Speculation Grows About Intentions of Army ChiefSource: The Wall Street Journal
By Tamer El-Ghobashy and Matt Bradley, Updated Jan. 27, 2014 4:49 a.m. ET
Egyptians gathered Saturday at Tahrir square in Cairo on the third anniversary of the Arab Spring revolt. Reuters
CAIRO—Egypt's military-backed government said it would hold presidential elections before a parliamentary vote, a reversal that stands to give the next president considerable legislative authority.
That next leader looks increasingly likely to be the military's chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, who has indicated he is considering a bid for the nation's highest office, buoyed by massive popular and political support. Few other potential candidates have emerged.
On Sunday, people outside Cairo carry the coffin of a victim of clashes with the military a day earlier, the anniversary of Egypt's 2011 revolution. Agence France-Presse / Getty Images
Sunday's decision changes the electoral schedule set by the military after it ousted Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, in July. The new sequence will put the nation's next leader in a position to influence voters to back the parliamentary candidates he supports.
The decision sets the stage for more clashes with the Muslim Brotherhood, the now-outlawed Islamist group from which the deposed president hailed. The Brotherhood on Sunday called for more demonstrations.
On Saturday, the anniversary of the 2011 revolt that unseated former President Hosni Mubarak, clashes between security forces and protesters led to 49 deaths and more than 250 injuries, officials said. A coalition of independent rights groups said at least 60 people were killed. Security forces arrested more than 1,000 people, officials said.
A day earlier, several bombings in Cairo, for which an al-Qaeda-inspired group claimed responsibility, killed six people and at least 12 supporters of Mr. Morsi were killed when police dispersed protesters, officials said.
Saturday's violence exposed deepening rifts in Egypt over the military government's "road map to democracy," which set a path for civilian-led rule. Although they aren't allied, Brotherhood supporters and many secular-leaning activists oppose Gen. Sisi's growing profile.
Through antiprotest and antiterrorism laws, non-Islamist activists and some foreign and local journalists have been ensnared in the crackdown that rights groups have criticized as a campaign to suppress dissent.
Egypt's government says the measures are necessary in its "war against terrorism" and to bring calm to the nation's streets after three years of instability. "The preservation of the nation of Egypt is an awesome responsibility and a sacred trust, which we, god willing, will live up to," said President Adly Mansour. "We will not hesitate to undertake any exceptional measure, if necessary."
The Muslim Brotherhood on Sunday dismissed the government's recent moves. "We don't recognize a road map that was brought on top of military tanks against the will of the Egyptian people and in an environment of extreme repression unprecedented in Egypt's history," said spokesman Abdullah El-Haddad.
Saturday's violence came as a raucous event attended by thousands in Tahrir Square took on the appearance of a campaign rally for Gen. Sisi. Many of Egypt's political and business elites have called on Gen. Sisi to run for president.
But with thousands of leaders and members of the Brotherhood—the biggest opposition group—killed, arrested or cowed, few signs have emerged of a competitive election. Only Hamdeen Sabahi, a presidential candidate in 2012, has said he would run even if Gen. Sisi does.
In announcing the electoral schedule, Mr. Mansour said the government had met "with some of the major political stakeholders and representatives of the different political groups which indicated a majority in favor of holding presidential elections first."
Mr. Mansour, in a short televised speech, noted that the decision was a reversal from the military government's original road map. He announced no dates for the elections. Egypt's constitution calls for a vote within 90 days of the document's ratification.
Mohammed Abul Ghar, head of the left-leaning Egyptian Social Democratic Party, whose founders include the prime minister and deputy prime minister in the military backed interim government, said flipping the order of elections was necessary to bring order to a chaotic transition.
"We believed that it would quiet things in Egypt and the street would be…calm and this would be a positive signal if the elections are very fair and proper," he said. "This is a step toward democracy."
Egypt's amended constitution, overwhelmingly approved in a referendum with just over one third of the eligible voters, says that in the absence of a legislative body the next president would have complete legislative powers until a parliament is elected. Once seated, the body would have 15 days to ratify the laws enacted by the president in the interim.
Some observers said that having a president elected before parliament would give a popular leader heavy influence over the parliament's composition.
Given Egypt's political instability, Egypt's next president could lend considerable weight to friendly political forces in their bid for parliamentary seats, they said, resulting in a loyalist parliament—a hallmark of Mr. Mubarak's nearly 30 year autocratic rule, observers say.
"People are desperate for a leader, and a winning president would just say, anyone who accepts my presidency should vote for a certain alliance and it would be very easy for that alliance to get 50% of the seats," said Zaid Al-Ali, a constitutional expert with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a Stockholm-based intergovernmental group that promotes democracy. The approval of laws would be "just a formality if the president and parliament are of the same political color, and that's probably what is going to end up happening."
While that could help organize a more united and efficient legislative body, Mr. Al-Ali said, the parliament would become less diverse and it "would be easier to pass legislation that doesn't conform to best practices and fundamental rights."
Source: The Wall Street Journal