Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 April 2012
Issue No. 1092
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Cautious response

The fielding of Khairat El-Shater as the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate for the presidential elections drew cautious international reaction, Doaa El-Bey reports

Khairat El-Shater's candidacy caused widespread anger among political groups and parties including MB members themselves. The move is likely to unnerve the West, too, following the MB's repeated reneging of pledges. Doubts about the strength of the Brotherhood's commitment to its promises raised concerns in the United States and Israel, which considered the previous regime's commitment to the peace agreement a strong factor to regional stability. Their reaction did not openly disapprove the selection; in fact, there were covert signs of approval.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declined to comment on the MB's decision saying that Washington would follow the presidential vote closely and would watch all the political forces in the country. She added that Washington would monitor Egyptian politicians and hold them "accountable for their actions".

"We're going to watch what the political actors in Egypt do. We're going to watch their commitment to the rights and the dignity of every Egyptian," Clinton told reporters in Istanbul following a meeting of the Friends of Syria group earlier this week.

"There has to be a process starting in an election that lays down certain principles that will be followed by whoever wins the election. That is what we hope for the Egyptian people," Clinton continued.

El-Shater is respected among US officials. Many who have met El-Shater on visits to Cairo, including top State Department officials and Congressional delegations, have praised his moderation and business savvy.

El-Shater also met with almost all senior State Department officials and US lawmakers visiting Cairo. He is in regular contact with the US ambassador, Anne Patterson, as well as the executives of many US companies here, and US officials have praised his moderation as well as his intelligence.

The New York Times described him as the moderate and most open man in the Muslim Brotherhood who is watching over the change of part of the movement's principles in order to be more tolerant towards the West.

The US was keen to rule out any previous arrangements between the MB and US officials.

The US Embassy in Egypt issued a statement on Monday entitled "Correction for the Record". It stated that contrary to recent press reports claiming to characterise meetings that US Senator John McCain and US Ambassador Patterson held with the MB during the senator's recent visit to Cairo, there was no discussion of whether the Muslim Brotherhood would or should run a candidate in the upcoming presidential elections in Egypt. McCain and Patterson were not asked for their support, nor did they offer their support, for such a proposal from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The question of who will run for office in Egypt is an internal matter that is entirely up to the Egyptian people. The US takes no position on this subject.

The statement added that the US would continue to support the Egyptian people and their goal of a democratically-elected civilian government that respects universal human rights.

In the meantime, Israel's Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon played down the Muslim Brotherhood's decision to seek the presidency in neighbouring Egypt. He said maintaining peace with Israel is in any Egyptian leader's interest, and that Cairo's relationship with Washington is linked to the peace deal. He told Israel Radio on Sunday that "as long as... the Muslim Brotherhood president understands Egypt's commitments and its interests, that will preserve the peace deal."

Israel's 1979 peace agreement with Egypt is a pillar of security for both countries, but Israelis have become increasingly concerned over its future under Egypt's Islamist-dominated parliament.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to comment specifically on El-Shater but called the nomination worrisome. "Obviously this is not good news," the official was quoted by The New York Times as saying. "The Muslim Brotherhood is no friend of Israel's. They do not wish us well." The official added: "The big question will be how pragmatic they will be once in power. It could go in either direction."

Israeli newspapers like Yediot Aharonot pointed out the many concerns in the West that Egypt may turn into an Islamic state, even though El-Shater is considered to be a moderate in the eyes of the Western world.

The signs of US-Israeli cautious approval -- or at least not disapproving -- to El-Shater's nomination could be ascribed to a few factors, namely that he is a better alternative to other more conservative candidates like the Salafist Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. Abu Ismail wants to move towards scrapping Egypt's peace treaty with Israel and cites Iran as a successful model of independence from the United States. And he promises to bring extraordinary prosperity to Egypt if it turns its back on trade with the West.

El-Shater resigned from his post as deputy chairman of the MB to join the already crowded field of presidential candidates which includes former Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa, who served as Hosni Mubarak's foreign minister, Ayman Nour, an opposition leader jailed by Mubarak and recently pardoned by the military council, the ultra-conservative Salafi candidate Abu Ismail and former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, who broke with the Muslim Brotherhood because he ran for presidential elections without their consent.

The fact that the military council pardoned El-Shater last month for jail terms he served under the previous regime paved the way for his nomination. Otherwise, it could have been an obstacle to his nomination. He was jailed for five years by a military court during a crackdown on Islamist movements in the mid-1990s. In 2007, he was charged with providing funds and weapons to college students and imprisoned again. He was still behind bars when the regime fell in February 2011. The military that took power from Mubarak released him for medical reasons a month later.

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