Confrontation over conciliation
The Muslim Brotherhood remains defiant after the exclusion of prominent leader Khairat El-Shater from the presidential race, reports Khaled Dawoud
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Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Tahrir on Friday demanded that Suleiman be barred from running for president
Shortly after the Presidential Elections Commission (PEC) announced Tuesday evening that the Muslim Brotherhood's deputy supreme guide, Khairat El-Shater, would be barred from running in the upcoming presidential contest in Egypt, various spokesmen for the 80-year-old Islamist group insisted that they would not give up and that their battle for Egypt's top post would continue with their "reserve" candidate, leader of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) Mohamed Mursi.
El-Shater charged that his exclusion proved "that the regime of [former President Hosni] Mubarak remains in power," and asked his followers to repeat after him the following oath: "We vow in front of God to protect the revolution, to defend it, to get rid of all the remnants of Mubarak's regime and the institutions that support him, and to stand united in support of our Islamic candidate, Dr Mohamed Mursi."
El-Shater also promised that the Muslim Brotherhood would, "do our utmost to reveal any possible rigging, and to reveal agents of the counter-revolution among those working in different institutions and agencies (in a reference to security and intelligence bodies), evil media means, corrupt businessmen and all foreign forces who are working to fight against the revolution. May God be our witness."
However, informed political sources and members of the Brotherhood who requested anonymity indicated that Mursi's candidacy might not be the final say. The country has witnessed roller-coaster developments that had upturned all political calculations and led many to wonder whether presidential elections would be held at all.
The decision by the Brotherhood's Shura Council on 31 March to reverse its earlier promise not to name a candidate for the upcoming presidential elections on 23 May was the first move that suddenly complicated the political scene. Days later, former General Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman announced he was also joining the race, raising eyebrows and leading some to question whether he was the unofficial candidate of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
Although opinion polls indicated that Suleiman enjoyed some support, the political forces who took part in the 25 January 2011 Revolution against Mubarak saw that move as a deep insult in face of the sacrifices Egypt's youth offered during the 18-day uprising against the ousted dictator. The Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, felt threatened, especially as Suleiman made rare public remarks charging that the Brotherhood's supporters were behind the security breakdown that took place on 28 January 2011, along with arson attacks against police stations and prisons all over the country.
Suleiman, the man who was known for his sincere loyalty to Mubarak for over 20 years and has been credited with saving his life amid a failed assassination attempt in Ethiopia in 1995, even went as far as claiming that he had received death threats from Brotherhood sympathisers after he announced he was running as a presidential candidate.
What many observers saw as a honeymoon period between the Brotherhood and SCAF seemed to have come to an end. The group's leadership apparently decided to flex its muscles and to indicate that it was ready for confrontation.
Wahid Abdel-Meguid, a liberal member of parliament who has strong ties with the Brotherhood and had been among a few intellectuals seeking to build ties between the Islamist party and secular forces, said that the sudden escalation in tensions between the Brotherhood and SCAF probably had to do with failed negotiations over forming a new cabinet to be headed by the group's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, which together with the Salafist Nour Party enjoys a strong majority in parliament.
Abdel-Meguid added that SCAF, as well as other secular political forces, including liberals and leftists, was alarmed by the behaviour of the Brotherhood's leadership in the formation of the 100-member constituent assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution. Without providing any explanation, the Brotherhood and its FJP gave up earlier promises to have only 40 members in the assembly from parliament, and 60 from outside, to assure secular forces they had no plan to control the drafting of the constitution. Instead, they insisted on 50 members from parliament, where they have a majority, while nearly half of the other 50 figures from outside parliament are known for their Islamist sympathies.
While the Constitutional Declaration adopted by SCAF after Mubarak's removal gave parliament members six months to pick persons to draft the constitution, the FJP and Nour Party used their majority to approve their own list of 100 candidates in less than two hours. The minority currents were left puzzled with a list of over 2,700 names, including many whom they had never heard of before.
With only around 20 per cent of parliament seats, liberal and leftist parties launched a strong campaign against the Brotherhood, and nearly all non-Islamist members of the constituent assembly pulled out in protest. Because the Brotherhood and Nour Party had disregarded the nominations of various institutions for membership of the assembly, even Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church announced they were pulling their own representatives.
The constituent assembly was nearly defunct before the Administrative Court declared last week that the process of picking its members violated existing laws and the Constitutional Declaration. The court was particularly critical of the Brotherhood's interpretation of Article 60 of that declaration, which gave parliament the right to "elect" the 100 members of the assembly, noting that this did not mean that 50 members had to come from parliament itself.
Thus, when the Brotherhood's leadership called for a mass protest on Friday, 13 April, under the banner, "Protecting the Revolution", its appeal fell on deaf ears. Liberal and secular parties announced that they would not be fooled by the Brotherhood again and announced that they would not take part in the mass protest. Ahmed Said, leader of the liberal Free Egyptians Party, said it was obvious that the Brotherhood resorted to Tahrir to polish its revolutionary image and serve its own interests after Suleiman decided to run.
"The Brotherhood's leaders left us alone in many earlier confrontations in which we were the first to call for the removal of the present cabinet led by Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri, and were critical of SCAF," said Said. "We would need a clear apology first before we can consider having confidence in the Brotherhood after its repeated failed promises."
Organisers of Friday's rally were keen to deny that the event was attended by Brotherhood Islamist sympathisers only. There were no slogans calling for the establishment of an Islamic state or the immediate implementation of Sharia law, and the only flag waving in the sky was that of Egypt, not Saudi Arabia as the case had been in earlier demonstrations organised by Islamists in July and November.
But the Islamist nature of the protest was hard to disguise. Hundreds of buses and microbuses lined up in the streets leading to Tahrir Square, carrying Brotherhood followers from provinces as far as Sohag, 400 kilometres south of Cairo. Many other buses came fully loaded from the nearby Nile Delta cities of Mahala, Tanta, Mansoura and Menoufiya. Most of the attendants carried trademark beards, indicating their Islamist political sympathies, with heavily veiled women moving in circles surrounded by young men so that they wouldn't be touched by other demonstrators.
The Brotherhood occupied the main stand in the middle of Tahrir, while supporters of the radical, ultraconservative and disqualified presidential hopeful, Sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, had their own stand. While Salafist supporters of Abu Ismail and the Brotherhood joined hands in chanting slogans against the nomination of Suleiman, former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik and former Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa, charging they are all remnants of Mubarak's regime, there were also clear differences between the two camps.
"We want an independent candidate like Ismail, not a candidate supported by the Guidance Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood, or by the military," said one of his supporters. When the spokesman of the Salafist Nour Party, Nader Bakkar, tried to deliver a speech to Abu Ismail supporters, he was forced to leave the stage amid shouts of "Get down, get down!"
The Nour Party had refused to officially back Abu Ismail although he seemed closer to them than the Brotherhood group. Abu Ismail was excluded from the presidential race after PEC ruled that his mother carried an American passport. Both parents of any presidential candidate have to be Egyptians who never carried any other foreign passport, according to the law.
When PEC confirmed Tuesday evening its earlier ruling to exclude both Suleiman and El-Shater from running, the first for falling 31 recommendations short of what he needed to complete his candidacy application, and the second for prison sentences received in military trials during the era of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak, there was an obvious sense of relief in many political circles. Naming El-Shater as a candidate implied that the Brotherhood wanted to control all key posts in Egypt: the parliament, cabinet and the presidency. Meanwhile, Suleiman's candidacy meant to parties that supported the 25 January Revolution that the Mubarak regime remained in place, even if the figurehead was absent.
For Abdallah Senawi, a columnist known for his close ties to sources within SCAF, the ball has now returned to the Brotherhood's court. "They have to decide whether they want to continue the policies that scared all political actors and SCAF, or seek a compromise on both the presidency and the constitution."
Insisting on keeping Mursi as the Brotherhood's candidate, according to Senawi, indicates that the group had decided to maintain a confrontational line. "Many Egyptians cannot understand what it means to have a 'reserve candidate' for the presidency, and were disappointed by the performance of Brotherhood deputies in parliament. They have a lot of work to do to restore the confidence of many Egyptians whom they failed," Senawi said.