The Sphinx Is Watching

Say what you will about the outcome of tomorrow's Egyptian presidential election (and there will be a lot to be said), but the mere fact that tens of millions of Egyptians enjoyed the spectacle of a first-ever open presidential campaign and will not be beaten or bribed into voting for Mubarak's party is a taste of freedom worth savoring. Tomorrow's vote comes with its price, of course. The disturbances and unprovoked killings of protesters have put a damper on what should be a joyous occasion. Coupled with economic malaise and the uncertainty of the direction of Egypt's future, the day after the election will not be too different than the day before for the ordinary Egyptian. But the vote will certainly usher in yet a new period of political wrangling and tension.

Quasi-euphoria aside, it's hard to mask the fact that so much of this campaign was less about Egypt's future chronic economic challenges, and far more about the role of religious and political Islam coursing through Egypt's body politic.

Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate is, by most polls taken on the eve of the vote, in third place (yet I remind myself never to underestimate the power of the Muslim Brotherhood political machine to turn out its faithful). Why such a potentially poor showing after the Muslim Brotherhood swept the parliamentary elections? Morsi was not the Brotherhood's first candidate of choice and is charisma-challenged. Second, the Brothers are experiencing something of a backlash from Egyptians polled in the runup to the election for fielding a presidential candidate after vowing they would never do so. So much for keeping promises by the so-called party of the faithful!

The two other candidates, "moderate" Islamist Abdel-Men'em Al Fotouh, and former Arab League Secretary-General Amr Mousa are locked in a tight race going down to the wire, with Al Fotouh the slight favorite over Amr Mousa. Each has tried to cast the other as captive of their respective pasts (Al Fotouh having once been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Amr Mousa formerly a stalwart of the now-deposed Mubarak regime).

If neither candidate wins an outright majority, then there will a second round run-off election -- likely between Fotouh and Mousa -- in about ten days' time. The ultimate outcome of a potential second round will be determined by which candidate attracts the majority of Morsi's Brotherhood voters -- and it is anyone's guess where these stalwart Brotherhood members will go, since neither Fotouh or Mousa are Brotherhood favorites.

And what happens if my expected scenario turns out to be fiction, and the Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi squeaks through as the #1 or #2 candidate? Well, then, it is entirely another ballgame. It will depend on whether Mousa or Fatouh get past the first round, and where either candidates' votes gravitate. But given the negatives Morsi carries into tomorrow's election, I will stick by my earlier prediction.

Why? Knowing Egypt the way I do, in a testament to our own inherent approach to elections, Egyptians may very well wind up "splitting" their tickets.

Having overwhelmingly accorded the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party a sweep of March's parliamentary elections, and by doing so granting the Brothers a virtual lock on drafting Egypt's future constitution, polls indicate that the trustworthiness of the three presidential candidates and their prescription for Egypt's ailing economy are of paramount concern. While Egyptians are glad to see the Mubarak regime gone, they do not want a puppet president. But whether any future Egyptian president will have the power to make real, meaningful change in their lives will depend on Egypt's future constitution.

You see, Egypt's next president's authority will not be set out until the new constitution is drafted and ratified, AFTER the president is elected. That means that whether it is a President Fatouh or a President Mousa, his greatest power will be the bully pulpit until his executive powers are defined by the Brotherhood's appointed constitutional drafters. It is a safe bet that the Muslim Brotherhood has every intention of consolidating authority in the legislature, rather than ceding significant power to a non-Brotherhood president.

And herein lies the rub. A hard-line Islamist parliament, controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafist Islamic extremist partners, will favor imposing a strict, Shariah compliant system of laws on Egypt and remaking Egypt in its narrow image. Egyptians are pious people, and they overwhelmingly support Islam as the foundation of the country's identity, but there is a huge difference between imposing the strictures of orthodox Shariah law on a country and enabling a more modern interpretation of Islam that accommodates itself to a globalizing world... the former having enormous consequences for Egypt's Christian Coptic minority, its domestic equilibrium and its foreign policy. We are about to see whether the Muslim Brotherhood is a prisoner of its past, or a theocratic, nationalist movement prepared to change with the times to transform Egypt into a modern society. So (if the polls turn out to be correct) by favoring either Mousa or Fatouh over the Brotherhood candidate, voters would be signaling their desire to have the new office of the president serve as a more secular check and balance, just in case the new parliament is hijacked by a runaway hard-line Islamist-oriented locomotive.

How the newly-elected president and his allies among the more secular, liberal elements of Egypt's political system (including Egypt's military) navigate and negotiate their path through the quicksand of a constitutional drafting process -- likely weighed against effectively empowering the office of president -- will represent the next saga in Egypt's long, difficult road to a more just post-Mubarak era.