Who is the next Egyptian pharaoh?

Egypt's transition towards democracy is a delicate work in progress. The identity of the new leader – the new 'pharaoh' – of a third of all Arabs will be crucial if the transition is to be a successful one.  

What appears to be certain in Egypt is that there will be elections between September and November. Contrary to what many have demanded in past months, they will be parliamentary elections and not presidential ones. Whoever wins a majority in Parliament will then have to start working again on the newly-amended Constitution. Only after this process will we know the name of the new “pharaoh”, the leader at the helm of one third of the world Arab population.

There remain, however, many uncertainties regarding this strategic transition towards democracy.

The economy is struggling to start off again: the Suez canal works well, but thanks to security issues that even Egyptians themselves are unhappy with, tourism is far from pre-revolution levels. Instability has never helped economic growth; less than ever in this region.

Then there is Tahrir square's reaction: the great tent city has been mobilised again since last week. It has seen the coming and going of hundreds of thousands of young demonstators, unsatisfied guardians of the dulled revolution, impatient to see visible reform even in this period of uncertainty.

The government has demonstrated great weakness in initiating an incoherent reshuffling of government posts and a series of individual resignations of many ministers, which did not spare some of the most important public administration institutions such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The number of these resignations grew until they reached the prime minister's desired objective, first 7, then 11, increasing with Tahrir square's growing demands and unrest.

It is difficult to truly understand the dynamics that govern the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Everyone recognises that it's thanks to the army's steadiness during the crucial days of the revolution in February that it was possible to send Mubarak away and avoid a bloodbath, but few people accept the caution with which the military is initiating the trial against the old president – a sacrificial symbol that the revolution vehemently demands, especially in light of what has already happened in Tunisia. The analogy between the precarious health conditions of the two accused presidents does not soothe the desire for change. Moreover, the Council wavers over economic reform: at times announcing salary increases, only to later abdicate responsibility in favour of the provisional government.

Meeting the best known and more credible candidates for the coming presidential elections is a useful experience to get a sense of new Egyptian politics, and confirms the Disneyesque metaphor of the cartoon in which a dog resembles its owner, in this case the parallel between politicians and the offices in which they work.

El Baradei receives guests in a modern office, full-length glass windows and sliding doors, a small staff, minimal furniture. He does not believe in parties but in the candidates' capacity (like him) to play the role of the “federator,” one of the many expressions that has risen from this season of the “hundred flowers”. He fights for a preliminary Bill of Rights for every electoral competition, and understands the weakness of the current situation as well as the army and police's progressive loss of credibility. He confides in Tahrir square and is sincerely convinced that he will be chosen because of his “inclusive” character. According to the polls, however, he isn't a favourite and it is possible that in the end he might not even run for office.

Amr Moussa works in a nice nineteenth century villa in the heart of the diplomatic quarter. There is a continual coming and going of guests, and a familiarity with the media and cameras that has long been exercised in the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and subsequently at the Arab League. There is fascinating discourse, a refined analysis of the mediterranean partnership and of the regional situation for which Moussa claims that the Arab wave will involve every country, even those who today feel safe. As it was already whispered a few months ago, the possibility of forging an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, which controls an electoral base of no more than 25%, has vanished. He appeals instead to 60% of Egyptians, those who can identify with a liberal economy with strong social correctives and presents himself as the natural candidate for a possible coalition; in fact, his aides and collaborators are active members in different parties.

Naguib Sawiris will not run in the presidential elections but it is difficult not to account for the opinion of one of the richest men in the country, the king of telecommunications, and the founder of the “Free Egyptians” party. He is a Coptic Christian by religion, but a laic by political choice, who looks out on a spectacular view of his country from his penthouse in one of the Nile Towers, the tallest twin skyscrapers in the city. Without a large number of international observers – he comments – the impartiality of the electoral process and Egypt's secularism risk being tainted, and the spirit of the Revolution could be irreparably betrayed. Sawiris encorages the West to “participate” in the construction of Egyptian politics: if everyone interferes – his reasoning goes – why shouldn't you, who love Egypt and democracy, do it too? The agreement between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army will instead guarantee a restoration, a moderate islamisation still looking for the candidate that will insure the army's political and economic power and give the Muslim Brotherhood societal control through their network of mosques and other religious organisations, especially outside big urban centres.

The analysis of a great Israeli political figure, an expert in Middle Eastern issues, had been very clear a few days before: the revolutions will lose the elections. The arab spring is a cold spring in which one will need an overcoat, as the first round will go to the army and whoever can bring to the alliance a deep-seated social control of the territory (in this case the Muslim Brotherhood); only the second round, the next elections, if and when they will take place, will be able to truly tell us if the arab spring has been a real spring or rather an Indian summer.

Mohamed Morsi, chairman of the “Justice and Development” party, a political spin-off of the Muslim Brotherhood, works in a shabby condominium in the heart of the popular quarter. The banner hanging from the window sill shows the name and symbol of the new party, but in the dark and narrow stairs of the building nothing gives the impression that one is entering the headquarters of a major political force. The person in charge of international relations is a likeable young man with a small beard who speaks english with a perfect American accent, while the President of the new party, uninterested in engaging with his interlocutor, limits himself to demanding early elections in the name of the people's will, but dodges the issue of laity in politics, a theme that he does not appear to fully grasp. Among all the politicians I encountered, he is the only one who considers the work of the military and the current governement to be irreproachable.

That same night, in Tahrir square, the young protagonists of this historical moment replied to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' spokesperson – who had admonished them earlier that day on television with his index finger pointed at them to not commit “immature” actions that the army would not tolerate – by raising another finger, the middle one, and yelling that the revolution will not demobilise.

The Egyptian transition will be long and very delicate.

Lapo Pistelli is head of external affairs and international relations for Italy's Democratic Party.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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