If you thought political change in Egypt was charging full speed ahead, that was before last weekend. Since then ‘charging’ and ‘full speed’ are understatements; the pace of change and
the mood in the street is now positively frantic.
On the evening of Saturday 31 March the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) issued
a statement in which it named its chief strategist and financier Khairat al-Shater as a candidate for president, a surprising reversal of an earlier pledge by the group to stay out of the race. The long-outlawed MB already controls a majority in parliament and had been concerned that contesting the presidency would be seen as tantamount to an Islamist takeover. Which is exactly how non-Islamists in Egypt saw the Saturday move.
Brotherhood to the rescue
The Shater nomination acted as a bombshell.
It did not help that the MB statement that announced the fielding of Shater was politically arrogant and overbearing and, predictably, depicted the Brotherhood as the wise, benevolent force in Egypt, unduly opposed by the others on the field. The statement listed all the major political events in Egypt since the 25 January 2011, interpreting the non-Islamist stances as unjustified opposition to the people-backed Islamist dominion.
“That [conflict] began with opposition to the referendum on the constitution [March 2011]. Then, there was the battle of the “Constitution First”. Then again, the so-called supra-constitutional governing principles, not to mention the arguments over the method of elections, party nominee lists or individual candidates, which ended in consensus among the full spectrum of political parties, forces and stakeholders. Then began attempts to disrupt the functioning of [Islamist-majority] parliament, followed by the battle of the Constituent Assembly, promoted by an absurdly massive orchestrated media campaign, which included the withdrawal of some of the Assembly’s newly elected member, although they had just expressed their pleasure for joining the panel. This the Brotherhood viewed as a serious impediment to the democratic path of transformation.”
The statement stressed that the MB did endeavour in many ways to reach a broad consensus with all parties “but it was all in vain”.
“Faced with these challenges, and after studying the situation in its entirety, the MB decided to field its own presidential candidate”, the statement concluded. Enter Khairat al-Shater.
Shater, 62, joined the MB in 1974, and was imprisoned four times for a total of seven years on charges relating to money laundering and his membership in the Brotherhood, which was outlawed more than 50 years ago. He is seen as the real power centre in the group, the iron man who steers talks with the military council, orchestrator of parliamentary elections and the negotiator with Arab Gulf countries and International Monetary Fund over loans.
If Shater wins, the MB would completely dominate the political arena and could push for changes such as stricter adherence to Islamic law.
Since its victory in the parliamentary elections last November, largely due to its grassroots organisation, foreign officials and diplomats have flocked to the MB offices, and the group has even negotiated with international organisations on loans.
Yet Shater faces the predicament that he cannot run for presidency unless the ruling Military Council drops the court convictions against him. Last Sunday the MB lawyer Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maqsoud said the military had done just that, clearing Shater to run.
Until Watani International went to press, the military had not confirmed this, but it is widely believed the MB would not publicly name any candidate of its own without prior clearance from the military.
Legal experts say that Shater was sentenced to seven years in prison which would end in 2014 and, since he is banned by law from running for public office for six years later, may only run in
No independent Egypt
Shater’s candidacy has wrought mayhem on the political field in Egypt, even polarising the MB ranks many of the members of which were against fielding a candidate in the first place. A Facebook page opposing his candidacy gained some 90,000 in four days, while the page supporting him had only some 9,000 supporters.
According to the expert on Islamic movements Abdel-Rehim Ali, the fielding of Shater by the MB signifies an attempt by the group to take over Egypt in its entirety, and spells politicaldisaster. “How can Egypt be ruled by a man who is himself ruled by another?” Mr Ali asks. “An MB member has to comply with the rules of the Supreme Guide of the MB; he cannot take independent choices. Egypt will no longer be on its own; it will be ruled through the Brotherhood Guidance Office as just one card in the hand of the global MB movement.”
Political researcher Ammar Ali Hassan also senses the danger. “The revolution is being liquidated,” he told Watani. “There is a deal between the MB and the military; the MB are taking over all the State institutions.”
What chance to win?
Shater will go up against other candidates in Egypt’s first post-revolution, and second multi-candidate presidential election—the first was in 2005—that should mark the final stage of the transition to civilian rule from a military council which took control after Mubarak stepped down on 11 February 2011.
The presidential election will be held on 23 and 24 May, and the runoffs on 16 and 17 June. The runoffs will be held between the two highest placed candidates if no one candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the vote.
Candidates must have been born in Egypt to Egyptian parents, may not hold dual nationality and may not be married to a foreigner. To be nominated, a candidate requires the support of 30 MPs or 30,000 voters.
Formal registration of candidates opened on 10 March and runs until today 8 April. The election committee said that, by last week, almost 2000 persons had bought registration forms, and some 13 had officially registered.
In the absence of reliable opinion polls and given the novelty of the presidential vote, analysts say the outcome is difficult to predict.
Fragmentation of votes
Despite the large number of candidates expected, the most obvious variance between them so far is whether they belong to the Islamist camp or are among those who call for a civil State.
Considering that the Islamist parties won a sweeping majority in parliament and are now vowing to oust the current non-Islamist government in a no-confidence vote, it only remains for them to have an Islamist president in order to gain the upper hand in Egypt. If, however, the two major Islamist parties, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafi al-Nur Party, do not agree to support a single candidate, there is a chance the Islamist vote may get fragmented and they may lose the presidency. The same applies to the proponents of the civil State who would also lose the vote unless they stood behind one candidate.
According to political analyst Soliman Shafiq, we may expect to see a wave of alliances between the various candidates and groups, as well as many withdrawals. The alliances will in all probability determine the winner. Mr Shafiq sees that a military-supported candidate may stand a good chance of winning.
The Islamist candidates
Prominent among the Islamist candidates is the 51-year-old physician Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, secretary-general of the Arab Medical Union and former member of the guidance bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), who is known as a moderate Islamist. Abul-Fotouh was expelled from the MB last June when he announced he would be contending the presidential elections, since his decision contradicted a MB decision that the group would not put forward a candidate in 2011. Abul-Fotouh is among the tolerant Islamists and the most open to the ‘other’. He belongs to the reformist current within the MB, yet he has famously said that Egypt is an Islamic country, and will remain so.
Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail, also 51, is a lawyer and a Salafi ultra-conservative who believes Egypt must apply the sharia of Allah. However he advocates that sharia should be implemented “gradually, according to how much the people can bear it. We do not wish to overburden the people, but the time has come to declare our full obedience to Allah,” he says. “Islam secures the rights of women and Copts, so no one should fear the application of sharia.”
Abu-Ismail refuses to recognise Israel and believes Egyptian policy must be independent of the American agenda, yet he believes that the relationship with the West should be built on common interests not animosity and hatred. He says tourism is a main source of the State income, but insists that alcohol, gambling and bikini-like attire for tourists in public utilities must be banned in order not to affect the morality of Egyptians. Yet Abu-Ismail faces allegations that his mother has a US citizenship; if proved true it may disqualify him from the race. He has, however, threatened that if he is disqualified, his supporters will take to the streets.
Another prominent Islamist candidate is Mohamed Salim al-Awwa, 69, a former secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars and currently head of the Egyptian Association for Culture and Dialogue. Awwa has been known to make hostile remarks against Christians and has been pivotal in propagating the false notion that churches and monasteries are stockpiling arms, thereby raising Muslim fears and hatred of Christians.
Among the major candidates who advocate a non-religious, civil State in Egypt are former foreign minister and secretary-general of the Arab League Amr Moussa, 76, and former minister of civil aviation and the last prime minister under Mubarak, Ahmed Shafiq, 72. Shafiq comes from a military background, having reached the rank of Air Marshal and been Commander of the Egyptian Air Force from 1996 to 2002. Both men enjoy political expertise lacked by many other candidates, but both are criticised for their connection to the Mubarak regime.
The youngest contender so far is the 40-year-old Khaled Ali, a lawyer and labour activist. Former head of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) and founding member of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre (HMLC), Ali is famous for his anti-corruption effort. Critics argue that his lack of experience as a politician is a concern, and that his chance of winning is low and he could split the vote in a way that would sway the election towards representatives of the prior regime.
The only woman running is Buthaina Kamel, 50, a media personality and pro-democracy activist.
Many people say that Moussa may have the edge because of his name recognition and long political experience in the public eye.
Despite the many Islamist candidates—and Watani has cited only the most prominent among them—there is talk the FJP and the Salafi al-Nur are attempting to agree to back a single candidate. Abdel Rehim Ali told Watani it may not be very unlikely that the MB and the Salafis will agree on one candidate. “The Islamists are too fragmented,” he says. “Even within the MB, the younger members have rebelled against the old guard and have formed what they call the MB Youth. And the MB and the Salafis are, ideologically, too far apart.” So far, Mr Ali sees that all the political parties in Egypt, Islamist and non-Islamist, will experience divisions within their ranks. This, he says, is bound to split the vote.
In total agreement with Mr Ali is writer and journalist Emad Eddin Hussein, who expects the presidential race to expose a lot of differences, arguments and political battles.
If the so far improbable happens—that is if the FJP and the Nur are able to come up with a single candidate they would both support—there can be no doubt he would easily carry the vote. Otherwise, Egypt’s new president will not be named except after the runoff election next June. For the moment, we have ahead of us some six weeks that are very likely to bring in any number of surprises.
8 April 2012