When is a democracy not a democracy? Here’s one answer: If you’re free to vote for any of the candidates on the ballot, but your favorite candidate is blocked from running.

Egypt seems to have taken a big step down the path of undemocratic democracy. Its Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission blocked three of the most important, viable and potentially popular candidates from the presidential elections slated for late May. This upended the field and cast the political process into disarray. It all but ensured that the next president of Egypt will be a weak one, destined to defer to the military even if the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (do you sense a “Supreme” theme?) renounces formal political power.

Despite how bad all this looks, the commission may also have done Egypt’s long-term prospects for democracy a big favor.

The banned candidates span a wide political range. The most reactionary is Hazem Abu Ismail, an Islamist who never got the memo explaining to the new Islamic democrats that to win elections you have to be moderate. Neither did his supporters. Abu Ismail was surging on a platform of familiar, if apparently outdated, conservative Islamist rhetoric, taking a hard line on Islamic law and women’s rights.

Appeal to Poor

Like other Salafis who did impressively well in Egypt’s parliamentary elections this past winter, Abu Ismail is a populist who appeals to many poor and dispossessed Egyptians. But unlike those other Islamists, who remarkably have said they would respect the Camp David accords, he warned darkly that the US and Israel “pay enormous sums of money to control the whole society.”

It is certainly true that $1.6 billion in annual US military and civilian aid is relevant to the other Islamists’ willingness to accept peace with Israel. Abu Ismail’s comment was not only inflammatory -- it was also threatening to Egyptians who want to avoid the self-destructive madness of breaking a 30-year-old strategic alliance with the US.

Banning Abu Ismail from the presidential race more or less makes this problem go away. The remaining serious candidates agree that the cold peace with Israel can be preserved. The US aid money (or, at least for now, the $1.3 billion in yearly military assistance) can keep flowing, and the armed forces can stay happy. Rejectionist Islamism can be treated as an aberration, not a disturbing trend. The only cost is to the democratic preferences of Egyptians. (The irony is that, officially, Abu Ismail was banned for having an American mother -- which perhaps offers a psychoanalytic angle on his hostility.)

Although Abu Ismail is no doubt incensed, the Muslim Brotherhood may be feeling relieved that its candidate - millionaire businessman Khairat el-Shater - was also barred. Before and after it dominated parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood insisted it would not run its own presidential candidate. This was canny politics: By showing caution in exercising power, the Brotherhood could reassure the US that Egypt was not becoming a fundamentalist state. The Brotherhood also understands that a president from another party would take much of the blame if Egypt’s serious economic problems are not solved in a single election cycle.

However, the plan to sit out the presidential race began to fall apart last year when one of the Brotherhood’s former leaders, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, defied party discipline and announced he would run. The Brotherhood kicked him out, but he held his ground. Then Abu Ismail began to rise in the polls, and the Brotherhood faced a risk: The country might elect a dangerously radical Islamist president, thus queering the pitch for more moderate Islamic democrats in the future. The Brotherhood changed course and put forward Shater.

Back to Plan

Now the electoral commission has banned Shater on the flimsy ground he had a criminal record -- which he did, but only because of a political arrest by the Hosni Mubarak regime. Although the commission may have seen its action as a blow to the Brotherhood, there’s a good chance the group is happy to go back to its original plan of trying not to elect a president from within its ranks.

If Shater was ruled ineligible for political crimes, the third banned candidate was the man who probably ordered the arrest: Omar Suleiman, the head of the Mukhabarat (intelligence services) under Mubarak. Suleiman had briefly tried to hold power as Mubarak went out the door. Indeed, as the regime failed, Mubarak made him vice president in what was either a last ditch attempt to leave behind an ally or a deal that Mubarak made under duress with the hope of holding on a bit longer.

Prohibiting the head of the secret police from becoming president was the least undemocratic of the bans. Many suspect that, if elected, Suleiman planned to follow in the footsteps of former KGB officer Vladimir Putin, winding down democracy from within. No doubt there are Egyptians who would like to see something like the old regime reemerge, as there are Russians (no one knows how many, because the elections are now rigged) who are perfectly happy with Putin.

So, while the democratic rights of Suleiman’s supporters were trampled, the electoral commission did the whole of Egyptian society a favor by heading off renewed conflict between Mubarak bitter-enders and the relatively democratic forces of the new Egypt.

The upshot is that whoever becomes president will be someone who got the job more or less through the manipulations of the electoral commission. He (the other main players are all male) will not represent one of the leading political parties, which means he will lack the political backing to challenge the military and will have to try to govern in concert with Parliament.

A weak president is not necessarily a bad thing for a new democracy coming out of 60 years of dictatorship. Learning to make public, accountable deals is the essence of successful democratic politics. The new president will have to learn to do this. Then again, so will all Egyptians.

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