Egypt to hold historic presidential election

Egypt's landmark presidential election this week should end six decades of effective military rule but it remains unclear how much authority the generals who took over from Hosni Mubarak will cede to the elected leader.

Voting to begin Wednesday with runoff expected next month

A mural in Cairo depicts presidential candidates Amr Moussa (centre) and Ahmed Shafiq (left) and a combination of the faces of former president Hosni Mubarak and Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

Egypt's landmark presidential election this week should end six decades of effective military rule but it remains unclear how much authority the generals who took over from Hosni Mubarak will cede to the elected leader.

One thing is certain, though: the generals want no interference with their budget, their economic empire or promotions.

The main question is whether a military that has grown accustomed to virtually unchallenged domination over the past six decades will be willing to quietly give it all up, or know how to deal with a civilian president if one is elected.

"It will take years before the military and civilians learn how to work together," said Michael W. Hanna, an Egypt expert from the Century Foundation in New York. "The generals don't want to rule, but they have a dim view of civilians. And there are things they are unlikely to budge on — things they want to have a say in, like national security."

All of Egypt's four presidents since the overthrow of the monarchy in a 1952 coup have come from the military. The nation's most powerful institution, the military has over the years built a seemingly unshakable image as a bastion of patriotism and the defender of the nation.

Retired generals have consistently been given top government jobs as cabinet ministers, ambassadors, provincial governors, chairmen of key state-owned firms or key posts in the private sector. Combined with the powers of the president, a loyal police force and a coterie of very wealthy businessmen, they have held a stranglehold on Egypt.

High on the list of their worries is whether the armed forces' budget will be subjected to public debate in the legislature, currently dominated by Islamists, most of whom are at sharp odds with the military.

There is also the question of whether the military's vast economic interests — giant construction companies, farms, water-bottling facilities and a nationwide chain of gas stations — would come under civilian oversight or be forced to compete for lucrative government contracts like everyone else.

Confining the military's role to the defence of the nation has been a main demand by the pro-democracy groups who engineered the anti-Mubarak uprising and later called for the military to step down. Some want the generals to be put on trial to answer for alleged crimes during their rule, including the killing of peaceful protesters, torturing detainees and putting civilians on trial before military tribunals, including icon figures from the protest movement.

"Free and fair elections and the installation of a civilian president would be a step in the right direction," said Samer S. Shehata, an Egypt expert from Georgetown University. "It will be the first step in the retreat, or hopefully the removal, of the military from executive power."

The 13 candidates contesting the Wednesday-Thursday election include Islamists, liberals and two with military backgrounds, among them a retired air force commander who was Mubarak's last prime minister.

No outright winner is expected to emerge from the two-day vote, so a runoff is scheduled for June 16-17 between the two top finishers.

The election is the last stop in a turbulent transitional period before the generals hand back power by July 1 as they promised soon after Mubarak's ouster in last year's 18-day popular uprising.

Here are some profiles of Egypt's main presidential candidates.

Amr Moussa

Former head of the Arab League, he is tainted for serving Mubarak as foreign minister but popular for his criticism of Israel which he says got him fired by Mubarak. Of secular background and West-friendly, 75-year-old Moussa benefits from the image of having experience and being able to fix the economy. He campaigned in poor and rural areas, promising to help them.

Ahmed Shafiq

The former air force commander and civil aviation minister was Mubarak's last prime minister and was dumped after the president's ouster. Shafiq scores points by presenting himself as a strongman and stabilizer who will restore law and order within 24 hours of taking office. Opponents view him as the military's favorite.

Mohammed Morsi

Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate was educated as an engineer in southern California. Elected to parliament several times under Mubarak's rule, Morsi lacks the charisma of the Brotherhood's first-choice candidate, Khairat el-Shater, who was disqualified because of a Mubarak-era conviction. Morsi, 60, has the backing and organizational power of the Brotherhood, Egypt's strongest political movement. Its platform promises to reform corrupt institutions, put the state on an "Islamic basis" and apply more Islamic law.

Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh

A rebel against conservatives within the Muslim Brotherhood, Abolfotoh, 60, was ousted from the group last year after he announced his presidential bid. The Brotherhood had decided not to field a candidate, but later changed its mind citing the military's mismanagement of the transitional period. He promotes a more inclusive line, opposing censorship and saying he would accept a Christian president. His liberal views and Islamic credentials could draw votes from both camps.

Hamdeen Sabahi

A veteran opposition figure under Mubarak, the 57-year old Sabahi defends the ideas of late President Gamal Abdel-Nasser and criticizes the United States and Israel. Sabahi took part in the uprising that toppled Mubarak and is popular among many left-leaning youth and labor groups, in part because he took stances against the generals that took over from Mubarak. Seen as an alternative to both Islamists and former regime officials. Sabahi, a journalist, promotes himself in campaign material as "one of us."