When speculation grew rampant regarding his possible presidential run, Omar Suleiman was adamant that he had no such plans. In fact, most commentators seemed to confirm what appeared to be his genuine decision not to run for the presidency; rumours began to circulate that even SCAF was not excited about the idea either.
Only a few days before the deadline for submitting official candidacy proposals - a mere day after he announced for what was supposed to be the definitive and final time that he would not be running - to the former Vice President and Chief of Intelligence suddenly changed his mind. This was said to be in response to a demonstration staged by his supporters calling for his “urgently needed” candidacy, with a significant number of people already rushing to sign endorsement documents out of their own free will (candidates need 30,000 endorsements to run in the presidential elections). It was also speculated that Suleiman decided to run as a direct result of the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to field Deputy Guide Khairat Al-Shater in the presidential elections. Of course, some theorised that this last-minute candidacy had been planned from the start.
The ensuing debate, both local and international, focused on the apparent contradiction in the situation at hand: how could one of the most powerful and controversial men in a regime supposedly overthrown by a popular revolution seek election to that country’s highest office, and to do so in the first presidential elections after the revolution? What is more important and less often covered by the media is why so many actually plan to vote for him.
In the registrar’s office, two days before the deadline for endorsing a candidate was fast approaching, a previously unseen stampede was taking place. Masses of citizens were pouring in by the minute to register their endorsements. They showed genuine passion, often remarking to everyone, in one form or another, “He is our saviour. He can bring back Egypt from the brink.” These people hailed from various social backgrounds, though the majority looked middle class. Asked, “Do you think the Mubarak regime was actually good?”, one retorted angrily, “Well, it was definitely better than any of what we have right now!”
That statement encapsulates the mental state of many of the people in that room. There are many reasons for the concomitant sentiment.
First, the country’s democratic transition has been all but a disaster. The ruling SCAF has mismanaged the entire transitional process, plunging the country into deep uncertainty, whether economic or political. And civilian political forces have successively failed to reach any reconciliatory consensus broad enough to reassure the people on many of the milestone and historic junctures that have presented themselves over the past 14 months, from the referendum on constitutional amendments to the debate on Supra-Constitutional Principles to the recent meltdown over the composition of the Constituent Assembly. In addition, the country’s politicians have largely failed to create any sense of national inspiration or excitement; they have managed, in fact, to generate the opposite of such. In fact, it is regrettably easy to argue that with every such milestone on Egypt’s supposed road to democracy, Egyptian society has either been torn into rival factions or a sense of apathy (resulting as much as anything from sheer exhaustion) has been restored or induced.
Secondly, at no time in the history of Egypt has the national consciousness been hit with such a continuous series of violent events, straining households as much as individuals economically and socially with extreme unrest, tragic losses and catastrophes. From the violence in Tahrir and the shocking behaviour of many officers and soldiers to the Maspero and Port Said massacres, the passing away of the national icon Pope Shenouda, the painfully weak, uninspiring performances of the cabinets of Sharaf and Ganzouri, arguably adding to existing sectarian tensions, to severe macroeconomic instability and downturn, growing inflation and a decline in revenues from tourism, continuous and often inexplicable gas shortages, the perceived decline in general security and more. Given that the Mubarak regime had kept the public in a state of near-sedation for three decades, all that has taken place within this past year was doubly traumatising, and yet more so in the light of the high expectations of a stunning and initially exhilarating revolution.
Thirdly, parliament has for the most part proved to be a genuine disappointment. Almost no real policy decisions have been made by the country’s first ever freely and fairly elected parliament, and the level and form of debate has been worse than mediocre. The fact-finding committees convened to investigate killings during the revolution and beyond as well as the tragedy in Port Said have yielded neither effective punishments nor any form of closure, raising national frustration and shattering the hope that perhaps elected civilians would do what unelected officials had failed or refused to do. The live broadcast of the sessions, which in itself is a remarkable development and an advance in terms of democratic transparency, has nevertheless been the cause of MPs staging, as it were, live stunts for the benefit of the media, compromising the integrity of already disappointing floor debates and negatively impacting the reputation of the institution.
Fourthly, the Muslim Brotherhood’s majority party, the FJP (aided to some extent by Al-Nour Party, the next in line) has set off alarms with its recent rapid and continuous expansion of political power, often seen as in direct contradiction to its previously declared positions. For example, the MB said it would not try to dominate parliament, only to eventually expand its electoral campaign and win nearly half of the seats. It had also said that it would not try to monopolise the constitution-writing process, only to control the selection process together with Al-Nour Party, and finally have 37 FJP members in the 100-strong Constituent Assembly in addition to others strongly affiliated with the MB. The MB had also repeatedly stated over a whole year that it would not put forward a presidential candidate, only to field two heavyweight candidates, including Khairat Al-Shater and Mohammed Morsy, the head of the FJP. This desire for political dominance, over and above claims that it is not democratically justified in this nation-building phase, brought to the minds of non-Islamist and non-aligned citizens many of Mubarak and his regime’s clichéd warnings of an “MB conspiracy” for dominance. This has been compounded all the more by the sudden, meteoric rise of the Salafi movement in politics, with its often distinct and stricter rhetoric, together with some overzealous campaigning by supporters of Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail. Taken together, all these developments left Egyptians deeply unsettled and worried about possible radical changes in their lifestyle and in the shape of the nation as they know it.
The fifth factor, which perhaps sums up the previous four, is that, with everything that has been going on, including the inability of revolutionaries to engage effectively and influentially with the larger segments of the population, public excitement about the revolution itself has considerably and regrettably waned. In fact, quite a few people seem to be coming to the disheartening conclusion that the country needs to be “ruled with an iron fist”. For those people, Suleiman (and to a lesser extent, Ahmed Shafiq) is seen as someone who knows the country enough to deal with its problems; he is seen as the kind of man who can “bring Egypt back from the brink”. While many cannot fathom the possibility of victory of figures associated with the previous regime in a post-revolutiony nation, it is well to remember that, with all the fanfare surrounding the victory of the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, one of the revolution’s two leaders is in jail, while the figurehead of the regime defeated by the revolutionary candidates has been reinstated as president by popular democratic vote.
Bassem Sabry is an Egyptian writer and blogger. He writes regularly on his blog “An Arab Citizen”