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A few hours after he had been excluded from the presidential race, Muslim Brotherhood strongman Khairat al-Shater addressed the media with a new defiant discourse. The 62-year-old businessman contended that the Presidential Elections Commission (PEC) is dominated by Hosni Mubarak's judges, decried a legal provision granting the commission's decisions full immunity against appeals, and alleged that the generals seek to reproduce the old regime.
In a news conference last week, Shater pointed out the paradox of being excluded from the race because a military tribunal jailed him in 2007 for his opposition of the ousted president (he was convicted on various charges including money laundering and providing university students with arms). Barring a political opponent from running for president after a sweeping revolt that deposed a dictator makes no sense. But Shater’s group has contributed immensely to sowing the seeds of the current impasse that culminated in his exclusion, with a PEC that Shater himself deems unfair and a politically empowered military. The 84-year-old organization is reaping the fruit of endorsing a military-set transitional path that ostensibly favored Islamists but actually empowered no one but the generals.
In February 2011, the Brotherhood took pride in the selection of Sobhi Saleh, one of their lawyers and former parliamentarians, to serve on the military-appointed commission that drafted eight amendments to the 1971 Constitution and hence drew the road map for the transitional period.
This commission kept almost intact a clause drafted by Mubarak's legal experts to ease the ascent of his son Gamal to the presidency. The clause stipulated that the PEC must be headed by the president of the Supreme Constitutional Court and that all its decisions would be immune to legal appeals.
The only change that Saleh's commission introduced was to restrict the PEC’s membership to judges. Yet there was no concern about the fact that the PEC would be chaired by Supreme Constitutional Court President Farouk Sultan, who is known for his close ties with Mubarak's regime.
It is by virtue of this clause that Shater, the Brotherhood's reinstated deputy supreme guide, has no right to contest the nullification of his candidacy.
The Brotherhood overlooked this demonic detail and threw its backing behind these amendments in the March 2011 public referendum. It insisted that a "yes" vote would ensure a clear road map for a quick and safe transition to democratic civilian rule.
Over a year later, Shater is calling for an overhaul of the PEC to purge it of Mubarak's men. Such a demand, if heeded, may lead to the postponement of the presidential election and the extension of the transitional period, something that no one except may be the generals would approve of. Shater's outcry could have made sense had he also made it a year ago.
Elections first: A self-defeating strategy
In fact, Shater's incontestable exclusion from the race is not the only curse that the constitutional amendments inflicted on the group. These ad hoc modifications paved the way for a transitional path that granted the Brotherhood nothing but a powerless Parliament.
In March 2011, the Brotherhood celebrated the sweeping public approval of the constitutional amendments and felt confident that the tide was turning in their favor after decades of persecution.
They anticipated the realization of a transitional road map, laid out in these amendments, whereby a parliament would be elected and then nominate a 100-member constituent assembly to draft the constitution.
Knowing their undefeatable electoral might, the Brothers assumed they would rise to power and have the upper hand over Egypt's post-Mubarak constitution. Their obsession with holding elections on time to reap much-wanted parliamentary seats pushed them to sever ties with revolutionary forces that took to the streets days before the parliamentary poll to protest police and military brutalities on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, near Tahrir Square. They refused to join the protests.
Analysts sympathizing with the group had hailed this approach as wise, contending that any overt clash between the Brotherhood, the nation's largest civilian force, and the generals on the street could provoke a military coup and thus abort Egypt's transition to democracy.
The Brotherhood insisted that only an elected parliament could realize the people's demands, undermining the impact of street rallies.
Back then, the group paid little attention to the military-issued interim constitution, known as the Constitutional Declaration, which laid the ground for a crippled People's Assembly. Under this declaration, Parliament has no right to form or sack a government. To add insult to injury, it stipulates that no bill can come into effect without the generals' approval.
As for the only function that falls under Parliament's exclusive jurisdiction, the Brothers have already stumbled in fulfilling it. By electing a constituent assembly that was predominantly Islamist, the Brothers antagonized secular forces and gave the generals a golden opportunity to intervene.
Ironically enough, the Brothers agreed to convene with members of Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to resolve the matter instead of accommodating their secular counterparts and keeping the military junta at bay. By sitting down with the generals, the Brotherhood conceded to a patriarchal setup that turned them into mere junior partners in a power equation that favored nobody but the military.
Capitalizing on the Brothers' performance, the generals seek to establish new facts on the ground that could serve their interests. This was the generals' response: No presidential election shall be held, and no power handed over to civilians, until political forces resolve their differences and draft a constitution. The generals made the sound argument that the elected president should be sworn in knowing his exact authorities as laid out in the would-be constitution.
This statement has added more uncertainty to the future of Egypt's transition to civilian rule and of the presidential poll slated for May 23 and 24.
Counting their losses
All of a sudden, the Brothers felt empty-handed faced with a pervasive and domineering military institution, and decided to shift from a quiescent to a confrontational discourse. But none of these traps should come as a surprise to the Brotherhood: all could have been foreseen from day one.
Besides Shater's exclusion and a weakened Parliament, the Brotherhood is incurring other, less apparent losses.
First, their perplexed performance has exposed what many observers perceive as political immaturity, to an extent that some of their prominent backers in intelligentsia circles have turned against them. The columns of Islamist writer Fahmy Howeidy are a case in point. Recently, Howeidy — long known for his Brotherhood sympathies — bashed their decision to field a presidential candidate (they had previously promised not to), saying they lack administrative skills and political expertise. He deemed them unfit to rule the country.
Second, the group's credibility must have been shaken in the eyes of nearly 13 million voters who cast ballots in its favor, hoping that Parliament would be able to fix their urgent problems.
Third, the group damaged its relations with revolutionary forces in a way that seems beyond repair, portraying itself as a reactionary camp allegedly interested in secret deals with the generals.
Experts on Islamist movements have long held that the Brotherhood is "a burden" that could always abort the transition to democracy. Today and throughout Egypt's troubled transition, this hypothesis has been put to a test. For some, the group's performance has already substantiated it.
Instead of employing its weight and popularity to spearhead a genuine transition to democratic rule and trim the wings of an ambitious military, the group's non-revolutionary outlook has caused it to rubber stamp an ambiguous transitional road map full of legal loopholes that seem to exclusively favor the generals.