The Brothers Grim

Can Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood overcome the disqualification of its popular and charismatic candidate for president?


CAIRO – Last week, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading light, Khairat al-Shater, looked like a confident front-runner in Egypt’s presidential race. On the night of April 12, more than 5,000 men — and another 1,000 or so women, in their own section — packed into a huge canvas-walled enclosure in the working-class district of Shubra al-Kheima, a Brotherhood stronghold, to hear what their candidate would do upon capturing the Egyptian presidency. 

The rally, one of Shater’s first since announcing his candidacy, managed to be both tightly organized and raucous — Muslim Brotherhood cadres of all ages drowned out the noise from the neighboring multi-lane roadway. Supporters brought dozens of rolled white flags declaring a coming "Egyptian renaissance," which they joyfully unfurled on cue. Meanwhile, senior officials at the head table drank from coffee mugs emblazoned with Shater’s rather imposing headshot.

Shater’s last name means "clever" in Arabic — a fitting moniker for the self-made millionaire — and one handmade sign carried by a young woman declared, "Egypt needs someone clever!"

A tall broad-chested man who spent years in prison under the Mubarak regime, Shater commanded the room without even rising from his seat. He barely talked religion, instead focusing on rebuilding the economy, the country, and Egyptian pride. "My brothers, we need to feel like we’re at the beginning of a true renaissance," he said. "We want to build our country. We’re coming out of a period of looting."

As befits a frontrunner, Shater generally avoided attacking his political rivals. However, he made one notable exception: He repeatedly called out Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s longtime intelligence chief and Hosni Mubarak consigliere, who had recently thrown his hat in the political race.

"Omar Suleiman and Hosni Mubarak’s intelligence men are trying to drag us backwards," he half-shouted. They want to "steal the revolution and forge the elections."

Just over 48 hours later, Suleiman was out of the race. But so was Shater — and the landscape of Egypt’s post-revolutionary transition had morphed yet again. On April 14, Egypt’s electoral commission disqualified the two strongest Islamist candidates and Suleiman, the most potent symbol of the old regime. Suleiman was eliminated due to mistakes in his gathering of signatures to qualify as a candidate; Shater is out because he had recently served a jail sentence for membership in the Brotherhood and money laundering to finance the organization (he was released after the revolution); Salafist Hazem Abu Ismail was disqualified due to evidence that his late mother had taken U.S. citizenship several years ago.

The commission rejected the appeals of the three candidates on the night of April 17, paving the way for the announcement of a final candidate list on April 26. A relatively short campaign season will then follow before the election of May 23 and May 24, with a run-off election that will carry over through mid-June.

With just over a month to go before the vote, Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential election has progressed very much like the post-Mubarak year that preceded it. There is a feeling of mass confusion and polarization — as well as the nagging fear that nobody is really at the wheel of the Egyptian state.

Suleiman’s actual appeal as a candidate always remained uncertain. He carried a tremendous amount of political baggage, from his warm public relationships with successive generations of Israeli officials to his tight association with Mubarak. But his candidacy also carried with it the societal assumption that he would be backed by the quiet but very real support of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Also, some Egyptians may have voted for Suleiman because of his obsessive opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, seeing him as a necessary authoritarian bulwark against the Islamist takeover that secularists fear is already well underway.

While Suleiman’s popularity is debatable, Abu Ismail and Shater would have been clear electoral powerhouses. Abu Ismail’s posters are still omnipresent around Cairo — he had become the primary boogeyman for Egypt’s secularist activists, many of whom didn’t conceal their glee at his downfall due to a modified "birther" scandal. Shater was essentially the frontrunner from the moment the Brotherhood announced it would renege on its oft-stated promise and field its own presidential candidate. In a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Shater called his disqualification "both funny and sad," but gave no indication he would contest the decision any further.

The remaining contenders are unlikely to provoke the same sort of polarization as those caught up in the electoral commission’s cull. Handicapping their electoral odds remains a murky endeavor, but each will now be auditioning for the various constituencies left adrift by the commission. Former Arab League chief Amr Moussa and former Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh now resume their frontrunner status almost by default. Fringe Islamists like Muhammed Selim al-Awa will work to draw in Abu Ismail and Shater voters. Former Air Force commander and Mubarak’s final prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, will similarly try to appeal to the stability/anti-Islamist bloc that might otherwise have voted for Suleiman. Perhaps the only candidate left who qualifies as a secularist without regime ties is longtime Nasserist MP Hamdeen Sabahi, who boasts opposition credentials dating back to his days as a student activist under the late President Anwar Sadat.

But the Muslim Brotherhood is still in this race, and shouldn’t be counted out. Knowing in advance that Shater’s disqualification was a possibility, the organization nominated a second candidate, Muhammad Morsi. A longtime member of the Brotherhood’s leadership ranks, Morsi emerged as one of the public faces of the organization after the revolution as head of the Freedom and Justice Party. While he doesn’t have nearly the stature or charisma of Shater, Morsi will enjoy the full and formidable backing of the Brotherhood. After a solid year of publicly swearing it had no interest in the presidency, the vaunted Islamist organization seems to badly want the executive branch.

Indeed, Egyptian politics on the eve of the presidential election is increasingly dominated by an all or nothing logic — the rival camps appear disinterested in sharing power in the name of post-revolutionary solidarity. So far, judging from the parliamentary results and the increasingly messy process of drafting the new constitution, all sides in the Egyptian playing field seem to be playing a zero-sum game at a time when the country desperately needs some big-tent consensus building.

At Shater’s pre-disqualification rally in Shubra Al-Kheima, one of his supporters argued passionately that the Brotherhood needed to control both the legislative and executive branches in order to counter an active and pernicious counter-revolution.

"Without executive power, it wouldn’t matter what the [Brotherhood-controlled] parliament did. They just won’t implement the law," said Muhammed Aql, a 27 year-old accountant in a pinstriped Oxford shirt. "To ask the Brotherhood to protect the revolution in those circumstances would be like tying a man’s hands together and ordering him to start swimming."

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