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Islamists suspend parliament in Egypt

With only a month until presidential election, tension grows between People's Assembly and a ruling military reluctant to cede power.

Election posters for Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood's new presidential candidate, in Cairo yesterday.
Election posters for Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood's new presidential candidate, in Cairo yesterday.

CAIRO // Egypt's parliament yesterday suspended sessions for a week in protest at the ruling generals' refusal to dismiss the military-appointed government.

The Islamist-dominated People's Assembly wants the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice political party to head a new administration.

The suspension, less than a month before the first round of the presidential election, has laid bare the power struggle between the Islamists and the military.

It followed a televised session of the assembly at which members spoke out against the government of the prime minister, Kamal El Ganzouri, and the generals who appointed it late last year.

The parliament's speaker, Saad El Katatni, said: "It is my responsibility … to safeguard the chamber's dignity and that of its members. There must be a solution to this crisis." The assembly will next meet on May 6.

Its suspension came after a night of violence in central Cairo, where demonstrators outside the defence ministry calling for an end to military rule were attacked with rocks and firebombs. One protester died and 30 were hurt.

Tension between Islamists and the military has been evident since the two main Islamist parties won nearly three-quarters of the 498 seats in the assembly elections that ended in January, and has worsened during the fraught process of approving candidates for the presidential election.

In the end, only 13 candidates were ruled eligible and allowed to run - a group of Islamists, Hosni Mubarak-era figures and a bunch of almost certain also-rans.

The 13 presidential candidates were among 23 hopefuls who had registered with the election commission. Ten were disqualified, including three potential front-runners: the Muslim Brotherhood's first-choice candidate Khairat El Shater, Mubarak's spy chief Omar Suleiman and the ultraconservative lawyer Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.

The last prime minister to serve under Mubarak, Ahmed Shafiq was disqualified and reinstated in less than two days last week.

Egypt's more than 50 million eligible voters will be asked to cast their ballots on May 23-24. If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the vote, a run-off will be held on June 16-17. A winner will be declared on June 21, the last stage of the transition to civilian rule promised by the military generals who took over from Mubarak. The disqualifications of the 10 hopefuls revealed the conflict between the generals and the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood wants to tighten its grip on political power after its impressive parliamentary elections triumph and the military wants to ensure that the powerful place it has occupied since 1952 remains intact.

Mr Suleiman's sudden albeit short-lived candidacy annoyed the Islamists so much they hurriedly put together a bill to strip key Mubarak-era officials of their political rights for 10 years. The generals, in their capacity as a collective presidency, endorsed the bill, but only after Mr Suleiman had been ruled ineligible on a technicality and his appeal rejected.

The law, however, meant Mr Shafiq must also be disqualified. He was, but was later reinstated after he filed a complaint. The reason for reinstating him, according to the election commission, was the possibility that the Supreme Constitutional Court would rule the law barring senior Mubarak-era figures unconstitutional. Banning him with that possibility hanging over everyone's head would have rendered the entire election illegitimate because a candidate would have been unfairly disqualified.

So, Mr Shafiq is in, and Mr Suleiman is out. That left Amr Moussa, Mubarak's longtime foreign minister and former Arab League chief, as the only remnant of the toppled regime in the race. Mr Moussa, who built a rapport with many Egyptians because of his anti-Israel rhetoric, left his cabinet position in 2001.

Significantly, Mr Moussa publicly supported Tunisia's Arab Spring uprising when everyone in Mubarak's regime was saying that what happened there could never be replicated in Egypt.

While Mr Moussa has some appeal because of the "face recognition factor" and his moderate views, many liberals dislike him because of his ties to the Mubarak regime and his reluctance to publicly criticise the generals. But if Mr Moussa makes it to the runoffs against an Islamist candidate, liberals, leftists, Christians and many among the undecided are likely to give him their vote.

In the Islamist camp, there is the US-educated Mohammed Morsi, who stepped in when Mr El Shater was thrown out, earning himself the unflattering nickname of "the spare candidate".

Mr Morsi has been seeking to enlist the vote of the ultraconservative Salafis while trying to cast himself as a moderate. But many believe that he lacks charisma and may not even command the entire Brotherhood vote. He has earned the support of an influential, Salafi-dominated panel of senior clerics, but the support of the powerful Salafi Al Nour Party went to a rival.

The Brotherhood is divided and its decision to field a candidate when it had promised not to hurt its credibility and reinforced its image as a group that craves power and cares only about its own interests. Additionally, the poor performance of its assembly members, where the group controls just under half the seats, has further weakened its standing.

The group's reputation was hurt when it was revealed that the chamber's speaker, Saad El Katatni, was using a luxury government car and that members taking part in two days of deliberations over a constitutional panel ran up a $300,000 (Dh1.1m) food and refreshments bill.

The other Islamist with a fair chance of making it to the runoffs is the moderate Islamist Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh. He is a former Brotherhood member who was expelled when he decided to run for president when the policy was not to field a candidate.

Mr Abolfotoh, who was involved in the uprising against Mubarak, appeals to some in all of Egypt's religious, ideological and political segments, but some fear that he might be casting himself as a moderate only for the campaign. Once in office, many fear, he could well be an essentially Brotherhood candidate.

Mr Abolfotoh won the backing of the Salafi Al Nour Party on Saturday, a move that has dealt a serious blow to Mr Morsi's chances.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting by the Associated Press