April 02, 2012

Muslim Brotherhood Bid for Presidency Raises the Stakes in Egyptian Elections

Egypt's turbulent post-revolution landscape is experiencing new tremors after the Muslim Brotherhood – the world's oldest Islamist movement – decided to field its own candidate in presidential elections that are shaping up to be a crucial test for the direction of the Arab spring and for the region's largest country.

Khairat al-Shater, a senior financier for the organisation Egyptians know simply as the Ikhwan, has been catapulted into the limelight by the surprise move, seen by some as a panicky response to manoeuvring by the generals who ousted Hosni Mubarak last year but who still rule the country. Rumours that Mubarak's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, is about to declare his candidacy have fuelled expectations of a dramatic fight.

Given Egypt's size and importance, the presidential race in May and June could be a defining event with far wider resonance than last October's Tunisian election, which saw a stunning victory for once-banned Islamists.

Until Saturday the Brotherhood – also long banned, if quietly tolerated – had said it would not field its own candidate. Its restraint was meant to avoid scaring opponents and assuming too much responsibility. It tried but failed to find an independent candidate to assuage worries it wanted to monopolise power.

The Brotherhood already dominates parliament and the assembly writing Egypt's new constitution. If it captured the presidency as well, wrote Marc Lynch in Foreign Policy, "it would stand alone in the face of the military and would bear full responsibility for whatever happened in Egypt's economy, politics and society".

The liberal Free Egyptian party quickly and predictably accused it of seeking to emulate Mubarak and establish a single-party dictatorship. But opinion is divided about its motives. Some Egyptians argue that the shift was caused by the Brotherhood's sharply deteriorating relations with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), which has rejected demands to dismiss the underperforming civilian cabinet it appointed last year.

Others suspect Shater's candidacy is a cover-up for what the commentator Noha El-Hennawy called a more "strategic pact" between the military and the Brotherhood. But it is possible that the Brotherhood simply wants to defeat the popular candidate of the ultra-conservative religious Salafi camp, Hazem Abu Ismail, whose strident views especially worry Coptic Christians. A third Islamist, Abdel Moneim Aboul Futouh, a renegade former Brotherhood member, is also running.

Issandr Amrani, who blogs as the Arabist, favours a more simple explanation: "The MB went ahead with this decision because it sees itself as on the brink of actually wielding power for the first time in its history," he argued.

Speculation is rife that the generals may decide to back Suleiman or some other Mubarak-era figure for the top job. The frontrunning secular nationalist candidate is Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and Arab League chief.

Shater, 61, a millionaire engineer turned businessman, is a conservative who spent years in prison under Mubarak and has no experience of campaigning in a free political system – one reason for opposition to him from younger, reform-minded members of the Brotherhood. Another is the damage caused to the Brotherhood's credibility by such a major U-turn. Even Shater's children were said to be unhappy with the news.

In another development that illustrates Egypt's febrile political atmosphere, the Coptic church announced it was withdrawing from the "pointless" constitutional assembly. Disgruntled liberal representatives have already pulled out.

Nominations for the presidency need to be submitted by next week, so there is little time left for more bombshells. But one likely outcome must be a three-way split of the Islamist vote. "This is a disaster because the Brotherhood has fallen into a trap set for it by the military," argued one analyst, Said Shehata.

It is a measure of the changes wrought by the Arab spring that the western governments that supported Mubarak until the end appear – publicly, at least – unfazed by the new dominance of Islamists in Egyptian politics. But foreigners, like Egyptians, know that Islamists come in different shapes and sizes. When Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, was asked about Shater's candidacy, she answered carefully: "We hope that the Egyptian people get what they protested for in Tahrir Square, and that's complete open pluralistic democracy that respects the rights of every Egyptian."