A superficial first glance would make it seem that the disqualification of three leading presidential candidates by an election commission in Egypt is akin to a racing commission in Kentucky suspiciously scratching three top contenders from the the Derby just weeks before the big race. And in Egypt, where a paranoid assumption of conspiracy is often the first explanation for all political events, the abrupt discarding of the former regime's intelligence chief, a prime leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a more radical Salafist candidate certainly makes it seem that some hidden hand is trying to narrow the field of presidential contenders.
In each case, however, there is a standing law or rule that requires the barred candidate to be disqualified. One can blame the rules; some were instituted by one faction to keep a rival group out of power. Indeed, Islamists wanting to prevent a Western-leaning liberal from becoming president were responsible for the requirement that no candidate can run for president whose spouse or parents had citizenship in another country. This is the rule that disqualifies the ardent Islamist, Abu Ismail, whose mother apparently held American citizenship.
The reality is that post-revolutionary Egypt is endowed with contradictory and conflicting rules, powers, and institutions, creating political chaos in the mode of a Cairo traffic jam. The secular liberals who pulled off the Tahrir Square uprising neglected to build effective political parties to compete in legislative elections, allowing the Muslim Brothers and the more extreme Salafists to take 70 percent of seats in Parliament. The Constitutional Commission that Parliament appointed was so one-sided that the secular and Christian members resigned in protest.
Consequently, it looks like a new Constitution will be written only after a new president is elected -- someone who will, initially at least, preside over a barely reformed system that funnels nearly all power to the president. And it is far from certain that the military will yield civilian control of its budgets, its vast economic interests, or its direction of Egyptian foreign policy.
Yet, despite the messiness of a revolution making up new rules as it goes along, there is something that should be encouraging in the spat over disqualified presidential candidates. As contradictory and chaotic as the new rules of the road may seem, Egyptians are trying to play by those rules. Egypt is not Syria. The Egyptian struggle for
power is being waged by legal means, peacefully and politically.