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Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood: Why Run for President?

The Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to stand a candidate in Egypt's presidential election despite previous plans not to tells us a lot about the group's shifting ambitions and expectations.
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At a voting booth in El-Manyal, Egypt, during the country's parliamentary elections. Photograph by Jonathan Rashad.

Earlier this week, in a move which could have profound implications for the future development of Egyptian democracy, the Muslim Brotherhood announced that it would be fielding a candidate, Khairat al-Shater, in the forthcoming presidential elections. The announcement signalled a spectacular u-turn by the Islamic group, which had previously insisted that it would not seek to occupy executive office.

Why the change of heart?

There are a number of possible explanations for this development, each with its own slight conspiratorial tinge. The first is that the Muslim Brotherhood genuinely believes it has a strong chance of winning the election and so of establishing full political control of the state (it already holds a majority in parliament and dominates the official constitutional assembly).

The second is that its relationship with the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) has broken down and it is keen to force the military – the principal obstacle to meaningful reform, democratic or otherwise – out of power.

The third is that it suspects a SCAF candidate, such as former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, would have little chance of beating a civilian candidate from one of the smaller, more radical Islamist parties with which it competes for support.

And the fourth is that the whole thing all is an elaborate cover-up, designed to disguise the Brotherhood’s continued affiliation with the military.

This last theory is not without its advocates. Sameh al-Barqy, a member of the Egyptian Current Party and former Brotherhood activist, said earlier this week: “The Brotherhood would never nominate someone without the generals’ approval. Shater is the perfect candidate for the generals…He expresses the economic interests of the West, would guarantee the interests of the military inside Egypt, and in the meantime, he has a beard”.

Barqy contends that a power-sharing deal between SCAF and the Brotherhood has already been struck. Such a deal, he says, would see the military elite retain its substantial role in the running of the economy while the Brotherhood assumes complete legislative control over social affairs as well as a free reign to advance its theological agenda.

The difficulty with this account is that it underestimates the growing strength and confidence of the Brotherhood. When the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Brotherhood’s electoral vehicle, pledged last year not to stand a candidate for president, it did so from a position of relative weakness with regard to the liberal and left-wing groups which were still riding a wave of post-revolutionary momentum. However, that momentum came to a crashing halt after the first round of voting to the lower house of parliament, in which the centre-left parties performed poorly.

After the election, the Brotherhood, now the nation’s dominant party, had to deal with the SCAF ruling council. The agreement many suspect they reached was to carve up control of the various branches of government – legislative, executive and military – and split control of the judiciary. But in the following months, the full scale of the Brotherhood’s popular support became clear while resentment of the military intensified.

This handed the initiative back to the Islamists, who began to feel as though they were in a position to pursue outright political dominance. By this logic, the most persuasive explanation is the first: namely, that the Brotherhood’s true intention in standing a candidate for presidential office is to expand its influence over Egypt’s developing democratic structures as far as the electorate will allow.

The right candidate?

One thing that might obstruct such an expansion is the selection of Shater as the FJP nominee, a move which could prove controversial.

Shater, who spent twelve years in prison during the Mubarak era for engaging in illicit political activity, is a millionaire businessman and one of the Brotherhood’s chief financial backers. In addition to being closely associated with the  wing of the organisation, he is, according at least to a piece in the New York Times, in regular contact with the Americans, who have praised his “moderation, intelligence and effectiveness.”

If Washington is indeed comfortable with Shater’s candidacy, there can be little doubt that American diplomats will have received assurances from him about the Brotherhood’s commitment to maintaining stable relations with Israel, the US’s principal ally in the region. This will not sit well with the Egyptian public, which was incensed by Mubarak’s failure or refusal to challenge Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Shater’s candidacy has generated unease within the Brotherhood as well. His nomination was only just secured – by a vote of 56 to 52 – amongst the organisation’s ruling council and, immediately afterwards, three leading members resigned. Mohammed al-Beltagi, an FJP member of parliament, has publicly criticised the move, asserting that it “harms the Brotherhood and the nation to have one faction assume all the responsibility under these conditions”.

Shater may also face opposition from the Brotherhood’s youth wing, many of whom are said to be sympathetic to the more liberal Abdel Moneim Abu al-Fotouh. (Ironically, al-Fotouh was expelled from the Brotherhood because he refused to abide by the movement’s initial decision not contest the presidential elections.)

Whatever happens next, there can be no doubt that Egypt’s already deeply divided political landscape has just become a little bit more fractious.

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