Egypt presidentials: Suleiman in, Abu Ismail out?

Egypt's presidential election will be on May 23rd and already things are out of control. Not only did deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood Khairat El Shater suddenly enter the race this week -- reversing a pledge on the group's part that they wouldn't field a member, creating a fair amount of internal disagreement and showing his hand as the group's real boss...

But creepy Mubarak spy-master Omar Suleiman has also apparently just announced he will join the race! Suleiman was appointed Mubarak's vice-president and heir apparent during the uprising and you can see him here, sulkily announcing his boss' (and his own) resignation. Suleiman as Egypt's next president would really be ten times worse than a slap in the face to the revolution (it'd be more like a foot endlessly stomping on the face of the revolution...) That said, I'm surprised by news stories calling him a "front-runner." in a recent Al Ahram poll, he had 10% of the vote. While he can count on the police and intelligence communities, reactionaries and morons in search of "an iron fist," I think a majority of the country would never vote for him. They'd have to rig it to get him in. 

Finallly, I was at a rally in Tahrir Square this afternoon by supporters and sympathizers of presidential hopeful Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who is embroiled in a weird scandal over whether his mother might have become a US citizen in the last years of her life (thus barring him from running according to a recently expanded xenophobic law). Abu Ismail is a charismatic Salafist with the usual ultra-conservative social and religious views, a vague populist platform and an anti-authoritarian streak (he supported the revolution from the start and has been very critical of the military leadership).

Abu Ismail likes to score points by criticizing the West, so there's been quite a bit of schadenfreude in liberal circles over his embarrassing American connections. Then again, I met some at the rally who said they came out because they think Abu Ismail's disqualification would be just the first step in rigging the election. Not that any of this has seemingly led the public in Egypt to question the stupid law banning presidential candidates' parents and grandparents from holding foreign nationalities, or the way any foreign connection continues to be used as a political smear. In fact, Abu Ismail's supporters believe he is being set up by the SCAF, the Americans and Israel, of course. It's true that he is probably all three's least favourite candidate. 

Abu Ismail supporters were sporting all sorts of pins, posters, T-shirts etc. But the weirdest thing had to be the very popular Abu Ismail masks. 


Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

How to restrain Suleiman's power

With Hillary Clinton's backing for Suleiman as the lead on a transition in Egypt, we are quickly heading towards the formation of another strongman regime that cannot be trusted to deliver on the changes needed in the political environment. There needs to be a mechanism to integrate the opposition into the heart of the state to grant full legitimacy to its demand, and reduce the perception (and reality) of Omar Suleiman being the sole man at the helm. I'm no constitutional scholar, so please consider this as a brainstorm more than a serious proposal.

Under the Egyptian constitution, the president can delegate his powers by decree to the vice-president. This is what Mubarak did to grant Suleiman the authority to negotiate with the protestors. But the Egyptian constitution also allows for more than one vice-president, article to its Article 139:

Art.139:   The President of the Republic may appoint one or more Vice-Presidents define their jurisdiction and relieve them of their posts. The rules relating to the calling to account of the President of the Republic shall be applicable to the Vice-Presidents.

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On Omar Suleiman

Jonathan Wright writes:

New Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman spoke in public at length for the first time ever today, in an interview with Nile Television. That gives us more insight into his thinking than we have ever had before and the impression is hardly reassuring. Judging by what we heard, this was a replica of what the Tunisians (and the French) would call 'langue de bois' (literally, wooden tongue). The key message came right at the end -- to the effect that he thanks the young people of Egypt for initiating a process of reform but now it's time for them to stand down and trust the details to the professionals.

I agree — and was shocked to hear Suleiman repeat the propaganda on state TV by mentioning "foreign hands" as being responsible for unrest and insecurity.  

By the way, I am told by the editors of Foreign Policy that my 2009 piece about Omar Suleiman is getting a lot of hits and that a lot of journalists are cribbing from it.

Well that itself was partly based on a profile I filed for Oxford Analytica in early 2006, which I am reproducing below. Obviously some of the analysis has changed since then. Suleiman today is less respected both domestically and internationally (his policy towards Gaza is unpopular and a failure at achieving its stated objectives, every day he sticks by Mubarak makes him more unpopular, etc.)

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NYT: Obama still pushing for Mubarak to go

Important story in the Times: White House, Egypt Discuss Plan for Mubarak’s Exit

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is discussing with Egyptian officials a proposal for President Hosni Mubarak to resign immediately and turn over power to a transitional government headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman with the support of the Egyptian military, administration officials and Arab diplomats said Thursday.

Even though Mr. Mubarak has balked, so far, at leaving now, officials from both governments are continuing talks about a plan in which Mr. Suleiman, backed by Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, chief of the Egyptian armed forces, and Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the defense minister, would immediately begin a process of constitutional reform.

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