CAIRO – Reform leader Mohammed ElBaradei's surprise pullout from the presidential race has laid bare the messiness of Egypt's transition to democracy with less than six months left for the ruling generals to hand over power.
In less than two weeks on Jan. 25, Egyptians will mark a year since the start of the popular uprising that forced Hosni Mubarak out of office. But there is no longer much talk about the revolution's lofty goals of bringing democracy, freedom and social justice.
Instead, the buzz now is about new alliances that could allow the ruling military to maintain its long-standing domination over government and Islamists to flex their muscles after their big victory in parliamentary elections.
ElBaradei's announcement Saturday that he would not run for president dealt another severe blow to the liberal and leftist groups behind the fall of Mubarak after their defeat at the ballots and the military's escalating crackdown on the movement. ElBaradei said a fair election will be impossible under the military's tight grip.
"We feel that elections now are not the best framework toward democratic rule," prominent activist Shady el-Ghazaly Harb said about the presidential vote that the ruling military has promised will take place by the end of June.
The young revolutionaries who engineered Mubarak's ouster on February 11 have since been divided and embroiled in an increasingly bitter dispute with the ruling generals over their handling of the transition, the killing of scores of protesters by troops, human rights violations and the trial of thousands of civilians before military tribunals.
However, Harb, an icon of last year's uprising, sees some hope in ElBaradei's pullout.
"He is not withdrawing and leaving a void in his trail," said Harb. "He will be back doing grass roots work and that may help unite the youth to effect change."
The military's timeline for the transition speaks to the messiness of its management of the country.
Egyptians went to the polls in staggered parliamentary elections that began Nov. 28 and ended last week. Between now and the end of June, when the generals have promised to transfer power, there are elections for parliament's upper house, or Shura Council, the drafting of a new constitution, a nationwide referendum on the document and then a presidential election.
Late Sunday, the military announced that nominations for president would open in mid-April, and the election would take place in mid-June.
Pro-democracy activists charge that the packed timetable is creating a climate that allows the better organized and more well-known Islamists led by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood to dominate at the expense of the liberal and leftist groups. Many of those groups were born out of the uprising and did not have much time or experience to organize themselves for the competition with Islamists. The Brotherhood, for example, was established more than 80 years ago and was already a well-known political force before the uprising.
But ElBaradei's decision to drop out may have been a calculated move.
Realizing that it would be impossible to win the election without the support of the Islamists who have kept him at arm's length, he opted to pull out and publicly discredit the entire political process as messy and disorderly.
"He may never be president, but now he stands a chance of being our Gandhi," said Negad Borai, a rights lawyer and an activist.
ElBaradei did not mention by name the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF -- the official body of the ruling military -- but the Saturday announcement of his withdrawal contained some of the harshest criticism the Nobel Peace laureate has leveled against the generals.
He compared the military to a ship captain struggling to steer his vessel in the middle of a storm.
"Under his leadership, the ship is being rocked by waves. ... We offer him all kinds of help, but he declines, insisting on taking the old route as if no revolution had taken place and no regime had fallen," he wrote in his withdrawal statement.
"My decision does not mean I am leaving the arena, but continuing to serve this nation more effectively from outside authority and free of all shackles," he wrote in the statement.
A Brotherhood-led alliance has won close to 50 percent of parliament's 498 seats in the recent elections, which were deemed the freest and fairest in Egypt's modern history. Another Islamist group, the ultraconservative Salafis, won about 20 percent, while the remainder was shared by leftist and liberal parties. The Brotherhood has yet to say who it would support for president, but it is likely to be someone who meets the approval of the generals.
A candidate who enjoys the support of both the brotherhood and the military would most likely be beholden to the military, according to another prominent activist, Hossam el-Hamalawy of the Revolutionary Socialists group.
"I am not a fan of ElBaradei's, but his decision to quit puts the other candidates in a very awkward position. He understands that, at the end of the day, the next president is going to be a stooge of the military."
Of all political forces in Egypt, the Brotherhood has worked the most closely with the military. Empowered by Mubarak's ouster after nearly 60 years as an outlawed organization, the Brotherhood has been mostly driven by a desire for power that prompted rivals to accuse it of political opportunism.
Its supporters stayed away from the uprising, only joining when it became clear that the protest movement gained irreversible momentum. More recently, it stayed away from anti-military protests, contending that it was time for elections not street demonstrations.
Its willingness to accommodate the military comes in large part from its realization that the generals wield massive powers and could derail the process that benefited the Islamist group the most. Its election victory made it possible for the Brotherhood to promise the military something in return.
The generals may want to secure the Brotherhood's support for them to win immunity from prosecution for their role in the death of at least 100 protesters since they assumed power.
The new parliament is supposed to play a key role in the drafting of a new constitution. And the military wants language in the next constitution that would spare the army any civilian oversight over its budget, its arms deals, its vast business interests and the pay scale for its top brass.
The generals insist they will not field a presidential candidate from within their ranks, but many believe they will give their nod to a candidate who is either military-friendly or a civilian who hails from military background.
"We are trying to see the best among those (presidential hopefuls) out there. So far, all the candidates don't cut it for us, but if the time comes and no one new appears, we will have to make a decision to support one of them," said Sobhi Saleh, a leader of the Freedom and Justice party, the Brotherhood's political arm.
Asked if the presidential candidate supported by the Brotherhood must also win the military's backing, he said:
"We were the first people to talk about conciliatory figures. This is our choice. We hope to find a president who wins the consensus of everyone to steer the ship in this critical period."