x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Egypt election will test unity of Muslim Brotherhood

Poor showing in poll by leadership’s choice suggests support may be waning, and presidential vote could be decisive for party.

CAIRO // The presidential elections next month pose the greatest challenge to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood since the 84-year-old organisation took a bold step into politics last year.

Its membership is showing signs of divisiveness over which Islamic candidate to support: the Brotherhood leadership's choice of Mohamed Morsy or the reformist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who last year was expelled from the group for launching his campaign against the group's orders.

Public support for the Brotherhood appears to be waning, with 40.9 per cent of respondents in a poll this month by the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies supporting Amr Moussa, the liberal former foreign minister of Egypt, for president. This figure was followed by 25.2 per cent choosing Mr Aboul Fotouh. Just 0.9 per cent of the 1,200 polled supported Mr Morsy.

The situation represents the rapidly shifting political landscape in Egypt just 14 months after the former president, Hosni Mubarak, was forced to resign. In March, the Muslim Brotherhood political arc appeared to be just taking off when the group's political arm - the Freedom and Justice Party - emerged from the country's fairest parliamentary elections in decades with nearly half the seats.

But in the following weeks the Muslim Brotherhood has had to grapple with the realities of politics in modern Egypt. Their power appears to be slipping, which could have significant ramifications for the Brotherhood at a fragile moment in its transition from underground faction into a prominent political group.

The problems began with the new parliament. Largely toothless because a new constitution had not yet been written to give the body more power, it has struggled to influence the running of the country even as new crises emerged.

Another blow came when the Freedom and Justice Party awkwardly sought to control, along with the more conservative Salafists, the committee set to rewrite the constitution.

When liberals, secularists and minority groups realised they would have little power to sway the Islamists' decisions, many walked out. An administrative court then froze the committee to allow a judicial panel to examine the legality of how the members of the constitutional assembly were chosen.

And then the Muslim Brotherhood took its biggest gamble yet by breaking with its pledge not to field a candidate in the presidential elections by announcing the campaign of Khairat Al Shater, a former deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Mr Al Shater had a fighting chance to win, but was barred from running because of a past criminal conviction. Mr Morsy had also joined the race, but as a backup candidate.

If Mr Morsy loses the election, which polls suggest is likely, it will be a decisive setback for the group.

"The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood has shown it really doesn't have the skills to manage the delicate balancing act of politics and to be able to bridge its internal differences," said Bruce Rutherford, a professor at Colgate University in New York. "They have always said they are the voice of the Egyptian people. It's going to be a real crisis for them if the people choose someone other than their candidate."

Analysts and some former members of the Muslim Brotherhood see a deeper problem inside the group. Its cohesiveness had rarely been tested during its underground years, even though there were differences of opinion among the membership about how to restore Egypt's Islamic nature and wrest the country from the Mubarak regime.

The quick creation of a political party after Mubarak resigned pushed the group into uncharted territory. Immediately, the unity of its members came under attack. Some of the group's younger members left during the uprising because they saw the leadership as too slow to embrace the protests against Mubarak. After Mr Aboul Fotouh was ousted, dozens - if not hundreds- left the group or were forced out.

"They didn't have their hearts in it," said Mohamed El Kassas, 38, who was a Muslim Brotherhood member for 17 years before expulsion for joining a group of members creating a party called Egyptian Current. "Many of us had a different vision, but the Muslim Brotherhood wouldn't tolerate our views."

With so many of its most moderate members leaving, the Muslim Brotherhood was left with an even stronger conservative wing. At the same time, the group had to publicly move closer to the centre to convince voters that it was the moderate, Islamist choice.

The choice to support Mr Morsy, himself a member of the more orthodox wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, will test the group more than any other decision it has made since the uprising.

The group's leadership has announced that all its members must support Mr Morsy, but it ultimately has no ability to control how they vote.

"I think there is a good chance that some members, especially the younger ones, will vote for Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh," said Barbara Zollner, a professor at Birkbeck College in the United Kingdom.

"I think a lot of members feel disillusioned. They are questioning their decisions, why they broke promises, even the idea of creating a political party in the first place."

bhope@thenational.ae

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