Egyptians will go to the polls tomorrow to vote in their first-ever competitive presidential election. The process may require a run-off vote next month, but whoever wins will have legitimacy in a contest in which tens of millions of voters will choose from a broad range of candidates. The new president will be an influential player in Egypt's political scene, in which the Islamist-dominated parliament and ruling military face off against each other while little has been done to address the momentous economic and political challenges facing Egypt's new rulers.
It feels like a long time since the heady days of Egypt's 18-day revolution and the toppling of President Mubarak in February 2011. Expectations for a new democratic dawn in Egypt have not been met. In many ways, Egypt's transition towards democracy has not yet even started, but the election of a president will provide an opportunity for that vital process to move forward. Here are some things to look for that will indicate whether or not Egypt's presidential election will be a step forward for democracy and human rights:
There are signs that Egyptians will have a genuine say in selecting their own leader. International observers have been invited to witness the polling, and will join 53 Egyptian non-governmental organizations accredited as poll monitors and the thousands of members of the Egyptian judiciary deployed to supervise polling stations. The Supreme Presidential Election Commission (SPEC) has shown some strength and independence in the run-up to the election, notably in standing by their decision to exclude high-profile yet controversial candidates. Most importantly, Egyptian voters seem motivated to take part, meaning that this will be the highest turnout ever of Egyptian voters.
While discontent among the losers of any democratic election is to be expected, Egypt cannot afford the political uncertainty that could result from a divisive outcome. A victory for Ahmed Shafiq, a former Prime Minister and the candidate most closely associated with the old regime, could trigger such an outcome. Similarly, a victory for Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister who left the government 10 years ago but remained close to the regime as the head of the Arab League, could produce the same problems.
On the other hand, a victory for the Muslim Brotherhood-backed candidate, Mohamed al-Mursi may heighten fears of Brotherhood domination of the political scene, especially after the organization reneged on its promise to stay out of the presidential race. The other frontrunner, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who enjoys the broadest base, with his support coming from youth activists and liberals as well as from Salafis, is also primarily known as a long-time leading Muslim Brother who only formally renounced his membership from the organization in 2011. Whoever wins, the victorious candidate will face a crucial test in building bridges to those who did not vote for him and do not trust him. A polarizing run-off contest between an Islamist and a candidate associated with the old regime would make this challenge even greater.
It does not appear the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will easily give up a controlling influence over Egyptian politics. Egypt's military has been the power behind the throne in Egypt for decades and the SCAF has successfully resisted attempts from the parliament and other political forces in Egypt to amend the Constitution to provide civilian oversight over the military, especially over its budget.
A new constitutional order that the SCAF is expected to impose will designate the military as "protector of the constitution and the legitimacy of the revolution" -- powers that it could conceivably invoke to dismiss a parliament or president that challenged its preeminent role. Imposing these constitutional provisions so close to the polling date curtails any possibility of debate or opposition since no one is willing to risk postponing the presidential election, and thereby extending SCAF rule.
It seems likely that the United States will respect the wishes of the Egyptian electorate and will seek to work with Egypt's new president, whoever he is. Nonetheless, a new Egyptian president will be susceptible to pressures from Egyptian public opinion that is currently unhappy with U.S. policies towards the region. This may ultimately be the foundation for a more honest and mutually beneficial bilateral relationship, but in the short-term there will be conflicts -- like the recent spat over U.S. funding for civil society organizations.
U.S. and Western policy makers will have to be patient and remain focused on the long-term goal of advancing Egypt's peaceful democratic transition and securing an alliance with a strong, independent Egypt. It remains to be seen how far U.S. policy makers will be willing to go in supporting a new democratic government in Cairo that may be too inclined to challenge U.S. policy preferences on Israel or other key concerns.
It will be fascinating to see whether the surprisingly high vote for Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections at the end of last year is predictive of presidential voting.
At the same time, the political labels under which the candidates are running tell us little about what they will do when in office facing the constraints, both internal and external, of governing. The mass protests that overthrew President Mubarak demanded justice and freedom that can only be met by institutionalizing safeguards for basic freedoms and strengthening the rule of law. These are the real human rights challenges for Egypt's new rulers, and for the panoply of political forces that will shape Egypt's future.