Egyptian reform leader Mohammed ElBaradei’s surprise pullout from the presidential race has laid bare the messiness of Egypt’s transition to democracy with less than six months left for the ruling generals to hand over power.
On Wednesday, Egyptians will mark a year since the start of the popular uprising that forced former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak out of office. However, there is no longer much talk about the revolution’s lofty goals of bringing democracy, freedom and social justice.
Instead, the buzz now is about new alliances that could allow the ruling military to maintain its long-standing domination over government and Islamists to flex their muscles after their big victory in parliamentary elections.
ElBaradei’s announcement on Jan. 14 that he would not run for president dealt another severe blow to the liberal and leftist groups behind the fall of Mubarak after their defeat at the ballots and the military’s escalating crackdown on the movement. ElBaradei said a fair election will be impossible under the military’s tight grip.
“We feel that elections now are not the best framework toward democratic rule,” prominent activist Shady el-Ghazaly Harb said about the presidential vote that the ruling military has promised will take place by the end of June.
The young revolutionaries who engineered Mubarak’s ouster on Feb. 11 have since been divided and embroiled in an increasingly bitter dispute with the ruling generals over their handling of the transition, the killing of scores of protesters by troops, human rights violations and the trial of thousands of civilians before military tribunals.
However, Harb, an icon of last year’s uprising, sees some hope in ElBaradei’s pullout.
“He is not withdrawing and leaving a void in his trail,” Harb said. “He will be back doing grass roots work and that may help unite the youth to effect change.”
The military’s timeline for the transition speaks to the messiness of its management of the country.
Egyptians went to the polls in staggered parliamentary elections that began on Nov. 28 and ended last week. Between now and the end of June, when the generals have promised to transfer power, there are elections for parliament’s upper house, or Shura Council, the drafting of a new constitution, a nationwide referendum on the document and then a presidential election.
On Jan. 15, the military announced that nominations for president would open in mid-April, and the election would take place in mid-June.
Pro-democracy activists charge that the packed timetable is creating a climate that allows the better organized and more well-known Islamists led by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood to dominate at the expense of the liberal and leftist groups. Many of those groups were born out of the uprising and did not have much time or experience to organize themselves for the competition with Islamists. The Brotherhood, for example, was established more than 80 years ago and was already a well-known political force before the uprising.
However, ElBaradei’s decision to drop out might have been a calculated move.
Realizing that it would be impossible to win the election without the support of the Islamists, who have kept him at arm’s length, he opted to pull out and publicly discredit the entire political process as messy and disorderly.