This Egyptian presidential election has all the earmarks of being a "we've never been here before" event.
Never before have we seen such a competitive contest in Egypt or, for that matter, in any Arab country. And never before have we had a presidential contest, anywhere in the world that I can recall, where we have no idea what the winner will actually win when the election is over.
At this point, the polls are too close and no clear front-runner has emerged. Anyone can still emerge victorious. This is the third major vote in Egypt in the past year. The two earlier rounds were notable for the surprises they brought. First, there was the referendum to ratify the constitutional changes put forward by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Back then, the once very popular, Mohamed El Baradei, and the always popular former Foreign Minister and Arab League Secretary General, Amr Moussa, and the youthful leaders of the Tahrir Square revolt all campaigned for a "no" vote. Just a few days before the vote, these forces were predicting victory. Meanwhile, the alliance of the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood appeared to be working in tandem in support of the referendum. Their combined organizational strength proved decisive and carried the day, winning by a huge margin of more than three to one.
The surprise that occurred in the many rounds of the parliamentary elections was the consistent strength demonstrated by the Salafi movement. It had been expected that the Muslim Brotherhood would win handily. And they did. But what caught most observers off guard was the broad support given to Salafi candidates resulting in their party winning almost one-quarter of the seats in the new parliament.
While one might assume that these contests lay the predicate for this presidential election and can be used to project the outcome, it appears they may not provide a useful guide to the expected result for two reasons: Egyptians appear to view the presidency differently than they do the legislature; and competition among the Islamic parties and a general concern of a Muslim Brotherhood "over-reach" is producing an alliance of "strange bedfellows" which may affect voter behavior.
These factors combined have resulted in a Salafi/liberal alliance supporting the candidacy of a moderate former Muslim Brotherhood leader, Abdul Moneim Aboul Fatouh, who has since been denounced by the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood's own candidate has so far fared poorly in the polls, since even some in his own party are concerned lest their group be seen as wanting too much power too soon. Secularists and liberals have at least three candidates in the running. Far and away the leader of this group appears to be the charismatic Amr Moussa. Also scoring fairly well in various polls are former Prime Minister-for-a-month Ahmad Shafiq and leader of the Kefaya movement, Hamdeen Sabahi.
As I noted, the polling on this contest has been inconsistent -- and for good reason. Because we've never seen a competitive presidential contest of this type in Egypt, we do not know how to predict the turnout, the voter intensity, or each party's or candidate's organizational strength. And so regardless of what the polls may be saying, I would never count out the capacity of the Brotherhood or the SCAF to play a major role on election day.
As big as the question of who the winner will be, is what the job of the presidency will be like in the short term, when this election is over, and in long term, after the new constitution is written. Some Egyptians may have set high expectations for this vote, assuming that major change will occur should their preferred candidate win. Most likely, that will not be the case.
This is not a contest that will put in office a leader who will have the power of a President Mubarak or Sadat or Nasser. Past presidents came out of the military and controlled the ruling party and parliament, and the security services and the other institutions of the state. The current situation is less clear, more diffuse.
The SCAF will remain a major force to be sure and appears unlikely to surrender complete control to a civilian authority, especially if it is one they do not trust. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi movement have control over significant blocs in the parliament and, corresponding to that, large and influential segments of the Egyptian society. And then there are those other organized forces who played such a significant role in the revolt and have demonstrated the capacity to mobilize protests.
Given all of this, the space available for the new president to act will be constrained. Parliament will weigh in on the formation of the government, the military will push back as it sees fit to protect its prerogatives, and the "street" will react when it feels compelled to do so.
As I said: "We've never been here before." This new situation in Egypt is called democracy and it is an uncertain balancing act between competing forces. It is sometimes messy and it will take time to work itself out.
It is important to remember, though, that while all this drama is playing out, Egyptians are facing a major challenge lurking in the shadows that could upset an already precariously perched applecart. And that is the state of the country's economy. It they are responsible, leaders across the spectrum will push aside differences born of self-interest and act quickly to consolidate the power of the new president and the effectiveness of the new government so that the economic crisis can be addressed as a national priority. Whether that will happen remains to be seen. After all, we've never been here before.