A Brotherhood show of force, as Egypt turns to presidential election

The Muslim Brotherhood led tens of thousands of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square today, sending a message to Egypt's military rulers.

Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters
A supporter holds up a placard during a campaign rally by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Freedom and Justice Party presidential candidate Khairat al-Shater at Shubra in El-Kalubia, on the outskirts of Cairo, Thursday. The placard reads: 'Shatroon (referring to al-Shater's supporters), Egypt needs al-Shater.'

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood sent tens of thousands of members pouring into Tahrir Square today in an Islamist show of force as the country turns toward a presidential election scheduled for May 23.

Smaller Islamist groups joined the Brothers on Tahrir, all venting their anger at the felool, or remnants of former President Hosni Mubarak's regime, who many say are a threat to Egypt's revolution. The Brotherhood had kept its supporters off the streets since winning parliamentary elections at the end of last year. But the entrance of Omar Suleiman, a long-time confidant and spy-chief of the deposed Mubarak, into the race and legal maneuvers to have some of the Islamists' own candidates disqualified brought them out today.

Events of the past few weeks have turned Egyptian conventional wisdom on its head. A month ago, many Egyptians thought the Muslim Brotherhood would cut a private deal with the ruling Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) by promising it wouldn't seek the presidency or eliminate the military's privileged position in exchange for latitude in parliament.

But since, the body parliament formed to write Egypt's new constitution was dissolved by court order and the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, which has almost 50 percent of the seats in parliament, has chafed at the fact that the government is still controlled by SCAF. Worried that its chances of writing a new constitution that would weaken the presidency (as things stand now, the president reigns supreme) are slipping away, the group put forward its senior strategist Khairat al-Shater as a possible candidate.

Mr. Shater has faced a legal challenge to his candidacy, however, since he served jail time for his political activities under Mubarak. Another Islamist presidential hopeful, salafi Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, is also facing a legal challenge to his candidacy.  Meanwhile Mr. Suleiman, to many Egyptians the ne plus ultra of felool, has stepped into the fray.

'We are trying to protect the revolution'

That's the background that led to the sea of green (the Brotherhood's color) on Tahrir today, where people are playing drums and marching through the square. “We don’t want the regime, and we don’t want Omar Suleiman,” says Mohammad Abayt, as he directs protesters into the square amid chants of “Down, down with military rule!”]

“We are trying to protect the revolution because it’s been stolen from us,” says Islam Salah with a picture of Abu Ismail hung with a white ribbon around his neck.

Countless posters beam slogans against the resurgence of former regime officials – which include Ahmed Shafiq, the prime minister during Mubarak’s final days, and former head of the Arab League Amr Moussa. But Suleiman’s image is the most loathed.

“It’s known Suleiman is an agent for America and Israel,” says computer programmer Mohammad Zidan, reflecting popular sentiment in the square. He sits next to a mannequin of a dead Suleiman, his forehead bearing the Star of David.

Suleiman’s “candidacy has again sparked this debate about what role former regime figures have in the new Egypt and the new political system,” says Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Last week, the Brotherhood presented head of their Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) Mohammed Morsi as a back-up candidate to Khairat Al-Shater in case Shater is disqualified. Long hesitant to directly confront SCAF, Friday’s rally was a heightened sign that the Brother's are seeking to seize the moment.

“[The protest] is an effort on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood to flex its muscles and say, ‘We are against former regime officials from having political life,’ ” Dr. Cook says.

Brotherhood alienates secularists

The Brotherhood’s return to the streets has heightened strains with the secular political currents it made common cause with during the effort to oust Mubarak last year. Almost all of the secular-leaning appointees to the constitutional committee walked out in protest before it was ultimately dissolved, complaining that the Brothers and their salafi allies were over-represented.

The movement's decision to run presidential candidates after spending the better part of a year insisting it wouldn't do so has done little to win liberal confidence. And the Brotherhood's show of force today followed months of ignoring other political movements appeals to lend its weight to their own protests. What once appeared to be a broad, united front against SCAF, is now fragmented. 

“The winner of such polarization is the military, mainly, and the remnants of the old regime,” says Khalil Al-Anani, expert on Middle East politics and Islamist movements of Durham University. The swelling divide could weaken those who share the values of countering anti-revolutionary forces, he says.

Demonstrators in Tahrir, however, don’t believe the absence of some activist groups affects the protest’s strength.

“Most of the people who came today are with the Muslim Brotherhood, and they represent the majority,” says recent college graduate Walid Sadawy, using a newspaper to shield his eyes from the sun.

“You will only find the Muslim Brotherhood participating in protests that favor the country,” says Mohammad Ali, standing near the Muslim Brotherhood’s stage, where throngs protested against Suleiman.

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