By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad
From the left and right, secular and pious, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is facing harsh criticism for revoking its pledge to offer no candidate in presidential elections next month.
The turnaround comes as relations between the Brotherhood and Egypt's ruling military leaders have soured publicly and a range of political groups, led by liberals and secularists, have withdrawn from the Islamist-dominated committee charged with writing a new constitution.
At the same time, the Brotherhood is confronted with a strong challenge by the popular Salafist -- or ultra-fundamentalist -- candidate for president, Hazem Abu Ismail. His massive postering campaign became the subject of mockery among his detractors in the social media (@randatawil Tweeted : “Now when you want to describe an address to someone, you better say, keep going in the street with Abu-Ismail posters, then you will find a crossroad. Leave the first poster and the second poster and with the third one, turn to the left.”), but his candidacy is no joke.
The leadership council of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's leading Islamist group, was divided on making deputy chairman and chief financier Khairat ash-Shater its official candidate for the presidency, breaking a promise the leaders made just before former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted early last year. The vote was 56 to 52. Wrote the Palestinian-owned, London-based Al Quds al-Arabi in an editorial:
It is inappropriate for a candidate in the Egyptian presidential elections to win by half the votes of his own party. In other words, he does not enjoy a vast majority inside this party, which makes it more difficult for him to convince voters from outside the party circle.
The newspaper added that by throwing aside its potential role as a kingmaker that remains above the fray, the Brotherhood has squandered a great opportunity to achieve some stability for Egypt. Echoing a widely expressed view among commentators critical of Shater’s candidacy, the editorial concluded:
It is not logical for the president of the republic, the prime minister, the parliament speaker and the head of the committee drafting the constitution to all be from the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the epitome of dictatorship, even if it came via the ballot boxes.
Of course, the Brotherhood knew it would be widely criticized if it broke its pledge and understands it will face serious internal and external problems if it wins the presidency, wrote columnist Imad Eddin Hussein in the Egyptian Shourouk News. Shater will likely have to spend his term clashing with the Americans as well as some Gulf States worried about the rise of the Brotherhood in the region, “negotiating with the protesters from all sectors and removing the posters for Sheikh Hazem from the street,” he quipped. “So what would push the Brotherhood to engage in this venture?”
Hussein surmised that the group's leaders figured any non-Brotherhood president would end up clashing with them sooner or later. The 47 percent of parliamentary seats the Brotherhood currently holds, or the future government it may or may not be able to appoint, “will be useless if the non-MB president of the republic retains numerous prerogatives through the constitution.” All of which left the Brotherhood with only one choice: Go for the top post now before it's too late.
Another seemingly more popular explanation, however, was that the Brotherhood simply struck a deal with the transitional military government and the acrimony of the past weeks between the two sides was just political theatre designed to cover up a mutually beneficial arrangement for the two most powerful forces in the country.
In the Saudi-based Al-Watan, a daily supportive of that country’s monarchical system based on Islamic law, columnist Issa Sawadi wrote that the Brotherhood's arguments that it had decided to run a candidate because of the military's attempts to thwart the revolution "did not dupe anyone.” The question now, he concluded, is whether Egypt will become a state like Iran, in which clerics rule. “If Shater were to win the presidential elections, who will govern Egypt, him or the group’s Guide,” a reference to the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, currently Dr. Mohamed Badi?
Columnist Mshari al-Zaydi, also writing in a Saudi-owned daily, Asharq al-Awsat, compared the Brotherhood to another of Saudi Arabia’s bitter opponents: Hezbollah. Pointing to a speech by Dr. Badi just after the candidacy announcement, where he claimed the Brotherhood “was not seeking positions,” Zaydi wrote, “This kind of discourse is reminiscent of that of Hezbollah of Lebanon. It has always said that it was neither interested in power nor politics and that its sole aim was to mount resistance." However, in the end, Hezbollah, like the Brotherhood, “proved that it was indeed not interested in ‘limited’ positions, but rather in consuming power as a whole.”
An entirely different point of view was offered by columnist Hisham al-Sabahi, writing for the Egyptian news website Elgornal. For Sabahi, the intense, negative reactions to the Brotherhood’s recent maneuvers were overblown. Sabahi, an Egyptian, said that in parliamentary elections last year he had voted for the Brotherhood candidate, Yosri Hani, in his district and had fought for the Brotherhood to gain its freedom of association.
Now, when it comes to the presidency, “I want them to give it a try, to test their strength and to see whether or not the people are still with them. I can assure you, for example, that I will not elect Yosri Hani next time just because he is from the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Having finally gained a measure of real freedom, Sabahi concluded, Egyptians are not going to be simply herded into blindly supporting anyone next month.
Given that, for the parties that resent the Brotherhood's entrance into the presidential race, a better strategy than complaining might be to get busy convincing voters they offer a better vision for Egypt's future.
(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)
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