Egypt sets presidential elections for May amid rising tensions

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 15, 2012 

CAIRO — Egypt will hold its first presidential elections since Hosni Mubarak's ouster in May, a month earlier than previously scheduled, as part of an accelerated transition to civilian rule demanded by revolutionary political factions, state news media and officials said Wednesday.

The announcement came amid renewed worker strikes, marches in protest of a deadly soccer riot, a new civil disobedience campaign and pressure from powerful Islamist factions calling on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to cede authority immediately. The council previously had said it would transfer power after presidential elections in June.

Egypt's main state-backed newspaper quoted Mohammed Attiya, the minister of parliamentary affairs and local development, as saying that the presidential polls would take place at the end of May. That timing would give hopefuls three weeks to declare their candidacies and allow 45 days for official campaigning.

It's unclear, however, whether political leaders will agree to the plan. The new schedule would place the presidential vote ahead of a planned referendum on a new constitution, which by transitional law should take place before a president is elected. The 100-member drafting committee has yet to be formed, however.

Neither the report nor two officials who confirmed the plan offered details or mentioned the constitutional wrinkle.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that swept parliamentary elections, supports any effort by the generals that would hasten civilian rule, a senior spokesman said, but only if the constitutional referendum takes place first, as outlined in transitional guidelines. The group has yet to endorse a presidential candidate.

"The ruling military never takes a step forward unless they're put under pressure," said Mahmoud Ghozlan, a senior Brotherhood spokesman and a member of the group's governing committee. "We want them to hand over power as soon as possible, but without violating the constitutional declaration. ... The presidential post is too vital."

The frontrunner candidates, including former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, former Muslim Brotherhood luminary Abdel Moneim Abdel Futouh and former Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq, already have announced their bids and are meeting with voters on unofficial campaign tours.

Egypt's next president will be limited to two consecutive four-year terms, according to rules approved in a referendum last year.

Egyptians yearn for new leadership after a bloody period since the ouster of Mubarak a year ago this week after 18 days of demonstrations. With police still largely absent from the streets, newspapers and everyday conversation are rife with stories of skyrocketing serious crimes such as bank robberies and kidnappings.

Lax security at a soccer stadium was blamed for the deaths of more than 70 people — most young men — in rioting after a match between rival teams earlier this month. Sporadic clashes between security forces and demonstrators have left more than 100 people dead in the past year; dozens have been maimed or blinded.

The Muslim Brotherhood has joined non-Islamist revolutionary factions in demanding the dismissal of the military's appointed Cabinet, saying the caretaker government has failed to address security problems and the tanking economy.

Given the bloodshed and backsliding on promised reforms, Ghozlan said, it's time for the military to turn over governance to parties that were elected to Parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party won nearly 50 percent of the seats in the lower house of the legislature and is poised to repeat the win in the upper-house vote, according to partial results.

"We are ready to form a government tomorrow if the Cabinet resigns," Ghozlan said.

Brotherhood leaders met earlier this week with the head of the military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and parliamentary speaker Saad el Katatni, a Brotherhood stalwart. News reports said the discussions focused on the Islamists' disappointments with the transition's progress and the general frustration that has prompted strikes and factory closures.

"We'll hold a meeting (Thursday) to discuss which presidential candidate, if any, we endorse, and the situation now after we've seen how weak the Parliament is before the military council," said Abdel Rahman Samir of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, an umbrella group for youth-based factions of the uprising.

Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University, said moving up the presidential election was an effort by the beleaguered generals to find a quick way to appease a restive public while at the same time perhaps cooling protest campaigns, which many Egyptians are wary of supporting.

"People don't trust the military council anymore, but they also don't want to be part of radical calls that might negate any progress that could've been made," Nafaa said.

(Al Desoukie is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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