Watching events unfold in Egypt's presidential race over the past few weeks has been like watching a riveting television political thriller of the many episode variety. Countless twists and turns, high drama and spectacle, and just when you think you've figured out a piece of the puzzle something totally unexpected happens. In fact, Egyptian filmmaker Amr Salama remarked on Twitter that "events happening in Egypt are definitely directed by David Lynch."
It's quite remarkable given that not long ago, before the uprising that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak, an air of inevitability pervaded the political process and elections generally followed the regime's script. In a relatively short period of time Egyptians have gone from feeling that the future of their country was predetermined by autocratic rule to having no clue what surprise was around the corner.
Ever since the newly elected Islamist-led parliament sat on January 23rd this year the high jinks have increased and so have the stakes. And now, with the presidential race underway, it seems all bets are off.
The Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood and their frenemies the more conservative Salafi Nour party, emboldened by their crushing victory in parliamentary elections, are engaged in brinksmanship with the military generals who they see as standing in the way of Egypt's transition to civilian rule and as the main obstacle to the Islamists' assertion of power.
And the battle over who controls Egypt has played out in real time, on TV and social media, and has gripped the nation.
It started with the spectacle of lawmakers having a crack at crafting a way out of Egypt's post-revolution upheaval. Parliamentary debates captured public attention and fast became must see TV. Parliament's own 'Sawt Al Shaab' (Voice of the People) TV channel broadcasts raucous, rowdy and sometimes chaotic parliamentary sessions live and in their entirety.
From day one, the Islamist-dominated People's Assembly has been hell bent on removing the transitional prime minister Kamal el-Ganzouri, who served under Mubarak, and his cabinet. MPs see the military appointed government as illegitimate and have begun procedures to withdraw confidence with the aim of appointing a new PM and cabinet.
Then came the task of drafting Egypt's first post-revolution constitution. The process was thrown into in disarray after a wave of withdrawals by secularists, activists and minorities who contend that Islamists had taken over the procedure and after a subsequent high court ruling to suspend the assembly charged with writing the new constitution.
By the time the presidential nomination process rolled around the drama was in full swing.
I arrived in Cairo days before the presidential nomination window closed on April 9th and found a country transfixed. Each day, sometimes each hour, brought new developments.
When the nominations first opened, reports that hundreds of hopefuls including pop singers, plumbers, and chefs had obtained applications received satirical coverage in the local and Arab press. And according to Egyptian writer and blogger Bassem Sabry, who has been compiling ever-changing lists of candidates, the number of applicants exceeded 1,000 at one point.
Before long, countless campaign posters started appearing all over town, despite official campaigning not being allowed 'til late April, with one particular candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail, member of parliament for the conservative Salafi party, going for the blanket coverage approach.
His beaming bearded face appeared everywhere and it wasn't long before the prolific posters became a running joke. Soon doctored images of the lawyer-turned-TV preacher's face in random places 'Where's Waldo' style were circulating all over the Internet and social media.
A colorful character, he enjoyed massive appeal with a pro-revolution populist message and
his huge following brought Cairo to a standstill when tens of thousands of his supporters accompanied him to submit his nomination at the electoral commission's headquarters.
But, in an unexpected turn of events, his campaign went down in flames after reports his deceased mother held a U.S. passport, thus disqualifying him from running. His committed supporters staged rallies in his defense and even flooded U.S. President Obama's 2012 reelection Facebook page in protest.
The elections narrative arc took an even more surprising turn with the Muslim Brotherhood's volte-face on fielding a candidate. After consistently repeating over the past year they wouldn't contest the presidential post, the Brotherhood nominated not one but two candidates for the presidency: their organization's number two who spent more than a decade in jail under Mubarak, Khairat El Shater and, in case El Shater's prison term later disqualified him (as was the case for secular candidate and long time opposition figure Ayman Nour) Mohamed Morsi was also put forward.
Some think the outrage is misplaced. As one well-connected businessman told me, Islamists have no duty to be magnanimous after their big win in parliament, and nobody should expect them to. Perhaps Issandr El Amrani, a journalist and analyst who blogs on Arab affairs put it best:
"[The Muslim Brotherhood] went ahead with this decision because it sees itself as on the brink of actually wielding power for the first time in its history, does not want to miss this moment, feels that aside from the Salafists no one else on the political scene has much to offer."
As the deadline for nominations approached, the narrative appeared to near its climax. At the 11th hour, literally, with less than an hour left to submit candidacies, Mubarak's former spy chief Omar Suleiman, a man seen not only as a symbol of the old regime but as one of its key actors, rolled up at the election commission and with one fell swoop brought the revolution back full circle.
Sharply dressed in a pin striped double-breasted navy suit, dark shades and sporting an old-school perfectly formed moustache, he couldn't look more different from the Brotherhood's burly and bearded Shater, who favors tie-less shirts and has been seen in archival news footage dressed in a white shell suit behind bars.
Speculation is rife over Suleiman's entry into the race, what motivated him to change his mind after indicating he wouldn't seek the post, why he is not on trial along with Mubarak's other close aides, what his arrangement is with the military council who are seen to back his candidacy and if he can continue his bid as parliament seeks to exclude regime loyalists from political life.
His entry into the race further divides Egyptians and throws a screw into an already tumultuous political process. Reviled by revolution activists and seen as a serious threat by Islamists, Suleiman holds sway with a portion of Egyptians who are fatigued by a mismanaged and chaotic transition that has seem a rise in crime and a decline in the economy and who yearn for a return to security and stability.
And so the marathon that is Egypt's post revolution transition trudges on. The finish line for some may be in sight with voting for a new president set to begin in a few weeks on 23 and 24 May, a run-off scheduled for mid June and handover of power to a president by July 1st. But if recent events are any indication, anything could happen in the days and weeks to come. The race for Egypt is on so stay tuned.