeclared dŽtente with Mr Mubarak and his children.

The Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission (SPEC) added excitement by its final decision on Tuesday night to reject three major candidates representing the old system and Islamist parties.

Its rationalisation ranged from mere technical anomalies for Omar Suleiman to past "criminal" records of the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate. It is worth noting that most presumed "criminal" offences were connected with "illegal" conduct against the deposed dictator.

SPEC should have instead sent a clear message by rejecting Mr Suleiman beyond the technicalities. He should be banned for his role in the toppled authoritarian regime which made him incapable, at least during the immediate transition, to play a role in the new democracy.

It is feared the SPEC decision to reject candidates for having a questionable "criminal record" will stir up protests that may derail the transfer of power, thus granting the Military Council its wish by delaying the transition to civilian rule.

A little over a month after Mr Mubarak's resignation, the council declared a presidential election would take place no later than last November. By early summer, it suggested a constituent assembly must draft a new constitution before election, meaning the polls were pushed back to June.

Frustrated by the council's indecision, the opposition went back to the street, forcing it to hold parliamentary elections and advance the presidential poll to next month.

Under the ruling "old guard" who have mismanaged the transfer of power, the economy has plummeted, public security deteriorated and services have declined.

This has created an environment of uncertainty, leading many to start questioning the judgement of removing the dictator in the first place. The writing of the constitution remains a major point of contention between liberals, military and religious groups who dominate the panel charting it. The dispute over representation gave grounds to the council to suspend the panel formed by parliament.

Last weekend, the generals reaffirmed that the new constitution should come before a presidential election. Along with the panel's suspension, this has raised concerns that the council and SPEC - in their latest theatrical exercise - were in cahoots as part of a co-ordinated effort to derail progress towards genuine democracy.

The question is whether the "old guard" will succeed in driving Egypt into an abyss of polished dictatorship or managed democracy.

Mr Kanj writes frequently on Arab world issues and is the author of Children of Catastrophe, Journey from a Palestinian Refugee Camp to America. He can be reached at [email protected]