Brotherhood's El-Erian, El-Katatni face off to lead the president's party

Yasmine Fathi, Thursday 18 Oct 2012

Two leading Muslim Brotherhood members - Essam El-Erian and Saad El-Katatni - will compete on Friday for top post in the ruling Freedom and Justice Party. Ahram Online takes a closer look at the candidates

El-Erian (L) El-katatni (C) FJP Logo: We carry goodness to Egypt (R) (Photo: AL-Ahram Online)

The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) will elect a new president on Friday with two of the party's top leaders – acting Chairman Essam El-Erian and Secretary-General Saad El-Katatni – vying for the position.

The party is the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest political group in Egypt's post-Mubarak era. It was established in May 2011, shortly after Mubarak's ouster.

The party's first president was Mohamed Morsi, who resigned from the position after being elected president of Egypt in June.

For decades, the Brotherhood had represented the country's most formidable opposition force to Mubarak's iron-fist rule. Under the former president, the group had been formally barred from political life.

The Brotherhood had toyed with the notion of forming a political party a few years back, but never did. Many leading Brotherhood figures, including current Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie, opposed the idea, arguing that it would hinder the group's charity work and preaching activities.

But after last year's revolution, the group went ahead with its plans to establish the party. Morsi, the first party president, was appointed and not elected, as were other Brotherhood members that were given key party positions.

Therefore, the upcoming internal elections will mark the first time that the party casts votes for its leader.

In early October, Hussein Ibrahim, head of the committee mandated with supervising FJP elections, declared a three-day period in which officials could announce their candidacies. Three Brotherhood heavyweights – including El-Katatni, El-Erian and party lawyer Mohamed Abu-Baraka – all announced an intention to run. The FJP also surprised the public by announcing that a woman, Sabah Hussein Saqari, secretary of the FJP women’s committee in eastern Cairo, would also vie for the party’s top post.

The party, however, eventually announced that the two finalists would be El-Erian and El-Katatni.

El-Katatni, 60, is a microbiologist by profession who worked as a professor at Minya University's science faculty from 1994 to 1998. He joined the Brotherhood in 1981 and was elected to the group's prestigious Guidance Bureau in 2008.

He first gained public notice when he was elected parliamentary speaker in Egypt's first post-revolution parliament late last year. He has always leaned towards the Brotherhood's more conservative current.

El-Erian, 58, is a trained pathologist. He is considered a reformer and is known as the genial face of the Brotherhood, serving for years as the group's media spokesperson. He joined the group in 1974 and became the youngest member of parliament in 1987 at the age of 33. He was again elected to parliament in 2011.

The two have maintained an amicable relationship since the announcement of their candidacies in party elections, going so far as to cancel a public debate saying that elections represented an "internal party affair."

The elections have garnered considerable public attention, with experts saying they represented a "significant step" towards democracy.

Political analyst Nabil Abdel-Fattah says the FJP elections are a form of "political exercise," practiced by the group in an effort to become more democratic.

"Regardless of whether it reflects a real change inside the group or is merely a superficial approach to democracy, the party elections will create political competition within the organisation, especially among the younger cadres," Abdel-Fattah asserted.

El-Katatni and El-Erian represent different currents within the group. El-Katatni is part of the group's conservative current, made up largely of Qutbists, or those who adhere to the strict teachings of Sayed Qutb, known as the "father" of modern Islamic fundamentalism.

Among the other adherents of this current are Brotherhood leader Badie and the group's top financier and business tycoon Khairat El-Shater. It is believed that both these heavyweights have thrown their support behind El-Katatni's bid for party leadership.

El-Erian has always been known for diplomacy, but has adopted a tougher stance with the opposition in recent weeks. He went so far as to threaten Egyptian Prosecutor-General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, who Morsi recently attempted to sack, telling him to "leave, or else."

Experts, however, disagree on whether El-Erian's new hard-line approach would benefit him in the upcoming party polls.

Abdel-Fattah, for his part, says it may win him points. Former Brotherhood member Kamal El-Helbawi, however, says that El-Erian’s role in last Friday's Tahrir Square protests – when Brotherhood members allegedly attacked protesters from the opposition – may have damaged his electoral chances.

"He lost a lot of popularity on Friday," said El-Helbawi.

Researcher Ammar Ali Hassan, meanwhile, cast doubt on the legitimacy of the party's entire electoral process. He asserted that the FJP's internal polls were "all show with very little substance," saying that they were merely being held to give the group a "democratic veneer" in front of the public.

Hassan noted that, according to party bylaws, only the FJP General Assembly's 1,117 members were allowed to cast ballots for the party president. The FJP, however, currently boasts over 400,000 members.

"This means that only a small circle of members will get to vote for the president," explained Hassan. "And this small group is actually controlled by the Brotherhood."

He went on to say that the group will thus appear democratic to a public unaware of the party's bylaws.

"So they're using elections to get good public relations for themselves and show the public that there's real competition for the party presidency," Hassan said. "Even the saga about nominating a woman for the position was nothing but political propaganda."

Experts, however, agree El-Katatni is likely to win the upcoming poll. Tellingly, during the nomination period, El-Erian managed to obtain only 110 recommendation letters from General Assembly members, while El-Katatni managed to obtain a whopping 476.

For the brotherhood, say analysts, El-Katatni appears to be the safer bet.

"They already tested El-Katatni in parliament," said Hassan. "They used to send their decisions to him and he used to adopt them. They used his legislative powers to pass the laws they wanted."

El-Erian, however, is different. He has always been a reformer and holds more liberal views on Coptic-Christians and women than the group's more conservative current.

Within recent years, however, the Brotherhood's reformist current has been significantly marginalised. The group's most prominent reformer, Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, was expelled from the Brotherhood in 2011 after declaring plans to contest Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential election.

The group later fielded El-Shater for this role. Other group reformists to have been sidelined are Ibrahim El-Za'afarani and Mohamed Habib, both of whom left the group to form independent parties.

"I doubt very much that, after this systematic campaign to marginalise all reformists in the group, they will help El-Erian – a committed reformer – to become party president," Hassan said. "The conservatives who currently control the Brotherhood have always criticised his moderate positions, which they see as a betrayal of their values."

Another question is whether the upcoming party elections will represent a first step towards making the FJP more independent of the Brotherhood. On this point, however, experts appear reluctant to make any predictions.

"In many ways, the party is still controlled by the Brotherhood. They have the same system," stated Hassan. "Up until this point, the FJP is no more than a tool used by the Brotherhood."

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