Why the U.S. May Be Secretly Cheering a Muslim Brotherhood Run For Egypt’s Presidency

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Khaled Desouki / AFP / Getty Images

Khayrat al-Shater, in a picture taken in 2007, long before the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood's political rise.

Liberals and secularists are furious at the decision this week by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to name Khairat al-Shater as its candidate next month’s presidential election. Even many members and leaders of the Brotherhood itself are livid at the decision, an eleventh-hour reversal of a longstanding undertaking to stay out of the race to elect a successor to President Hosni Mubarak. Curiously enough, though, the New York Times reports that U.S. official are “untroubled and even optimistic about the Brotherhood’s reversal of its pledge not to seek the presidency”.

In a vignette of just how much the political landscape has changed since the days when the U.S. pinned its hopes on a Mubarak regime that imprisoned the likes of Shater, the Times reports that the Brotherhood’s candidate is in regular contact with U.S. Ambassador Anne Paterson, and that U.S. officials have praised his moderation, intelligence and effectiveness. The 62-year-old millionaire financier seen as a pragmatist and modernizer, dedicated to reviving Egypt’s moribund economy rather than seeking confrontation with Israel or the U.S. And, of course, the Brotherhood represents an attractive alternative in comparison to the more extreme Salafists who have emerged as the wild-card in post-Mubarak politics. The Salafist Nour party ran the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party a close second, finishing with 28% of the vote (against the FJP’s 38%) in the parliamentary elections that concluded in January.

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Without a Brotherhood  candidate in the race, some officials fear that Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the charismatic Salafist presidential hopeful who talks of emulating Iran’s theocratic political system and of ending the peace treaty with Israel, could produce an upset — particularly if the election goes to a head-to-head run-off between the two leading vote-getters if no candidate wins an outright majority.

An Al Ahram poll conducted before Shater entered the race gave the Salafist candidate around 22% of the vote. Another, more liberal Brotherhood figure, Abdel Moneim Abdoul Futouh — who had been expelled from the movement when he threw his own hat in the ring — is polling far behind Abu Ismail with around 8%, while another moderate Islamist, Mohammad Salim al-Awa had around 4%. The leading candidate in that poll, with 33%, was a secular nationalist, Mubarak’s former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa (who remains popular for his legacy of publicly challenging Israeli and U.S. conduct in the Middle East, sometimes to the annoyance of his then-boss). More significant, though, is the fact that the poll also found that 58% of the electorate would prefer an Islamist candidate: If the field without Shater went to a runoff, as the numbers seemed to indicate, the Salafists would be in pole position. And that’s an outcome as unpalatable to the Brotherhood as it would be to Washington and to the SCAF.

The Brotherhood had previously promised to stay out of the presidential race in order to reassure other players on the post-Mubarak political landscape that it would not seek to translate its popularity into a monopoly of power. But its leaders — or least a majority of them — may have come to believe that decision was a recipe for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the Brotherhood’s chief political contest, which is not with the secularists or the Salafists, but with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — the military junta that has sought to maintain its political primacy in the post-Mubarak order.

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Many in Egypt saw the Brotherhood’s decision as a panicky response to fears that the generals might use the election as an opportunity to put one over their most powerful challenger — rumors have abounded lately in Cairo about the possibility of a presidential run by Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s former intelligence chief and figurative “Hand of the King.” Alternately, the generals could throw the military’s not inconsiderable weight behind a more popular nationalist candidate such as Moussa.

“They think that the SCAF is preparing something for them,” says Abdel Rahim Akl of the Arab Center for Islamic Movements Studies. The Brotherhood fears “that the elections will lead to one of the SCAF’s close candidates to win,” and that the junta would rely on the legitimacy of an elected president to rejig the political system through new elections to weaken the Brotherhood.

Still, not even all of the Brotherhood’s own leadership is convinced, with the vote in its ruling council that made the decision having reportedly been sharply split. One member of parliament of the movement’s Freedom and Justice Party, Mohammed al-Beltagi, even used his Facebook page to publicly question the nomination of a presidential candidate, warning that it “harms the Brotherhood and the nation, to have one faction assume all the responsibility under these conditions.” But a rival legislator, speaking on condition of anonymity, told al-Jazeera that if the movement failed to secure the presidency and left it to a contest between the Salafists and a SCAF candidate, the Brotherhood’s majority in the legislature would quickly be rendered meaningless.

A case could be made that forcing the Brotherhood to take responsibility for governance would have a sobering and moderating effect, reinforcing its move towards the political center — as opposed to having the hedge available if it remains the largest party but declines to accept executive power. That’s cold comfort to the movement’s critics, however, who fear the concentration of power in its hands will allow the Brotherhood to impose a more socially conservative and sectarian vision on Egypt. Coptic Christians recently withdrew from Constitutional Assembly, following liberal groups that had already done so, to protest the Brotherhood’s heavy-handed domination of that body.

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Calculations of the political class notwithstanding, the Muslim Brotherhood’s own voter base seem enthused by the decision. “There aren’t any better options on the field now, many are good but this is the best option so far,” says 30-year-old engineer Mohammed Fekri of Shater’s candidacy. “He is a great business man and trusted by the leadership. He can help Egypt in this rough economical situation.” Fekri also stressed the candidate’s credibility: “He has struggled with all the dictatorships that have ruled Egypt, went to jail ten times because he would not be silent for the injustice the rest of the Egyptians endured during the time of Mubarak and those who were before him.”

Analyst Issandr al-Amrani sees the Brotherhood’s decision to seek the presidency as an uncharacteristic act of brinkmanship in its battle for supremacy with a junta loathe to accept the unalloyed verdict of the electorate. “It remains quite possible that the Brotherhood will pull off this winner-takes-all approach,” Amrani writes, “gaining the legitimacy of having been elected to both parliament and the presidency, having a constitution that reflects its beliefs, and ending up in a better position to negotiate the retreat of the generals from the civilian sphere. But it’s a serious gamble.”

Given the competitive Islamist field and the likelihood that Shater joining the fray could rally secular and nationalist voters behind a figure like Amr Moussa, the Brotherhood’s decision has certainly made the election outcome difficult to predict. And that, of course, is a hallmark of democracy.

— With reporting by Sharaf Al-Hourani/Cairo

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