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Amid the ongoing stand-off with Egypt's ruling generals, the Muslim Brotherhood announced on Saturday evening that it will field its most influential leader and probably shrewdest politician as a candidate for president, breaking last year's vow not to eye Egypt's highest executive post.
After almost two weeks of equivocating, the Brotherhood and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, declared that Khairat al-Shater, the outgoing deputy supreme guide, will engage in the presidential election set to kick off on 23 May.
The nomination decision has fed into two theories: it’s either an act of defiance against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which still holds tightly to the helm of the state and refuses to let Islamists form a cabinet despite their sweeping parliamentary weight, or a cover-up for a more strategic pact between the military elite and the largest civilian force.
The Brothers' need for executive power
In yesterday's sudden press conference, the Brothers, whose political party holds almost half of the parliamentary seats, justified the shift as an attempt to secure an executive arm that would allow them to implement "their reform agenda," deploring the generals' reluctance to sack the incumbent military-appointed cabinet, describing it as “failing.”
"People are upset; they feel that the ones they elected cannot do anything for them," Amr Darrag, a member of the FJP high board, told Egypt Independent. "We need an executive arm to implement the reform agenda that people want. Hence we need a strong presidential candidate."
For over a month, the Muslim Brotherhood has turned vehemently critical of Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri's cabinet. On Thursday, the FJP held a press conference to announce its refusal of the cabinet's statement holding that it shall resign or be sacked by the generals, who still maintain all rights over the cabinet according to the interim constitution. The Brotherhood has repeatedly affirmed that it is willing to form a new cabinet. However, the generals have always ignored these calls.
The Brothers' fixation on the cabinet — deviating to some extent from their old acquiescent pattern — and decision throw themselves into a head-on confrontation with the generals has raised a major question: Why would they not wait until the military returns to the barracks in late June and form their own cabinet, instead of violating an earlier promise by deciding to field a presidential candidate less than two months before the poll?
Darrag explained the group's choice by arguing that his party's forming of a new cabinet after three months is not guaranteed unless a new constitution granting the parliamentary majority the right to do so is enacted before the generals hand power over to an elected president. Otherwise, the new president will rule according to the military-issued Constitutional Declaration, which gives the president, rather than the parliamentary majority, the exclusive right to appoint a prime minister and other cabinet ministers.
In fact, the Constitutional Declaration grants sweeping powers to the president, a stipulation that the Brothers would not approve of in the near future, given their inclination to instate a parliamentary or a quasi-parliamentary system.
What makes the situation even more risky for the Brothers is the potential nomination of figures belonging to Mubarak's regime, according to Darrag.
"The problem is that there are lots of candidates with ties to the old regime and the SCAF, and the constitution will not be ready [by 30 June]," said Darrag.
"A threat to the track of democratic transition is looming. Why should we wait until a SCAF-linked president comes to power and have the generals rule from behind the scene?" Darrag asked rhetorically.
The group's statement issued last night highlighted other reasons for the decision, including threats to dissolve Parliament, "attempts to halt" the constituent assembly tasked with writing the constitution and the group's failure to convince some public figures to run for the post.
In recent weeks, the group voiced fears after rumors surfaced that Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's long-serving aide and former head of the General Intelligence Services, might run for president. Hatem Abdel Azim, an FJP MPwho spoke to Egypt Independent last week, had alleged that the generals might be holding onto Ganzouri's loyal cabinet to help them rig the vote in Suleiman’s favor.
Conspiracy theory invoked
Yet, not everyone sees last night's political development as a sign of further tension between the Brothers and the military. Some hold that Shater's nomination must have been prearranged with the SCAF.
"The Muslim Brotherhood would never nominate someone without the generals' approval," said Sameh al-Barqy, a former member of the Brotherhood and a founding member of the unofficial Egyptian Current Party.
"Shater is the perfect candidate for the generals. He is a candidate of consensus par excellence. He expresses the economic interests of the West, would guarantee the interests of the military inside Egypt, and in the meantime, he has a beard," he argued.
Barqy's theory draws on the long-held political reading that the SCAF and the Brotherhood have already struck a power-sharing deal, whereby the military elite would maintain its economic and political privileges and Islamists form governments and rule directly. This proposition derived evidence from the Islamists’ consistent reluctance to criticize the SCAF’s performance or hold it accountable for the killing of dozens of protesters during the transitional period.
In recent months, the group's search for a consensus presidential candidate who could allegedly appeal to their conservative followers while securing the SCAF’s approval was seen as further proof of the partnership deal.
Yet only last week, the group changed its soft tone and adopted an outspoken and aggressive position on the ruling military elite. In a statement, the group accused the SCAF of refusing to sack the cabinet either to "thwart the revolution" or rig the presidential vote. The SCAF then responded with an incendiary communiqué, dismissing the accusations and implicitly warning the Brothers that they may face a full-scale crackdown like the one their veteran leaders faced under Gamal Abdel Nasser's rule.
For Barqy, this confrontation is a sheer "bluff" meant to conceal a partnership between Islamists and the military elite. He went on to argue that both sides are contributing to "reproducing the old regime," but with an Islamist favor.
Shater is a 62-year-old businessman known for his political pragmatism, pervasive influence within the nation's oldest Islamist organization and openness to Western governments.
He was jailed several times under Mubarak. In 2006, Shater was arrested in a massive crackdown on the group and later referred to a military tribunal that sentenced him to seven years in prison. In March 2011, he was released by the SCAF for medical reasons before the date set by his initial sentence.
Earlier this year, a civilian court lifted a freeze imposed on Shater's assets. The move was seen by many observers as a prelude to issue a general pardon that would allow the Brotherhood's mastermind to run for office, since an ex-convict cannot by Egyptian law.
A few weeks later, Shater’s lawyer announced that the court had pardoned him for a 1995 case in which he was sentenced to five years in prison for attempting to revive the outlawed Brotherhood organization.
Although there has been no official announcement from the military to this effect, Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, the Muslim Brotherhood’s lawyer, affirmed that a military court has recently pardoned his client for the 2006 case too.
"All legal obstacles have been removed and now he has the right to exercise his political rights, including the right to vote and to nominate himself," Abdel Maqsoud said.
If the generals had not condoned Shater's nomination, he would not have been pardoned for all charges, Barqy said.
Ashraf al-Sherif, a political scientist with the American University in Cairo, ruled out the former Brotherhood member’s reading, arguing that the generals are unlikely to accept Shater as a president.
"The SCAF would not approve of any president who comes from outside their circles," said Sherif, who believes that Suleiman or Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister, are the military's most likely candidates.
So far, Suleiman has not announced that he will run, but sources close to him have told the media he is interested in engaging in the race. As for Moussa, he was the first plausible candidate to unveil his desire to succeed the ousted president.
Sherif proposed another two possible interpretations for the group's decision to nominate Shater. There might be an actual conflict between the generals and Islamists over the post-transition arrangements, including which presidential candidate to back, he said. Sherif suspected that the generals might be seeking to groom Suleiman, a nominee the Brothers would never endorse given his military background and deep-seated animosity toward Islamists.
"Or the decision might be a maneuver aimed at bringing benefits to both parties," said Sherif, referring to the Brotherhood and the military.
On one hand, Shater's nomination can protect the group's cohesiveness by dissuading its youth from backing any other Islamist candidate; and on the other, split the larger Islamist vote, which includes moderate as well as radical Islamists, and hence strengthen the chances of the SCAF-sanctioned non-Islamist nominee, explained Sherif.
This interpretation would hold if the Brothers and the generals have already agreed on a non-Islamist nominee, which would most likely be Moussa.
Shater comes as the fourth major Islamist presidential hopeful to enter the race. His contenders from the Islamist pool include Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, a former Brotherhood leader, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a Salafi preacher, and Mohamed Selim al-Awa, an Islamist lawyer.
Over the last year, both Abouel Fotouh and Abu Ismail have established themselves as viable candidates. By attracting backers and campaigners from the Brotherhood against the will of the group's leadership, both presidential hopefuls have posed challenges to an organization long known for its strict internal discipline.
In the meantime, Abouel Fotouh's and Abu Ismail's revolutionary discourse has set them at odds with the generals.
Both had already filed their nomination documents accompanied by celebratory rallies by the time the Brotherhood made its announcement.
Shater is not only expected to attract young Brothers who swore allegiance to his two Islamist contenders, but he may also garner the backing of large segments of Salafis, given his conservative religious outlook.
With less than two months standing between Shater and the actual poll, some observers believe he stands no chance to market himself. But for Darrag, this assessment would not be necessarily accurate.
“We are a big organization that has extensive roots,” he said, “and we can spread everywhere to support our candidate."