Marc Lynch

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Presidential Gambit

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Presidential Gambit

The Muslim Brotherhood resolved months of speculation this weekend by announcing its intention of nominating Deputy Supreme Guide Khairet al-Shater for Egypt’s presidential election. It may not seem so surprising for a country’s largest political force and the largest parliamentary faction to field a Presidential candidate. But it was. The announcement sent an earthquake through Cairo’s already wildly careening political scene. I’m happy to admit that I was taken by surprise. 

What was the Brotherhood thinking? The nomination of Shater seems to have been a response to threats and opportunities a rapidly changing political arena, rather than the hatching of a long-term plan. But many Egyptians would disagree, seeing it instead as the culmination of a long-hatching conspiracy with the SCAF. I think it will reveal itself to be a strategic blunder which has placed the Brotherhood in a no-win situation. But clearly they had their reasons for making such an uncharacteristically bold move. How will it affect the endlessly turbulent and contentious Egyptian political transition? And could Khairat al-Shater really replace Hosni Mubarak as the president of Egypt?

I’ve been studying Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood for many years, and have interviewed most of its senior leaders (including Shater) multiple times. And I’ll admit that I was surprised. So were most other MB-watchers I follow. That’s in large part because it contradicts what I had heard for months from Brotherhood leaders in private and in public, and has dubious political logic. What’s more, the decision appears to have been controversial inside the Brotherhood’s leadership, and seems to have taken even many of its own top people by surprise. There are at least three reasons to consider the Brotherhood’s move surprising, despite the obvious temptation that any political party would have to seek the top political position which it believes it can win: its promises to not field a candidate; the strategic risks of seeking the presidency; and the stakes of nominating Shater himself. 

First, the Muslim Brotherhood had promised for months to not field a presidential candidate. They left little room for ambiguity in their promises. Indeed, it held this position so strongly that senior reformist leader Abd al-Moneim Abou el-Futouh had broken bitterly with his organization over his determination to run, and the Brotherhood leadership had in turn threatened to expel any members who worked on his campaign. This was not a minor, off-handed promise — it had been a central, often-repeated feature of the Brotherhood’s political message for many months. 

The Brotherhood-bashing over this reversal may have been a bit over the top ("Boo hoo. Call the wahmbulance. Politics ain’t beanbag," quipped FP’s house cynic in response to the finger-pointing). But putting forward a candidate didn’t simply break a frequently repeated public promise. It also fit a broader narrative (justified or not) about the Brotherhood’s steadly creeping ambitions and broken vows. Many of these complaints were themselves exaggerated, particularly over the Brotherhood’s alleged conspiracies with the SCAF and over-performance in the parliamentary elections. But the accusations took on a new intensity this month as a wave of liberals and independents quit the constitutional assembly in protest over perceived Islamist domination. 

The second reason for surprise was that the move carries significant political risks for little obvious advantage. The Brotherhood has long worried about the perception that it seeks to dominate Egyptian politics and sought to avoid triggering the crystallization of an anti-Islamist front. Most analysts expected the Brotherhood to practice self-restraint in order to avoid provoking these fears, and this was generally the message which Brotherhood leaders attempted to signal. But there’s no question that the Brotherhood has become increasingly assertive as it has established its power in the transitional environment, and less willing to back away from confrontation or back away from its own preferences.  

Advancing a candidate, while in line with this newly found willingness to flex its muscles, nevertheless creates a no-win situation for the Brotherhood. Backing an acceptable but non-Brotherhood presidential candidate would have protected their core interests without triggering fear in others. If a Brotherhood candidate wins, then the movement would control the parliament, the constitutional assembly, and the presidency. It would therefore stand alone in the face of the military, and would bear full responsibility for whatever happened in Egypt’s economy, politics and society in the coming period.  

If it loses the election, then it would conclusively shatter its own carefully cultivated air of invincibility. And victory is not certain. I’ve been genuinely impressed with Shater’s forceful presence, confidence, and intellect when I’ve interviewed him. In person, he is charismatic and impressive, calm and careful but capable of dominating a discussion. But Shater is not a charismatic front-man likely to enthrall the mass Egyptian public on television or in public speeches. He might find it tough going to unite an Islamist presidential field already divided, at least for now, between Abou el-Fotouh, the surprisingly omnipresent Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, and Mohammed Salim al-Awwa. In contrast to the parliamentary elections, Muslim Brotherhood members alone would not likely be enough to carry the day in a high-turnout presidential election — and Shater has not proven an ability to appeal beyond the organization he dominates. Finally, his presence in the race could well galvanize the non-Islamist vote to rally behind a consensus candidate such as Amr Moussa.

The third reason for surprise was the candidate himself. If the Brotherhood needed to field a candidate, then it could have turned to one of its well-known political leaders. Choosing Khairat el-Shater raises the stakes considerably. Shater is the deputy supreme guide, and in the view of most MB-watchers the real power behind the throne. Either his victory or his defeat would have more serious potential negative repercussions for the Brotherhood as a whole than if a less central figure had been offered up as a candidate. There can be no doubting that with Shater, the Brotherhood has gone all-in for victory. And that in turn puts the organization’s reputation very much on the line, win or lose.

So why did the Brotherhood do it? There are two, diametrically opposed arguments circulating — each, of course, firmly held as the obvious truth by its proponents. The first is that Brotherhood’s hand had been forced by the SCAF’s mismanagement of the political process and alleged targeting of the Brotherhood. Some Islamist leaders seemed to share overheated fears of an approaching "1954 moment" in which the army again cracked down on Islamists and reasserted authoritarian rule. While expected, the Brotherhood’s attempts to use its parliamentary power to rein in the SCAF and the SCAF’s counter-moves to block parliamentary action were, by this reading, pushing Egypt towards a political showdown. The MB has turned sharply against the Ganzoury government in recent weeks, after initially cooperating with it. Shater’s nomination is therefore in this scenario a response to threat, the next step in an escalating conflict between the Brotherhood and the SCAF.  

A second popular argument, held by many of the Brotherhood’s critics, is precisely the opposite: that Shater’s nomination represents the culmination of the long-standing collusion between the Brotherhood and the SCAF. In this reading, Shater’s assuming the presidency will complete a bargain by which the former will be handed political power in exchange for guarantees of the latter’s core interests. The public spats are dismissed as political theater designed to camoflouge the conspiracy. But in this reading, the fix is in and the Brotherhood is set on seizing the opportunity. 

The reality is likely some combination of threat and opportunity, as the Brotherhood seeks to navigate Egypt’s turbulent politics. They may have preferred to find a candidate to support from outside the organization, but couldn’t find a suitable one among the contenders. Perhaps they feared what the leading alternatives might do with regime power: Moussa perhaps rallying anti-Islamist forces and rolling back their gains, Abu Ismail capturing Islamist sympathies and votes and shunting the Brotherhood to the sidelines. They may have realized that they were at the peak of their power right now, with parliament under their control and other parties in disarray, and may never get another shot at the presidency. Or maybe it’s all of the above, and more.

The next two months are going to be a wild period for Egyptian politics which will make or break its deeply troubled but still — just barely — viable transition. The constitution is supposedly to be drafted, the president elected, and power transferred from the SCAF to a civilian government within this short time frame. Meanwhile, the economy continues to badly struggle, frustrated activists continue to protest, and relations with the United States. are badly strained. Shater’s entry into the presidential race just introduces one more wild card into this loaded deck. At least Egyptian politics won’t be boring.