The 14 months since Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow have not been kind to those who yearn for a free Egypt. A military junta rules, Islamists dominate the Parliament, thousands languish in army jails, the economy careens toward insolvency, no one has been held accountable for the slaughter of more than 800 citizens during the country’s 2011 uprising—and now Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s spymaster and onetime deputy, is running for president. For many Egyptians, the general’s reappearance is a bitter reminder of the incompleteness of their revolution.
Politicians of all stripes warn that Suleiman’s candidacy is part of a plot to revive the dictatorship. The Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate has promised a new revolution if Suleiman wins on May 23, and the Parliament has passed a law that would bar Suleiman and other Mubarak-era notables from running (although it’s not clear if the junta will approve it or the courts will let it stand).
This is not the first time Egyptians have been consumed with Suleiman’s presidential prospects. Toward the end of Mubarak’s reign, when the leader’s unlovable son Gamal appeared poised to succeed him, many Egyptians thought Suleiman would make a fine alternative. He was, after all, a soldier in a country that lionized its military men, was untainted by the younger Mubarak’s neoliberalism, and—most important for those allergic to the Muslim Brotherhood—he hated Islamists.
But that was then. Suleiman used to warn that democracy would bring the Islamists to power, and recent parliamentary elections seem to have borne him out. But they also show how hopeless his candidacy is. Does he really think the voters who just packed the Parliament with Islamists are now going to elect a president who is political Islam’s sworn enemy?
Some fear that the ruling generals will rig the election in Suleiman’s favor. But it’s not clear that the junta wants him that badly, and given Egyptians’ newfound propensity to protest, the generals must know that such a scenario would end inauspiciously. Instead, Suleiman’s only chance is to exploit the discord that has emerged among the country’s political forces.
Relations between secularists and Islamists are at their nadir. Last month secular parliamentarians walked out of the committee that was drafting a new constitution, protesting what they saw as Islamist attempts to monopolize the process. The Islamists tried to carry on alone, until a court stopped them. And many liberals feel betrayed after the Brotherhood’s decision to renege on its promise not to seek the presidency. Suleiman is hoping they’ll see in him a bulwark against the coming theocracy.
It remains to be seen whether they will. For now, however, the most we can say about Suleiman’s candidacy is that it is a powerful indication of how deep the chasm between Egyptian liberals and Islamists has become. If he manages to win because of it, they’ll have no one but themselves to blame.
Tarek Masoud is an assistant professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.