In a major policy turnround, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful political force, has asked its second in command, Khairat El-Shater, to resign from the organisation in order to run for president in the elections set for May.
By a close vote of 56 to 52, the Shura council, the organisation’s second highest decision-making body, chose El-Shater, the deputy to the Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood and a prominent businessman, to run for president.
The Brotherhood, in doing so, has dramatically reversed the vow it took in the spring of 2011, weeks after the ousting of Mubarak, not to field a candidate from among its members to run in Egypt's first post-revolution presidential elections.
Back then, the Brotherhood felt confident that its newly formed political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, would win a commanding victory in the parliamentary elections, which it did in the winter. In keeping to its vision of gradual change, the leadership of the Brotherhood assured the public that it would not put anyone forward for president in order not to control all aspects of political life in post-revolutionary Egypt, at least not all at once or too soon.
As if to stress the point, the Brotherhood threatened members with expulsion if they ran for, or supported anyone who would run for the highest executive office in the country.
In fact, in the spring of 2011, the Brotherhood expelled Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh, a long-time historical Brotherhood leader who had also previously challenged central directives, when he broke party rules announcing he would seek the position.
But, the more recent rise in the fortunes of a number of candidates threatened to upset the Brotherhood’s strategy of slowly and surely remoulding the country to its brand of government.
The ascendancy of two candidates in particular – Abul-Fotouh and the Salafist preacher Hazem Salah Abu Ismail – who have both garnered growing support among the youthful rank and file of the group in recent months, alarmed the leadership and threw it into disarray.
Meanwhile, the rise of Abul-Fotouh and Abu Ismail comes at the same time that the Brotherhood had chosen to enter into a serious a confrontation, unresolved at the moment, against the ruling military council over who has the right to form the cabinet and write the country's constitution.
This has also taken place at a critical moment when the liberal minority in Parliament, unexpectedly managed to tap into growing popular discomfort with the Brotherhood withdrawing from the constituent assembly in protest at the Islamist domination of the process of writing the constitution. There has been significant discomfort with the inability of the Brotherhood to act quickly on achieving tangible progress on issues of economic equity, chronic gas crisis, and, overall achieving basic demands of the January 25th revolution such as retribution for the martyrs.
On Saturday evening, as the wind was blowing at the Brotherhood from all directions, the Shura council decided to throw El-Shater, one of its heavyweight figures, into the ring.
In a press conference packed with tens of reporters at the headquarters of the Brotherhood in Cairo immediately after the decision was taken, the Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie told reporters that the Brotherhood has decided to field one of its own as a candidate for president.
A joint statement by the Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party said they based their decision on the belief that grave dangers threaten the process of democratic transformation in the country, and added that the existence of a number of Mubarak-era candidates in the contest is a great reason for concern.
However, the fallout from the Brotherhood's sharp change of course started minutes after the announcement.
Kamal El-Helbawy, the long-time Brotherhood spokesperson in exile, who resigned from the group on Saturday evening to protest the decision to run El-Shater, said that the move was less about confronting Mubarakites, and more about a deal between the Brotherhood and the ruling military council to put the final dagger into the revolution.
El-Helbawy, who returned to Egypt a few months ago after years in exile in Europe, told Al-Ashera Mesaa program on Dream TV, that the Brotherhood’s decision not to support Abul-Fotouh despite his CV, and its repeated refusal to participate in demonstrations organised by revolutionaries over the course of the first year after Mubarak was ousted show that the Brotherhood have abandoned any notion of fundamental change.
El-Helbawy argued that the ruling military council’s decision to award a medical pardon just weeks ago to El-Shater of crimes he was convicted of in military courts under the Mubarak regime is proof that the SCAF and the Brotherhood have reached an agreement to field a “consensual” candidate who will serve the interests of both.
Mohamed Habib, a former deputy supreme guide, told CBC TV that he believes that the Brotherhood is using El-Shater's candidacy to pressure the SCAF, which does not want full Islamist domination over politics, to dismiss the cabinet and to allow the group to score a victory in the public's eyes at a time when its popularity is waning.
Habib added that while he believes El-Shater would take votes from Abu-Ismail and Abul-Fotouh, the Brotherhood's decision to break its oath not to run candidate will cost it dearly in terms of public support.
Meanwhile, the campaign of Abu-Ismail, who is polling second after Abul-Fotouh in the ranks of Brotherhood youth, said it is not worried about El-Shater's candidacy.
The campaign said that the Brotherhood's move could only increase the popularity of Abu-Ismail who had warned of "such" zig-zag politics from the very first day after Mubarak fell.
Wahid Abdel-Meguid, a liberal MP, who is closely allied with the Brotherhood, told ONTV on Saturday night that El-Shater’s chances of winning the presidency are relatively weak.
“Many Salafist leaders might abandon Abu Ismail and support El-Shater in order to court the Brotherhood. Still, El-Shater, though quite powerful inside the group, is relatively unknown to many outside of it. In any case, many young Brotherhood members will support Abul-Fotouh because of his revolutionary credentials,” Abdel Meguid said.