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Muslim Brotherhood’s Presidential Aims Challenged

CAIRO, Apr 12 2012 (IPS) - Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has surprised both supporters and rivals by abruptly announcing its own nominee for upcoming presidential elections, despite earlier promises that it would not field a candidate from within its own ranks.

Al-Shater at his first press conference as presidential candidate. Credit:  Khaled Moussa al-Omrani/IPS.

Al-Shater at his first press conference as presidential candidate. Credit: Khaled Moussa al-Omrani/IPS.

“The Brotherhood’s sudden decision to field a presidential candidate was a hasty one,” Amr Shobki, sitting MP and political analyst at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies told IPS. “The move is sure to have a negative impact on the Brotherhood’s credibility and public image.”

At the height of last year’s Tahrir Square uprising, as longstanding president Hosni Mubarak’s grip on power grew increasingly tenuous, the Muslim Brotherhood – long Egypt’s most formidable opposition force – rushed to assure critics both at home and abroad that it would not field a candidate in any post-Mubarak presidential poll.

Following Mubarak’s ouster in February of last year, the group went so far as to expel one of its leading lights, Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh, for his insistence on making a bid for the presidency. Abul-Fotouh is currently considered a leading Islamist candidate in the presidential election slated for next month.

Parliamentary polls earlier this year yielded a landslide victory for the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which won almost half the seats in the People’s Assembly (the lower house of Egypt’s parliament). The FJP also dominates a newly-established Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution, members of which were appointed by the FJP-led parliament.

Despite mounting criticism that the FJP was gaining inordinate influence over Egypt’s political machinery, the party shocked most observers when it announced its intention Mar. 31 to vie for the presidency as well. The same day saw Khairat al-Shater, the group’s second-in-command, officially register his presidential candidacy.

The Brotherhood’s critics from across the political spectrum blasted the move, saying it showed up the group’s penchant for authoritarianism.

“Al-Shater’s nomination confirms that the Brotherhood is only interested in monopolising authority, especially after its domination of parliament and the constitution-drafting process,” Abdel Ghaffar Shukr, founder of the Popular Socialist Alliance established in the wake of last year’s revolution told IPS.

“The move is likely to have an adverse impact on the electoral prospects of other Islamist candidates, especially Abul-Fotouh and (Salafist candidate) Hazem Abu Ismail, both of whom will lose the votes of Brotherhood members and sympathisers,” Shukr added.

In an Apr. 1 statement, the Brotherhood defended the move, saying its earlier decision not to contest the presidential race had been based on “internal and external reasons.” But the recent emergence of “real threats” to the democratic process, the statement went on, had prompted it to reverse its decision.

These threats, the group explained, included “attempts to disrupt the functioning” of Egypt’s elected parliament and the new Constituent Assembly, the ruling military council’s rejection of parliamentary demands to dissolve the government, and the recent entrance of several figures associated with the ousted Mubarak regime into the looming presidential contest.

“Faced with these challenges, and after studying the situation in its entirety, the Muslim Brotherhood decided to field its own presidential candidate,” the statement concluded.

Like most critics, Shobki remains “unconvinced” by the group’s stated justifications for its sudden policy change.

“Nothing has changed recently except for the Brotherhood’s relationship with the ruling military council, which has become increasingly tense in recent weeks due to disagreements over the incumbent government,” he said.

Last month saw the end of a year-long, post-revolution honeymoon between the Brotherhood and the military council – which has governed the country since Mubarak’s ouster – when the latter rejected demands by the FJP-led parliamentary majority to dissolve the military-appointed government of Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri.

Shobki went on to predict “fierce competition” between the three Islamist frontrunners – al-Shater, Abul- Fotouh and Abu Ismail – in the upcoming race. “The success of the Brotherhood candidate is by no means assured,” he stressed, “because presidential elections aren’t like those for parliament.”

According to political analyst Diaa Rashwan, the decision to nominate al-Shater represents a “watershed” in the Brotherhood’s history.

“It’s a sea change in the group’s policy, from a strategy of gradual change to one of rapid transformation,” he said at a Cairo University seminar. “And it’s indicative of the Brotherhood’s desire to dominate Egypt’s post-revolution political arena.”

Rashwan said the move would prompt the group’s rivals to join forces against it. “It’s entirely possible that the protesters’ chants we now hear against ‘military rule’ will eventually be replaced with chants against ‘Brotherhood rule’,” he said.

Rashwan said the move would also lead to “serious rifts” within Brotherhood ranks.

On Apr. 2, Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan reiterated the group’s commitment to following through on its decision, insisting that the move had “not led to any internal rifts within the Brotherhood.”

Debate continues, however, over whether al-Shater is legally eligible to contest the election – he was convicted on criminal charges of money laundering and “affiliation with a banned group” under the Mubarak regime. On Sunday (Apr. 8) the FJP officially registered party member Mohamed Mursi as an alternative candidate should al-Shater be disqualified on legal grounds.

Sunday, the final day to register candidacies, also saw Mubarak-era intelligence chief Omar Suleiman officially enter the presidential race. Although Suleiman is closely associated with the ousted president – he briefly served as Mubarak’s vice-president during last year’s uprising – he is said to enjoy considerable support, and is now seen as a serious contender.

“These eleventh-hour entrants into the race, especially al-Shater and Suleiman, have entirely changed the electoral equation,” said Shobki. “It’s impossible to predict who the frontrunners will be until all the candidates have a chance to present their political platforms.”

A final list of approved presidential candidates will be announced Apr. 26, to be followed by the election due to be held May 23 and 24. If no single candidate wins an outright majority, the two leading contenders will face each other in a runoff vote slated for Jun. 16 and 17.

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