05/24/2012 12:54 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2012

Don't Hold Your Breath for Egypt's Presidential Election

One would think that the presidential election in post-Revolution Egypt resembles what takes place in democratic countries: Contesting candidates, vigorous campaigns, heated public debate over candidates' portfolios and chances of success, even the Western-style televised presidential debates. Except that Egypt is not a democracy. Not even close to becoming one.

In democracies, voters know what the president's formal, constitutional powers are. And they know for certain. But in Egypt Egyptians will go to vote with no knowledge of what authorities will be vested in the president and whether the candidate who will win the poll will have enough powers to implement the portfolio on which he based his electoral campaign.

With no permanent constitution in place yet, a 60-article constitutional declaration, imposed by the ruling Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), lays out a confusing and much-contested "roadmap of transition."

Although the interim declaration does state the powers of the president (albeit murkily), the document is supposed to become obsolete once a new constitution gets drafted and enforced within weeks or months, specifying the system that will guard Egypt's political arena, a system that might as well be presidential, parliamentary or mixed, which each system carrying different possibilities for the nature of the president's post.

The People's Assembly has not yet succeeded in forming a committee assigned to write a permanent constitution for the country, although this was supposed to be the parliament's primary task.

The existence of an interim declaration doesn't make things clearer. There is no consensus over the document, with its articles getting interpreted differently by Egypt's various political entities at different points of time, leaving the country in a vicious circle of constitutional void. A case in point was the debate on the declaration's entailment as to which should take place first: electing a president or writing the constitution that would designate the president's powers. For months, the country's legal experts were divided over the issue -- and conflicting statements were made by political forces, including SCAF members themselves, although SCAF is the very entity that enforced the transition's roadmap.

The roadmap's ambiguity was also clear amid the frenzy over the parliament's threats of passing a no-confidence vote against Ganzouri's cabinet. For weeks, members of parliament, cabinet secretaries and premier, and SCAF -- the three groups publicly contended the People's Assembly's powers and whether it was authorized to dismiss the cabinet. (The crisis ended with a limited reshuffle of four secondary ministers only.)

Not only has the parliament failed to sack the cabinet, but it hasn't made any substantial progress toward democracy in post-Arab Spring Egypt. Similarly, a president without specific and confident authorities is not expected to change Egypt into a democracy.

Even after a permanent constitution gets eventually drafted and the president's authorities get revealed, a civilian ruler is not expected to fully exercise his legitimate powers -- not as long as SCAF is still in session and the Armed Forces are not accountable to the people, not subdued to elected civilian officials and institutions. A Wall Street Journal report published on May 18 predicts what SCAF has already hinted to several times over the past year: that it will not relinquish its upper hand over foreign policy, which includes Egyptian relations with the United States, the provider of annual military assistance to Egypt. The Army is also expected to seek to protect its budget from public scrutiny and parliamentary accountability.

Because democracy essentially entails the subservience of the military to civilian authority, Egypt is not a democracy yet. The mere existence of an elected parliament and the carrying out of presidential elections are no indication that the country is on a solid track of democratization. Not when there is no nationally-respected constitution in place and there is constant dispute and sophistry over the powers of the parliament and president, with the ultimate answers always possessed by 19 military generals who were never voted into office and who continue to keep the country under state of Emergency Law.

Unless elections are deemed to constitute an end in and of themselves, rather than a means toward peaceful transition of power within a democratic framework, there is no point in having high expectations of Egypt's upcoming presidential election.