x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Egypt's Brotherhood mulls presidential candidate

Move could divide the country's most powerful group.

CAIRO // The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood will today decide whether to field a candidate for the presidential elections, a move that could divide the country's most powerful political group and change the face of the poll, just two months before Egyptians cast their vote.

The Muslim Brotherhood said last year, after it won the parliamentary elections, that it would not nominate a candidate. At the time, the announcement was seen as an attempt to assuage liberals that it was not seeking Islamist control of the country. But, in recent weeks, there appears to be a push from within the group's ranks to change its position.

The lack of a consensus candidate among Islamists has divided the group's membership over whether to stick to its plan of wielding power through the parliament alone, or seeking broader control of the government by controlling both the legislative and executive branches.

The Muslim Brotherhood could support a non-Islamist candidate, such as Egypt's former foreign minister Amr Moussa, who is seen as a front-runner, over Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who was ousted from the Muslim Brotherhood for defying the ban and launching a presidential campaign. Mr Fotouh has a strong following among the group's youth. But by doing so, the group risks a "split" that could undermine its power, said Mazen Hassan, a professor at Cairo University who studies Egypt's political transition.

"The Brotherhood are really in a bad situation," he said. "They risk a split in the group and the only option may be to nominate one from their own ranks who has the popularity to beat Aboul Fotouh in the elections. This may be the only way to guarantee the unity of the party."

A leading internal candidate for the group is Khairat El Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood's chief financier, who has played an increasingly public role for the group in the last three months, Mr Hassan said.

The decision over whether to support an internal candidate is also seen as one of the Muslim Brotherhood's final bargaining chips with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), the group of generals that has been in control of the country since Hosni Mubarak resigned as president last year amid a popular uprising. Relations have soured between because of Scaf's refusal to withdraw its interim cabinet.

If a non-Islamist president is elected, Scaf would have a better chance at holding onto its powers and economic interests, analysts say, as the president is also the head of the armed forces. If the Muslim Brotherhood controlled the presidency, Scaf would be weakened.

The Muslim Brotherhood had been critical of Scaf and its cabinet for failures that included the lack of security at the Port Said football riot in February that led to 74 deaths, "squandering" state funds, and failing to fix the country's economic problems.

On Sunday, the group issued an unusually confrontational statement commenting on the cabinet's "failures": "Is it a desire to abort the revolution and destroy the people's belief in their ability to achieve their goals? Or is there an intention to defraud or influence the forthcoming presidential election?"

The military struck back with its own statement, expressing its "utmost resentment" at the "slanders… against the integrity of the armed forces and their supreme council, attacking the performance and patriotism of the government".

The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party emerged as the most widely supported political group in the parliamentary elections that started last November and finished in February, winning nearly half of the seats in what observers described as the freest elections in decades.

The group's support for a presidential candidate - internal or external - is likely to be one of the most important decisions in the run-up to the elections. With the support of the group, a candidate would receive a major election boost that could swing the election results.

The Muslim Brotherhood has a dizzying year, transforming from an underground movement formed in 1928 that was banned by the state into the most powerful political group in post-Mubarak Egypt.

The past year has forced the group to become more moderate as it sought broad acceptance among the population, but also to learn the ins and outs of political calculus, said Tawfik Hamid, a former Islamic extremist who is the chairman of the study of Islamic radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in the US.

"If they immediately implemented Shari'ah in the traditional ways, they would destroy the economy, especially tourism," Dr Hamid said. "They are taking power when the country is on the edge of economic collapse. They have had to develop a new tactical and pragmatic way of thinking that appears more moderate for now."