Posted by on April 06, 2012 in Blog
By Jeffrey Wright
2012 Spring Intern
Egypt’s presidential race was shaken up this week by the announcement that Khairat el-Shater, the deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, would be the Freedom and Justice Party (the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party) candidate for president. The news of el-Shater’s candidacy breaks the Brotherhood’s post-revolutionary pledge not to run a candidate for president and signals a new assertiveness in the Brothers’ dealings with the ruling military council and Egypt’s other political forces.
El-Shater is a commanding figure within the Brotherhood. Trained as an engineer, he has become wealthy through his holdings in diverse industries, including furniture and textile imports and computer sales. These businesses, like many run by Brothers, were harassed and occasionally seized by the Mubarak-era Ministry of Justice, and debate persists over just how rich el-Shater is. What is not disputed, however, is his influence within the Brotherhood. Many analysts believe that his financial and intellectual contributions have been essential to the Brotherhood since his election to the organization’s Guidance Council in 1997. He was imprisoned by the Mubarak regime three times, but his incarceration never seemed to diminish his influence within the organization. During his last imprisonment, which ended with his release in March, 2011, he was believed to be essentially running the Brotherhood from his jail cell. The prospect of el-Shater emerging as Egypt’s first post-Mubarak president would be another irony in a post-revolutionary transition already filled with them.
The entrance of el-Shater into the presidential race drastically changes the campaign’s dynamics. According to a poll released by al-Ahram, the flagship newspaper of Egypt’s state media, former foreign minister Amr Moussa is the current front-runner, followed by the ultraconservative Salafi sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. Polling is notoriously unreliable in Egypt, and al-Ahram is state-controlled and eager to please the SCAF, so these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, but el-Shater’s entry into the race figures to change the standing of both men. Amr Moussa is seen as a consensus candidate, supported by the military and those sectors of Egyptian society eager for a return to stability and economic growth. Western and Gulf nations, important players in Egyptian politics, would be comfortable with him as president. Abu Ismail is a populist Salfist demagogue, advocating the application of sharia in Egypt and denying the existence of discrimination against Egypt’s Coptic minority. In an ironic twist, his campaign has recently been tripped up by allegations that his mother held American citizenship, which would disqualify him from the presidential elections under xenophobic rules insisted on by his fellow Salafists. El-Shater would likely take votes away from both men, as well as from Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the Brotherhood who was expelled this summer after announcing his candidacy. Though it’s not clear that el-Shater would immediately displace Moussa as the frontrunner, he will likely run a formidable campaign that draws on the Brothers’ unequalled organizational strength across Egypt. The most likely scenario seems to be a close three-way race between Abu Ismail, with support from the Salafists, Moussa, with support from the military and the business class, and el-Shater, backed by the FJP.
El-Shater’s candidacy also raises important questions about dynamics within the Brotherhood. The organization’s internal workings are notoriously opaque, so no one outside the organization knows for sure what motivated their change of heart about running a candidate for President. A fantastic run-down of a few theories, by the freelance journalist, Issandr el-Amrani, can be found here. The most convincing, however, has to do with the Brotherhood’s shifting conception of its ability to shape Egypt’s future through its power in Parliament. Before el-Shater’s announcement, the Brothers’ strategy appeared to count on its ability to shape the new constitution so that the power of the presidency would be much diminished and the power of the parliament much increased. In this scenario, the FJP could be the dominant political force in Egypt even without the presidency. The last month of jockeying around the Constituent Assembly (the body that will write the new constitution), however, appears to have convinced the Brotherhood’s leadership that its parliamentary power risks being eclipsed by a resurgence in executive power. This calculation, combined with the Brotherhood’s inability to settle on a consensus candidate in coordination with the SCAF, appears to have precipitated el-Shater’s bid for the presidency. This new strategy certainly carries risks, chief among them the possibility that political forces both inside and outside Egypt (FJP leaders’ recent trip to Washington seems designed to appease such fears) could unite to prevent the Brotherhood from gaining complete control of the Egyptian government. El-Shater and his colleagues, though, seem to have concluded that this risk is an acceptable alternative to the possibility of being left on the sidelines of a powerful presidential system.
Egypt’s presidential horse race has important implications for American policy towards Egypt, too. American support for the Egyptian military, which was tested in February by the NGO crisis, seems to have been restored, as evidenced by the recent release of military aid. The US, then, seems likely to follow the SCAF in supporting Amr Moussa for president, though that support will likely be in private, since an American seal of approval would be an albatross for any Egyptian presidential candidate. A victory for el-Shater and the Muslim Brotherhood, however, would surely trigger panic in Washington and calls on Capitol Hill for a reassessment of the Egyptian-American alliance. This reassessment is long overdue and would be a positive development if undertaken without the hysteria aroused by the Muslim Brotherhood on Capitol Hill. Regardless of the outcome, the next two months will be important ones for Egypt and for the relationship between Egypt and the US.