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Egypt clerics: Brotherhood candidate promised Shariah law is final goal

Campaign dealmaking is a sign of how the Brotherhood, which is Egypt's strongest political movement and presents itself to the public as a moderate force, could be pushed into a more hard-line agenda by competition from the ultraconservatives known as Salafis.

By Maggie MichaelAssociated Press / April 5, 2012

In this 2011 photo, Egyptian Muslim cleric and candidate for the Egyptian presidency Hazem Salah Abu Ismail is guarded by his supporters as he enters Tahrir Square during a protest against the ruling military council, in Cairo, Egypt.

Amr Nabil/AP/File

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CAIRO

The Muslim Brotherhood's candidate for Egypt's presidency is lobbying hard for support of ultraconservative Muslim clerics, promising them a say over legislation in the future to ensure it is in line with Islamic law, as he tries to rally the divided Islamist vote behind him.

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The campaign dealmaking is a sign of how the Brotherhood, which is Egypt's strongest political movement and presents itself to the public as a moderate force, could be pushed into a more hard-line agenda by competition from the ultraconservatives known as Salafis.

Giving Muslim clerics a direct say over legislation would be unprecedented in Egypt. Specifics of the Brotherhood promise, which Salafi clerics said Wednesday the candidate Khairat el-Shater gave them in a backroom meeting, were not known. But any clerical role would certainly raise a backlash from liberal and moderate Egyptians who already fear Islamists will sharply restrict civil rights as they gain political power after the fall last year of President Hosni Mubarak.

It would also damage the image that the Brotherhood itself promoted for the past year, insisting it does not seek a theocracy in Egypt or to quickly implement Shariah.

El-Shater, a strongman in the Brotherhood, is pushing heavily to prevent a split in the Islamist vote in the May 23-24 vote to elect the first president since Mubarak's ouster. A single Islamist candidate could enjoy a widespread popular base, since the Brotherhood and Salafis together won more than 70 percent of parliament in elections late last year.

The Brotherhood alone holds nearly half of parliament and, alongside Salafis, dominates a new commission formed to write a new constitution. It is hoping for the presidency to seal its power.

But there are multiple candidates running on their Islamic agenda, dividing the vote and raising a possible window of victory for a non-Islamist figure.

El-Shater faces tough competition from a lawyer-turned-TV preacher, Hazem Abu Ismail, who is the favorite of Salafis. Abu Ismail has become ubiquitous in the campaign, plastering what seems like every other lightpost and wall in Cairo with campaign posters showing his cheerfully smiling face and long, conservative beard. After el-Shater announced his candidacy over the weekend, Abu Ismail rejected pressure to quit the race and many prominent Salafis announced they were sticking with him.

"There is grave fragmentation among ranks of Islamists and its getting worse with strong polarization between the two camps of candidates," Khaled Said, a Salafi leader, said.

Salafis are the most hard-line of Egypt's fundamentalists, depicting themselves as the "guardians of Shariah" and touting a strict interpretation of Islamic law similar to Saudi Arabia's. Many of them see the Brotherhoodas too willing to compromise on implementing Shariah and despise its political pragmatism.

Leading clerics with their trademark long, bushy beards and robes have become regular guests on TV talk shows and issue fatwas or religious edicts attacking secularists, saying Christians and women can't run for president, and calling for greater segregation of the sexes.

El-Shater met for four hours Tuesday night with a panel of Salafi scholars and clerics, called the Jurisprudence Commission for Rights and Reform, trying to win their support.

The discussion focused on "the shape of the state and the implementation of Shariah," the commission said on its Facebook page Wednesday.

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