When Egypt's High Election Commission disqualified 10 presidential candidates, including three front-runners, it threw the election into turmoil. All that can be said for certain is that democracy is messy, particularly in the aftermath of 30 years of military dictatorship.
Many people in the world's established democracies, including the United States, celebrated with Egyptians when the mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square toppled Hosni Mubarak from power a year ago. But revolutions, even peaceful ones, create power vacuums that parties and politicians scramble to fill. In Egypt, those parties include Islamist organizations across a spectrum of ideologies, plus the military, which continues to rule the country in a caretaker role. Events in such a struggle are bound to be unpredictable.
Organizing protests is one face of politics. Jockeying for votes in campaigns is another. Meanwhile, there may be only a rough consensus about the rules of the game, if, indeed, there are any. Even in longtime republics like Britain and the United States, political campaigning is a cutthroat affair, and they have established traditions and institutions. In Egypt, that's not so much the case.
Enter the Election Commission, a panel of five unelected judges that is chaired by the head of the constitutional court. One view of its action Saturday is that it was a triumph for the rule of law, because the panel disqualified 10 candidates from across the political spectrum for violations of the election laws. What's more, the judges apparently ruled impartially despite harassment by street protesters.
But the story isn't that simple. For example, one of the leading candidates, Khairat el-Shater, a strategist of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, was disqualified for having a criminal record. Yet that conviction is widely seen as the unjust result of a charge trumped up by the old Mubarak regime to silence a political opponent.
On the other hand, Mubarak's former intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, also was disqualified. The judges ruled that many of the 30,000 signatures to qualify him for the ballot lacked adequate authentication or failed to meet distribution requirements. (Sounds like Utah, where signatures on initiative petitions and candidate filings have been recent subjects of legal disputes.)
Some of the disqualified candidates have filed appeals, but the original decisions will not be reviewed in a separate forum. And because some of the most popular candidates are involved, street power could come into play.
Birthing a democracy is never easy.