The year 2011 has been extraordinary not just for the tectonic shift in the region’s political structures, but also the extraordinary pressures and opportunities faced by many regional economies.

With four dictators ousted – including one dead and many others were shaken to the core – the aftershocks will no doubt continue to reverberate in 2012 and for years to come.

In the capital Cairo, home to about one-third of Egypt’s 50 million registered voters, millions of Egyptians are voting today in a historic presidential election that is expected to usher in the country’s first freely elected civilian leader after six decades of military-backed dictatorship.

On the first day of voting, May 23, voters waited in long lines outside polling stations, which opened at 8 a.m. across the country, to cast ballots for Egypt’s fifth president since a military coup ousted the king in 1952 and its first leader to be chosen democratically. Everyone in Egypt and around the world is watching earnestly the real-time competition between 13 candidates who have vowed to fulfill glorious campaign promises, captured in slogans of "Justice, Freedom, Renaissance" in their electoral programs and over the past month of endless TV shows, interviews, and public conferences. In addition to witnessing the first televised presidential debate in the Arab world, Egyptian also engaged in “netroots” campaigning for the 13 presidential contenders, firing up Twitter and social networking sites with lively political debates.

But the excitement and optimism surrounding this historic election has obscured warning signs that Egypt’s democratic transition still has a long way to go. Hopes that the next president will be able to single-handedly repair Egypt’s ailing economy and restore political stability are wishful thinking, of course. Most Egyptians don’t seem worried by the fact that the new president will begin his tenure in the absence of a constitution determining his responsibilities and powers.

It is hard to assess post-election scenarios without a careful examination of the SCAF’s March 30 Constitutional Declaration that will define the powers of the incoming president in the first few months of his tenure. If we look carefully at the declaration, we will notice two points of immense significance . One has to do with the president’s status; the other concerns articles of declaration will set him on a collision course with Parliament.

The new president will take office under a constitutional declaration that doesn’t grant him adequate powers. According to articles 25, 35 and 56 of the declaration, the president is entitled to appoint some members of the People’s Assembly and Shura Council. He can appoint or dismiss the cabinet. He represents the country at home and abroad. And he appoints some civilian and military officials.

The same constitutional declaration, however, robs the president of the power to ratify state policy. And he will not be the one ratifying the public budget. Consequently, the president will not be able to increase salaries, introduce unemployment allowances, raise the health and education budgets, or do the rest of the things candidates promised to do. The real power in such matters resides, according to the constitutional declaration, with Parliament.

The millions of Egyptians who lined up in front of the 13,000 polling stations this week are voting to choose the candidate they believe can best fulfill their aspirations, priorities and needs. The Pew Research Center has released new polling data that sheds light on the priorities of Egyptians, of whom almost 8 in ten (81%) consider improving the battered economy a top priority for the country.  Capital flight, dwindling foreign direct investment and crippling unemployment are among the most daunting challenges confronting Egypt’s transition. In the medium term, this grim economic outlook could improve if the incoming president can implement economic policies promoting a return to rapid— but also more inclusive—growth that can generate sufficient employment opportunities for the fast-growing labor force. This can be achieved by creating a more transparent and competitive economy, improving the business environment—especially for small and medium size enterprises — and generally providing more equal access to opportunities for all segments of Egyptian society. Sustained inclusive growth will also require a stable macroeconomic environment, which cannot be achieved in the presence of continued political instability and protests.

The Pew poll also offers insight into Egyptian attitudes toward democratic development.  Egyptians do not just voice support for democracy in an abstract sense – they also want specific democratic rights and institutions. In particular, they want a fair judiciary: 81% consider it is very important to live in a country with a judicial system that treats everyone in the same way. About six-in-ten say it is very important to live in a country with a free press (62%); free speech (60%); and honest, competitive elections with at least two political parties (58%). In addition to these fundamental components of democracy, Egyptians also want order: 60% rate law and order as very important.

Egypt’s new president will come under immediate and intense pressure to fulfill the demands of the people. In order to launch the sweeping economic and development programs that Egypt desperately needs, the new president will need to fully exercise his presidential powers within constitutional limits, while carefully avoiding an overreach of executive authority. Empowered Egyptians are determined to have a say in how they are ruled and would be willing to return to Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the revolution, if they feel their democratic rights are being usurped. The several shocks felt in 2011 with the ouster of Mubarak and the fall of the oligarchic network tied to the ex-president will ripple back if true reforms are not enacted during the new President’s term. 

Merit Al-Sayed is a Projects Manager in the field of Strategic Planning and Performance Analysis at the Arab African International Bank based in Cairo. She is a founding member of two of Egypt’s post-revolutionary parties, El Adl and the Free Egyptians Party

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