Commentary

Presidential Elections in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

This week, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt reversed its long-held promise that it would not field a candidate for the upcoming presidential elections. The decision has come as a surprise to many observers in the region given the Brotherhood’s track record on the issue. Last year, at least two MB members were expelled after they announced their intention to come forward as candidates for president. Many are now wondering what the real reason for the MB’s change of heart might be.

In a statement released on its own website — Ikhanweb — the MB and the Freedom and Justice Party revealed “The decision of the Brotherhood’s consultative General Shura Council not to endorse any of the organization’s own members as a candidate for the presidency — on 10 February 2011 with confirmation on 29 April 2011 — was based on internal and external reasons, but generally to safeguard the success of the revolution, and not to provide any excuses for an unfortunate abortion of the process of democratization. However…the Brotherhood found that there is a very real and imminent threat to the revolution and the process of democratic transition and transfer of power to an elected civilian government in accordance with the popular will.”

However much the Brotherhood tries to downplay the reversal, most observers are fascinated by what could be behind the change. The Egyptian Gazette’s Mohssen Arishie is deeply critical of the MB, concerned that “the fundamentalist organization is fighting for all seats of power in the country. The Muslim Brothers’ landslide victory…in the invasion of Parliament in 2011, has strengthened their ‘insatiable’ appetite for power. Salivating over the prospect of grabbing even more power in this country, the MB were said to have groomed their leading member Khairat el-Shater to conquer scores of presidential palaces scattered across the country.…But el-Shater the Conqueror should not expect that his ‘Battle of the Caliphate’ in May would be an easy task.”

The Egyptian weekly Al Ahram dedicates significant space to this decision. Al Ahram’s Amani Maged believes: “The U-turn has raised many questions over the group's intentions….What, many people are now wondering, does this mean for its relationship with SCAF?....Commentators…argue that El-Shater's nomination ratchets up an ongoing game of brinksmanship between the Brotherhood and SCAF….The promise not to nominate a presidential candidate was merely the last in a string of broken vows that includes the Brotherhood's undertaking to stand in no more than 30 per cent of parliamentary seats, and not to pack the constituent assembly charged with drafting a new constitution with its placemen.”

On the other hand, Amira Howediy, writing for the same weekly, looks into the internal dynamics of the decision, concluding: “It is unclear how El-Shater's nomination is playing out within the group. Insiders say many will support the decision out of loyalty while questioning the wisdom of a U-turn that inevitably damages the group's credibility. But according to Guidance Bureau member Ali Beshr, any talk of a division within the Brotherhood is ‘exaggerated’ and ‘unrealistic’....The one thing El-Shater's nomination does show is that the Brotherhood is not a monolith. Not only are there differences inside the organization — think only of the 56-52 Shura Council vote and the public expressions of concern by Brotherhood leaders about its ramifications — it is also the only political force capable of presenting two serious presidential contenders.

In its editorial this week, one of the regional dailies — Khaleej Times — is critical of the decision: “The manner in which the Brotherhood had kept itself aloof from taking sides as the uprising unfolded had won it laurels….That is why it is incumbent upon it to address issues of governance and manifesto in a comprehensive manner so that the electorates have a fair idea that this transition from dictatorship to representative governance is not merely a change of face and decorum….This Brotherhood attempt to seek presidency could come to derail the unanimity that prevails among all sections of thought, irrespective of their political likings. A compromise and consensus is indispensable.”

Asharq Alawsat’s Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed sees a silver lining in the MB’s bid to consolidate power  and provide some much needed stability: “The current “democratic” scene — with its complex legislative and executive partnerships — is reminiscent of the situation in Lebanon: a parliament, a prime minister, a president and other powers on the ground. Each of these powers is capable of thwarting any positive developments, whilst none of them can do anything positive on their own. The Egyptians need a man or a woman whom they can trust; one with a truly extraordinary character that can save Egypt from the surrounding dangers.”

Much has also been written about the man who would be president. In an op-ed on Egypt Independent, Ashraf El-Sherif believes “Shater has embarked on the gamble of his life, but he will turn out a loser either way….His odds are low because of the SCAF’s preferences and the voting patterns of Egyptians....Another loss the Brotherhood will incur will be the impression that it betrayed a former pledge… But perhaps the most dangerous outcome will be how Shater’s competition with a SCAF-backed candidate threatens to intensify the country’s ongoing political and social conflict, threatening the Brotherhood’s gains over the past year.”

And it is precisely this internal challenge that is the subject of Zvi Bar'el op-ed on Haaretz: “The Muslim Brotherhood candidate al-Shate has his work cut out for him. He is opposed from the religious camp by Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a religious leader, senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, lawyer and former Member of Parliament, who in the past few months has been promoting a radical religious agenda....Abu Ismail is no small challenge for the Muslim Brotherhood....he is everyone’s hero: causing both the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberals to shudder as they sit on the sidelines.”

There are many who also wonder what a Muslim Brotherhood-backed foreign policy looks like. Jerusalem Post’s Jay Bushinsky believes “The alarm sounded by some observers in Israel…is unwarranted.... [T]he Muslim Brotherhood’s representative stressed the need to reinforce and sustain the Islamic character of Egyptian society. The latter objective still seems to be the Muslim Brotherhood’s overriding objective. Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that its leaders have been stressing the principle that agreements undertaken by Egypt to date, including the peace treaty with Israel, must and will be upheld. If indeed this turns out to be the case, an Islamic regime in Cairo will turn inward — avoiding regional problems such as the status of the Gaza Strip and its Hamas regime.”


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