President Moussa, we presume

The path to Egypt’s presidency for former foreign minister and former Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa has just opened up substantially. As things are lining up, not much seems to stand between him and a victory in elections next summer.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has been ruling as the de facto presidency since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, has confirmed that presidential nominations will be opened in mid-April and the election held in mid-June.

Like many others, I was skeptical that the military could pull off credible, orderly parliamentary elections beginning on November 28 in the midst of unrest in Tahrir Square and some other urban centers. I was wrong. Turnout was high in the first round, and even many protesters voted in spite of their vehement objections to the current order. There was enthusiasm across the board in Egyptian society for going forward with elections and voting.

All three election phases are now complete, with less controversy, violence and irregularities than one might have feared. The results are not fully in, but it seems clear that Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties have won the bulk of the seats.

Having successfully held parliamentary elections under difficult conditions, there seems no reason to doubt that the military will be able to oversee similarly conclusive presidential elections. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what, other than a full-fledged popular rebellion in the coming months, could successfully disrupt this.

The second development that has helped clear the decks for Moussa is the announced withdrawal of one of his main potential rivals, former International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei, leader of the National Coalition for Change. Last week ElBaradei bitterly complained that the military, which he did not explicitly name, was “insisting on taking the old route as if no revolution had taken place and no regime had fallen.”

ElBaradei may be betting that the next president will be perceived as a front man for the military and the system it is trying to create, and will eventually go down with that ship. If so, it’s a bold gamble.

In the past, ElBaradei, a favorite among some Egyptian liberals, has also flirted with an alliance with Islamists. But this unlikely coupling appears to have broken down completely over the past few months. His chances of defeating Moussa looked slim, and he may have felt that he had better prospects of retaining a prominent political role by serving as the voice of those rejecting the SCAF-dominated system.

More to the point, ElBaradei never seemed comfortable in the role of politician. He doesn’t appear to have mastered or to enjoy public speaking or campaigning before large crowds, and has pulled back on occasions when he might have emerged as a central national figure.

Amr Moussa’s other two declared rivals appear even weaker. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh has been expelled from the Muslim Brotherhood for running for president, since the organization does not wish, for a number of tactical reasons, to occupy that position. Mohammed Salim Al-Awa, another Islamist, mainly threatens to take votes away from Aboul Fotouh, strengthening Moussa’s hand. The other obvious potential candidates pose even less of a threat.

There have been at least eight public opinion polls or surveys since the downfall of Mubarak, all of which have shown Moussa leading all other potential candidates. This is hardly surprising. He, alone, is a familiar national figure and a Western-style politician well positioned to appeal to a broad set of constituencies in Egyptian society.

Moussa’s popularity stems from the fact that he can present himself as a man who spent time under the former regime defending Egypt’s international role and leadership in the Arab world. He could uncharitably be described as a kind of Egyptian “Henry Kissinger,” whose foreign policy role allowed him to rise above scandals that swallowed most of his former colleagues.

Last summer I wrote that the most likely outcome in Egypt was a power-sharing arrangement between a military that retains a final say on defense and national security, a foreign policy-oriented presidency and a parliament with broad domestic powers. The Islamist victory in parliamentary elections and what looks to be a clear path for Moussa to the presidency lends weight to this speculation.

The division of powers between these three emerging institutions will be hotly negotiated, of course. But all three are likely to try to avoid overplaying their hand. The biggest obstacle to the emergence of such an arrangement is the potential that violence against Egyptian citizens could backfire against the military in an analogous way it did for the Mubarak regime. So far, that doesn’t appear to be happening.