In major reversal, Muslim Brotherhood will vie for Egypt's presidency

The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group, could end up in control of all three branches of Egypt's new government. 

Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters/File
Khairat al-Shater, deputy chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood, announced that he will run for president in Egypt's upcoming elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood has nominated its deputy leader as a candidate in Egypt’s presidential elections, in a reversal that upends the race for Egypt’s first post-revolution leader and could leave the Islamist group in control of all branches of Egypt’s new government.

The decision to field Khairat El Shater, a wealthy businessman who has served mostly behind the scenes, came after nearly a year in which the Muslim Brotherhood said it would not contest the presidential elections so as not to provoke fear of Islamic rule in Egypt. But in a press conference Saturday night at their new headquarters, Brotherhood leaders said they found it necessary to change course because the transition to democracy is under threat, and the group was stymied in parliament.

"We have chosen the path of the presidency not because we are greedy for power but because we have a majority in parliament which is unable to fulfill its duties," said Mohamed Morsy, head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. Mahmoud Hussein, the group’s secretary general, cited attempts to “abort the revolution.”

The move is the Brotherhood’s trump card in a recently escalating battle for power with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military council currently ruling Egypt, say analysts. But it could cause a backlash, not only at home but also abroad, among Western governments wary of an Islamist regime in Egypt. The risky step from the conservative movement is an indication of the difficult political realities confronting the Brotherhood as it attempts to transition from a repressed opposition group to a majority power.

“This is the last-mile fight,” says Khalil Al Anani, an expert on Islamist politics at Durham University who is currently in Egypt. “After [the Brotherhood] realized that the parliament is powerless, they decided to fight until the last point that they can reach to guarantee some kind of power over the new political system…. This is a serious conflict over power with the military.”

Still seeking clout

The Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, won nearly 50 percent of the seats in parliament in recent elections. But they have since found those seats gave them less clout than they had anticipated. The military refused repeated Brotherhood demands that SCAF sack the military-appointed cabinet and allow the parliamentary majority to form a government.

This lack of power, despite what was perceived as a strong victory in the elections, was embarrassing and damaging to their credibility, says Omar Ashour, an expert on Islamist movements who is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. “They're not going to accept being marginalized with such a popular mandate,” he says.

At the same time, the movement had few good choices when considering outside presidential candidates to back. They could not endorse any of the handful of Islamist candidates already in the race for various reasons, but risked revolt if they backed a non-Islamist candidate. Not backing a candidate was not an option, says Dr. Anani, because the leadership was afraid a president elected without their support might eventually turn on them. They deliberated mindful of 1954, when Gamal Abdel Nasser turned on the organization, officially banning it and imprisoning thousands of members. The SCAF invoked that history in a recent statement, as its confrontation with the Brotherhood heightened.

Though he is entering the race months behind other candidates, Mr. Shater will be an instant frontrunner because of the Brotherhood’s clout.

The most powerful Brother

According to many in the Brotherhood, Shater is the most powerful figure in the organization, despite his official position as No. 2. The large, bearded leader who spent more than a decade in former President Hosni Mubarak’s jails has consolidated a power base in the organization’s executive body, the Guidance Bureau. It was a result of a power struggle between himself and prominent leader Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh that the latter was dismissed from the Guidance Bureau in 2009 and expelled from the organization when he announced his presidential bid last year, against orders from Brotherhood leaders.

Shater was convicted of money laundering in a 2007 military trial, for funding and managing the finances of the organization, and sentenced to seven years in prison. He was released last March, just weeks after a popular uprising forced Mr. Mubarak from power. The military recently pardoned him for an earlier conviction, but there was no indication that the amnesty extended to the second conviction, which would leave him ineligible to run for office under Egyptian law. Yet Brotherhood leaders and the organization’s lawyer insist there are “no legal obstacles” to his candidacy. That has led some to speculate that his candidacy is not part of a confrontation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, but rather the result of a deal struck between the two.

Shater, who is very conservative, is also likely to gain the support of many ultraconservative salafis. Together, the Brotherhood and salafi parties took about 70 percent of parliament, though in the presidential race, Islamist votes will be split between four well-known candidates.

A risky decision

Yet fielding a candidate is a risky decision for the movement. The Brotherhood’s shura council, a sort of legislative body, was split 56-52 when it voted on whether to nominate Shater, and his nomination could open a rift among the leadership. The organization’s backtrack on promises could engender public resentment.

“I think Shater’s nomination will backfire and will be counterproductive to the movement in terms of its public image, because they pledged in the past not to field a presidential candidate, and in terms of internal cohesiveness, which will be damaged significantly,” says Anani.

If Shater wins, the Brotherhood will carry a heavy responsibility as it dominates the parliament, forms the government, and holds the presidency. In what is likely to be a rocky transition period, the Brotherhood will be the first to be blamed. If he loses, it will create even more internal divisions, and deal a decisive blow to the Brotherhood’s image as the major political power in Egypt, says Anani. “It's a very risky game, and they miscalculated…. This might be a fatal mistake.”

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