Under fire: Egypt's Brotherhood launches winner-takes-all offensive

Hatem Maher, Tuesday 3 Apr 2012

The Muslim Brotherhood's attempt to win the presidency on top of its control over Parliament could either backfire badly or help it command full authority over post-revolution Egypt

Muslim Brotherhood
Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mohamed Morsi (Photo: Reuters)

The presidential seat is so tempting that the Muslim Brotherhood is ready to endure waves of scathing criticism to reach the pinnacle of power. However, bearing eventual bitter fruit cannot be ruled out.

The Brotherhood, which was given a new lease of life following the departure of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, huffed and puffed to emerge as one of the key players in post-revolution Egypt, making the most of their huge supporter base to come within a whisker of what was unthinkable under the former autocratic leader.

Its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), won around 48 per cent of the People’s Assembly (lower house) seats in January 2012 despite an earlier pledge to contest only 30-40 percent of the seats.  

The Brotherhood stirred further controversy when it announced on Saturday that it would back its deputy leader, Khairat El-Shater, for president, breaking a promise not to field a candidate in the elections.

The group seemed very unyielding when making that promise, to the extent that it expelled prominent member Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, now a presidential candidate himself, because he revealed his intention to run in the elections.

But one should never say never. The Brotherhood’s primary target now is to take the throne and monopolise power, according to pundits.

“They made a number of mistakes following that announcement,” Fahmy Howeidy, an Egyptian analyst and well-known Islamist writer, wrote in his column in Al-Shorouk newspaper.

“Only 54 Muslim Brotherhood members endorsed the decision to field a candidate while 52 rejected it. In such an important issue, a decision should not be taken based on the views of a simple majority.

“They previously decided to punish Abul-Fotouh and all the members who supported his presidential bid but when they altered their stance, they kept their position regarding Abul-Fotouh as it is. It means it was a personal issue with the man rather than a principle they are adhering to.

“I’m also wondering how Egyptians can bear it to control the People's Assembly, Shura Council, constituent assembly, government and the presidency at the same time,” he added.

Social networking websites have been rife with anti-Brotherhood remarks, including many sarcastic ones which further expose the group’s fragile image among many of the youth who were on the frontlines during the battle with Mubarak’s men.

A Facebook page titled “I will not vote for Khairat El-Shater” attracted more than 100,000 users in less than two days, reflecting an outcry that the Brotherhood might struggle to contain.

In a desperate attempt to placate the anger of many people, the Brotherhood has tried to justify their latest move.

"We have witnessed obstacles standing in the way of parliament to take decisions to achieve the demands of the revolution," said FJP head Mohamed Morsi.

"We have therefore chosen the path of the presidency not because we are greedy for power but because we have a majority in parliament which is unable to fulfill its duties in Parliament,” he added.

The FJP also listed on its Facebook page the names of Turkish officials – President Abdullah Gul, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Speaker of Parliament Cemil Cicek – saying they all belong to the ruling Justice and Development Party.

Most of the user comments were fuelled by anger, some containing bad language which showed that the Brotherhood’s efforts to ease fury proved to be in vain, at least until now.

Division within Brotherhood?

The Brotherhood is at loggerheads with Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has resolutely repelled its attempts to disband the government of Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri.

According to the group's leaders, this was the main reason behind their decision to back El-Shater, a businessman and politician who was imprisoned under Mubarak, as they seek to challenge the authority of the SCAF, which is scheduled to leave office by the end of June.

But that was hardly a convincing excuse for some of the Brotherhood’s figures, including prominent member Mohamed El-Beltagy who insisted he opposed the group’s decision to back El-Shater for president.

“I fully agree with what Mr Fahmy Howeidy wrote. Before I voted no to fielding a presidential candidate, I told my colleagues that it was unfair for the country and Brotherhood that we shoulder the entire responsibility in such a critical phase for our nation,” he said.

“I respect the opinion of the majority … but I’m so worried over the future of the country and the Islamic project, which is subject to attempts from some parties to ruin it.

“All what I can do is warn my colleagues to be cautious in order not to fall in any traps.”

Veteran Brotherhood member Kamal El-Helbawy, once a spokesman for the group in Europe, resigned in the wake of the controversial announcement to back El-Shater, saying the group was “suffering from disorientation.”

The FJP also had to deny widespread rumours that many youth members were disgruntled by their decision.

The apparent divisions inside the group make life more difficult for the Brotherhood as it embarks on a tough challenge.

El-Shater will need to pick up the pace if he is to compete with several candidates who had already begun their presidential campaigns, including Islamist rivals Abul-Fotouh and Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail, who is backed by many Salafists.

Tough ride

Having swept the parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood may anticipate a similar outcome in the presidential race but they cannot afford to be complacent.

Nothing should be taken for granted in what is expected to be a very tight race, says Diaa Rashwan, the head of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

“The story will be completely different from the parliament elections. Many people voted for FJP members because they did not really know the candidates,” he said in a television interview.

“But in the presidential elections, all the candidates will be known to everybody. So influencing a voter will not be that easy.”

Worries among Islamists that El-Shater’s candidacy might splinter the Islamist vote are also common.

Ultra-conservative Salafist candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail, whose posters are everywhere in the country, has picked up momentum recently while Abul-Fotouh is already favoured by many liberals who consider him as a replacement for former contender Mohamed ElBaradei, who pulled out of the race in protest at the SCAF’s handling of the transitional period.

Nader Bakar, spokesman for the Salafist Nour Party, said Islamists were trying to reach a consensus over whom to back in the first post-Mubarak presidential elections.

“There will be a meeting between the Nour Party, the Salafist Call and Sheikh Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail to unite behind one Islamist candidate. Further meetings with the rest of the Islamist candidates will follow,” he said in a statement.

“The Muslim Brotherhood and the Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya have accepted our initiative. We are still consulting with Al-Azhar (Egypt’s highest religious authority) to join us.”

That might be an option to boost the chances of El-Shater if fellow Islamist candidates agree to step aside.

Having taken a risk by incurring the wrath of many people, there will be little room for error for the Brotherhood. Did they tempt fate? That is the question.

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