Brotherhood U-turn on election causes concern

Sat, Apr 7, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:The Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to field a candidate could split the fundamentalist vote three ways

THE EGYPTIAN Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to field its own candidate for the presidency has thrown the campaign into confusion and prompted pundits to say the race is now between “believers” and “non-believers”.

For months, the movement said it would back an independent in the May 23rd-24th poll but then surprised observers by choosing Khairat el-Shater, the brotherhood’s second in command and a financier, strategist and strongman. Even his children were dismayed by

the nomination of the multi- millionaire businessman, who was imprisoned in 2006 during a crackdown on the brotherhood but released by the ruling military council in March last year.

In a bid to co-opt ultra-orthodox Salafis and unify the conservative fundamentalist camp, Shater has promised to grant Muslim clerics the power to review legislation to ensure it is in line with Islamic law, alarming liberals and Christians.

Shater, who has close relations with the puritan Salafis, has in fact staged a coup within the brotherhood. Its supreme body voted 54-52 to nominate him; the membership is divided and several senior figures have resigned.

Furthermore, he could not stand without the assistance of the military. Earlier this year, a military court pardoned him for money laundering and financing the brotherhood, which was banned during the reign of ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and his assets were unfrozen. The junta’s actions have confirmed suspicions that the brotherhood and the military intend to rule in partnership.

Shater’s candidacy could split the fundamentalist vote three ways. The eligible hopefuls are Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fatouh, a liberal brotherhood figure expelled when he declared his intention to run, and Muhammad Selim el-Awa, a controversial fundamentalist commentator and strong supporter of the military.

At present, the three appear to be the favourites, running neck-and-neck. Their chief rivals are Mubarak-era secular figures, former Arab League chief Amr Moussa and former prime minister Ahmad Shafiq.

Although declared ineligible because his mother took foreign (US) citizenship, a fourth fundamentalist, Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail, vows to fight this ruling. A populist Salafi who took an active part in the uprising, he insists on strict implementation of Islamic law, prohibition of beach tourism and alcohol, and revival of religious schools.

When it decided to field its own candidate, the Muslim Brotherhood broke a promise made in February 2011 that it would not do so. It had also pledged that it would not field candidates for more than a third of the seats in parliament and that it would not seek to dominate the commission tasked with drafting a new constitution.

The brotherhood has reneged on these pledges as well. It holds 47 per cent of the seats in the lower house and 58 per cent of the elected seats in the upper house, the advisory Shura Council. Salafis have 20 per cent in the assembly and 25 per cent in the council.

Mohamed Saad al-Katatni, head of the brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, is the speaker of parliament and chief of the constitutional commission. The party has recently demanded the resignation of the military- appointed government and its replacement by a cabinet chosen by parliament.

The brotherhood and the Salafis have appointed 70 of the 100 members of the constitutional commission, prompting resignations by 25 representatives of secular parties, the Coptic Christians, professional syndicates and al-Azhar, the ancient seat of Muslim learning. Al-Azhar rector Ahmad el-Tayeb, the world’s supreme Sunni religious figure, said all sectors of society must be represented on the commission.

Most of those who have resigned call for the commission’s disbandment and the appointment of a new body. But the brotherhood and the Salafis have said they are only prepared to replace 10 representatives with others on the list of substitutes, who are largely fundamentalists.

The brotherhood has committed itself to a “civil” (ie secular) constitution that enshrines equal rights for all Egyptians, but few in the secular or Christian communities trust it.

For secularists and Christians, the composition of the commission is the key issue because the new document will define the nature of the state and type of governance it will have. Presidents and parliaments have limited terms but constitutions remain for decades and are hard to amend. Once provisions are adopted that give clerics a veto on legislation, enshrine Islamic Sharia as the law of the land and proclaim Egypt an “Islamic state”, it will be impossible for the country to revert to “civil” polity.