Muslim Brotherhood candidate alters Egypt's election race
CAIRO // A Muslim Brotherhood member's entrance into Egypt's presidential contest has virtually ensured that an Islamist candidate will make it to the final round in June.
By backing Khairat Al Shater, 62, the party's main financier, the Brotherhood has propelled him to the top group of contenders along with two Islamists and a popular non-Islamist candidate, former foreign minister and Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa.
Electoral demographics and the current composition of the field make it highly likely that at least one Islamist candidate will proceed to a run-off after the first round of voting on May 23 and 24, analysts said. The second phase will likely pit an Islamist against Mr Moussa or against another Islamist, unless a particularly strong military-backed candidate joins the competition.
Mr Moussa, who enjoys widespread name recognition and support, said on Monday that Mr Al Shater's candidacy had shifted the nature of the race.
"The Brotherhood's announcement of Al Shater as its candidate for the presidency of the republic will force the rest of the candidates affiliated with the same stream, in particular, and the Islamist stream, in general, to reshuffle their cards," he said, according to the state news agency Mena.
Mr Al Shater benefits from the Brotherhood's strong organisation but is not as well known across Egypt.
Meanwhile, a more significant power struggle between the Brotherhood and the ruling military council, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), has reached new heights, according to Khalil Al Anani, an expert on Islamist politics at Durham University in the United Kingdom.
"Khairat Al Shater is the only person that can bargain and negotiate with the military," he said. "He's the strategist mind in the Brotherhood - the strongest one - and he can direct the movement in any direction he wants. He's a very strong man in the movement, and he's a very pragmatic person."
That pragmatism may play out as the Brotherhood stakes out a position between the two other main Islamist candidates in the race.
Hazem Saleh Abou Ismail, 51, an ultraconservative Islamist preacher, has a strong chance of finishing high, taking votes from Mr Al Shater in the process, analysts said.
"He's a fiery populist campaigner. He knows how to talk directly to the people. He has the charisma that some of the other candidates don't have, and he offers an uncompromising vision of Islam and Islamic law," said Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. "I think a lot of Egyptians are looking for that."
Mr Abou Ismail's campaign posters dot the Egyptian countryside and districts throughout Cairo more than any other candidate, and he has preached his religiously conservative, anti-western message before massive crowds in the capital.
His calls for the implementations of Sharia law have rankled liberals here. He has said a minimum marriage age above 12 is wrong and suggested that cooking with nutmeg, which has narcotic properties, is sinful.
Young Islamists and liberals have come out in force for Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, 60, whom Brotherhood leaders ejected when he defied their pledge last year not to offer a presidential candidate. Many young Brotherhood members feel betrayed by the organisation's leaders now that they have gone back on their own promise.
The moderate Islamist has so far failed to garner significant support among other Islamists, many of whom have yet to make up their mind about whom to back.
"I think the Brotherhood has already paid the price of losing those people," said Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University who recently wrote a book on Islamists and the electoral process. "I don't think a Khairat Al Shater candidacy will affect that that much."
Another Islamist moderate, Mohammad Salim Al Awa, is trailing the other candidates.
The divisions among Islamists have created the impression among some that Islamist organisations are concerned more about their own future than Egypt's.
"Is he going to be reporting to the people of Egypt or is he going to be reporting to the Muslim Brotherhood?" Ahmed Said, head of the liberal Free Egyptians party and a member of parliament, said on Sunday, referring to Mr Al Shater.
Mohamed Elgeba, 27, a longtime Brotherhood member who left the organisation last spring and has since joined the Aboul Fotouh campaign's policy committee, said this dualism runs in the face of Egypt's interests.
"When we talk about Aboul Fotouh, we don't say that he is a candidate for the Islamists," Mr Elgeba said. "He is an Islamist, but he is a candidate for Egypt."
Mr Al Shater's candidacy has thrust the spotlight on the Brotherhood's internal politics, according to Quinn Mecham, an expert on political Islam at Middlebury College in the United States.
"I think that it creates an environment where a lot of their back room debates become suddenly very public debates," Mr Mecham said. "The fact that the differences in ideology and platform are now spilling out into what will be a very public campaign is a very interesting development."