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Of all the Egyptian Candidates, I Vote for the Sphinx

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The Arab spring is emerging, ever more clearly in the principal Arab country, Egypt, as a goal-line stand by the military and intelligence communities against radical Islam, the Western-emulators lionized by the Western media as the democratic inheritors of millennia of Arab misrule, and colonial outrages becoming only a shrinking center-portion in the middle of a hardtack political sandwich.

Like a dance of many veils in a Cairo nightclub, the prim vestments of democratization in the land of the Pharaohs have been steadily stripped off to reveal scars and musculature not at all seemly as the contours of comely electoralism.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been the sinister sectarian opposition to the British puppet playboy kings and the secular generals that followed -- Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak. Initially, the usual gape-mouthed, gullible Western media outlets, such as the New York Times and the BBC, were relentless and fervent in their clangorous protestations that the Brotherhood was an aggregation of centrists, like Tercep Erdogan of Turkey, an Islamist who has purged and tamed the Kemalist military, but has, so far, refrained from any attack on democracy.

As the Muslim Brotherhood dominated the first fair parliamentary elections in Egyptian history, and were assisted in their moderate masquerade by the partial success of the more unambiguously theocratic Salafi Party, the initial plan was to have a parliamentary democracy where the Brotherhood would rule and have minority or non-political figures occupy the ceremonious post of president and legislative-coordinating position of prime minister.

The transition from Mubarak's 30-year rule to the Brotherhood's Westminster-on-the-Nile was to proceed at the stately pace of a minuet: the Brotherhood's legislative victory, the experts' committee's report proposing a new Constitution and its enactment, and the election of the honorific president, like that of Germany or Italy.

The sanctimonious divertissement of Hosni Mubarak's trial, in which the defendant is wheeled into court on a stretcher, still wearing his sunglasses, and with tubes protruding from his nose like accused gangsters in the film "Casino," would distract the aggrieved and give the contending forces a steady assurance of their own purposeful rectitude.

The Egyptian Army is the most respected institution in the country, mainly because it did cross the Suez Canal and penetrate the Israeli Bar Lev Line in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. This was an achievement and the only military success Egypt has had against Israel, but it was inconclusive and superseded by Ariel Sharon's crossing of the Canal in the opposite direction, father south, and his near-surrounding of one of the main Egyptian armies.

The tired pieties of the Army's modest, now far-off successes, (which enabled Sadat honorably to make the Camp David Agreement), are now receding, and the military government that has ruled since Mubarak, under Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, by its frequent recourse to traditional methods of crowd dispersal, and a year of tight-lipped, authoritarian and sclerotic government, offering nothing to Islamists or democrats, retains any prestige only because of the empty wasteland of institutional rivals.

For a time, the run-up to the presidential election was a beauty contest involving the entire diminutive fraternity of Egyptian political personalities, including the former and quite suspect, (as pro-Iranian), head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, and the head of the Arab League and former (rabidly anti-Israel) foreign minister, Amr Moussa.

But when the constitutional commission was shut down sine die by an administrative court, the Muslim Brotherhood announced that it would run a presidential candidate, (Khairat el-Shater), which it had promised not to do. He may be assumed to have taken the lead in the polls from the former front-runner, Moussa, but among those also in the race is a former Mubarak prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, and the liberal democratic Islamist, Abdel Moneim.

The most interesting candidate, however, is the last vice-president and long-serving chief of intelligence, General Omar Suleiman. But in the latest wrinkle, the elections commission, which is generally presumed to be influenced by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, disqualified Suleiman, Shater, and splinter candidate, militant Islamist Hazem Abu Ismail, for the technical reason of insufficiently geographically varied attestations of support. (Suleiman attributed the miraculous, almost simultaneous arrival of 30,000 endorsements of him from all over the country to "divine facilitation.") This latest development is being appealed and it is not clear if it is a serious obstacle, or if the Suleiman entry was just a blind to cover the elimination of Shater's Brotherhood candidacy.

The spring idyll of the green shoots and blooming flowers of popular government thrusting unvexed into the Egyptian sunshine is now clouded by Mubarak's declared successor either running with the blessing of the army and the intelligence service, or taking out the Brotherhood's candidate, under the same auspices. Their joint ability to rule Egypt without broad popular support has not been lost, although they chose to throw their former leader to the wolves, (which may not be too voracious after all). There is no political skullduggery to which Egypt is a stranger, and as Augustus Caesar remarked, terrible outrages are required to make Egypt aggressively "peevish."

It appears that the continuing forces of authority will await the presidential election before determining if the president has any constitutional powers or not. If it is allowed to contest it, the Brotherhood will have to fight the presidential election seriously; the military cannot necessarily be counted on to allow a squeaky-clean election, and may be able to elect Suleiman (if he wins his appeal), or even Shafiq without it being an electoral burlesque of the kind Sadat and Mubarak cheerfully perpetrated for 40 years.

There is not one shred of evidence that any of the parties or contenders has the remotest idea how to do what needs to be done in Egypt. If the military had had the economic instincts of other high-handed generals in other countries, such as Chile's Augusto Pinochet, South Korea's Park Chung-hee, or even Spain's Francisco Franco, Egypt, which had a higher standard of living than war-ravaged South Korea at the end of the Korean War in 1953, might have more than the approximately 15 per cent of South Korea's standard of living that it has today. As for the Muslim Brotherhood, no theocracy has ever governed intelligently in economic terms, except, occasionally, and this is scarcely an applicable comparison, the Vatican.

It may be disappointing to the Pollyannas who ululated so rapturously when Mubarak bit the dust, but to those who never believed that much good would be achieved by the assassins of Anwar Sadat, something tolerable is still possible. Egypt's greatest political scientist remains the Sphinx.