More obstacles in Egypt's push to democracy

It seems that in Egypt's slow march towards democracy, every potentially positive development comes with an asterisk already affixed.

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When former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison earlier this month, the initial euphoria was quickly tempered by the knowledge that some members of his regime, including his sons, Alaa and Gamal, were acquitted.

A similar tinge of dashed hopes emerged from another courtroom yesterday, when Egypt's constitutional court ruled that Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, can stand for election on Saturday as planned. But this decision was followed by another that suggested a large number of parliament members had won their seats illegally.

It seems that in Egypt's slow march towards democracy, every potentially positive development comes with an asterisk already affixed.

On the first decision we can find cause for cautious optimism. No doubt liberals will feel cheated by the decision to let a former regime official stand; many called Mr Shafiq an "enemy of the revolution" during recent protests. But 23.3 per cent of those who turned out in first round voting cast their ballot for this "enemy". Tossing him out now would have invalidated the democratic wishes of nearly a quarter of these Egyptians who voted.

The second decision is more problematic. Egyptians' feeling of discontent will no doubt be further fuelled by the news that the court has suggested a large portion of spots in parliament were won unconstitutionally. Initial reports said the court was referring only to seats reserved for individual candidates; official state media later declared the entire Islamist-dominated parliament illegitimate. Egyptian judge Faruq Sultan told AFP that the decision “voids parliament” but “not in the meaning of dissolves”.

These decisions will raise many questions, and tensions. For starters, how can Egypt's constitutional court rule on the constitutionality of parliament if Egypt is, indeed, without a valid constitution? Then there's the question of timing: Why are these issues being debated so close to election day, after absentee voters - including those in the UAE - have already cast ballots? Coming a day after Egypt's military police and intelligence units were given new powers to detain civilians, the rulings will no doubt be seen as playing into the military's hands.

Complaints by some of Egypt's younger revolutionaries have not always been watertight. Over 50 per cent of voters in last month's election opted for liberal candidates; but simply not liking the results does not mean the revolution has been hijacked.

Now, however, there will once again be questions about whether democracy was passed over for cronyism. Seventeen months after the uprising began, it's one step forward in Egypt, and one back.