Sidelining Muslim Brotherhood: A Blow for Egyptian Democracy
By: Karl Sharro
Published Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Egypt’s first-ever democratic presidential election seems to be heading toward a showdown between two main candidates. Crucially, the machinations of the presidential elections commission have ensured that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is not fielding a serious contender. Far from celebrating this weakening of the MB’s chances of winning the presidency, secularists should be worried about what it means for the development of democracy in Egypt.
On Monday al-Ahram published a poll showing that the former head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, and former MB member Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh are now the leading contenders in the presidential race. The drastic slashing of the number of candidates ensured that other heavyweight candidates were eliminated from the process, including Khairat el-Shater, the MB’s first-choice candidate. The organization’s replacement candidate, Mohamed Mursi, is relatively unknown and is well behind in the polls.
Abul Fotouh has reportedly secured the backing of the Salafi Nour Party (after they lost their candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail). Given his higher profile, he is likely to attract support among Islamists and further weaken the chances of Mursi.
The process by which the elections commission went about disqualifying candidates is far from transparent. In fact, its head was controversially appointed by former President Hosni Mubarak as chair of the Supreme Constitutional Court and his performance as head of the commission resembles all too closely the arbitrariness that typified decision-making under Mubarak. While many were glad to see the former director of the intelligence service (and briefly vice-president) Omar Suleiman disqualified, the disqualification of Shater and other candidates such as Ayman Nour denied many Egyptians the chance to vote for their first-choice candidate.
It is difficult to see how democratic transition in Egypt can be guaranteed given the opaque nature of the candidate disqualification process. Also, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces’ intervention to reverse a parliamentary decision disqualifying former prime minister and Mubarak-era figure Ahmad Shafik as a candidate is indicative of the extent to which the military is still able to interfere in the process. But the disqualification of Shater in particular should worry supporters of democracy and transparency. This leaves the party with the largest share of the popular vote in the post-uprising parliamentary elections without a credible candidate, and the move should be seen as an affront against popular will.
There are principled reasons for opposing the elimination of the MB from the presidential race: respect of popular choice, commitment to transparency, and ensuring Egypt’s new beginning isn’t distorted by remnants of the old regime. But, there are also political and pragmatic reasons. Secularists across the spectrum have to concede that the MB won the parliamentary elections fair and square. They proved that they have large support among the public and that they now have political momentum.
Given the scale of challenges facing Egypt in the near future and the pressing urgency of political and economic reform, dilution of power will only serve to weaken any serious reform agenda and delay the reconstruction and development process. Given that the MB doesn’t have an absolute parliamentary majority it would be still possible to hold it to account while it controlled the executive branch and put its ideas to test. Of course the MB would still have had to win the presidential elections and even with Shater running that wasn’t guaranteed. But the prospect of winning would have spurred the party to try to widen its appeal and mount a serious campaign.
Furthermore, had the MB won the presidential elections it would have had to live up to its promises and prove its declared intentions of emulating the “Turkish model” and the role that Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the JDP played there. There are grounds for scepticism about the MB’s ability to actually perform that role successfully, but it should have been given the chance.
But given that the MB’s protests against the disqualification of Shater were relatively muted, it is probably content to be absolved of this responsibility. There are indications that, like many other Islamist parties, it might continue to operate with the mentality of an opposition despite capturing a large percentage of the vote. This is not a good thing, it will only insulate the MB from the pressures of democracy and allow it to avoid the responsibilities of governance.
The alternatives, meanwhile, do not bode well for democratic transition and the development of Egypt. Abul Fotouh has spread himself so thin in trying to gain the support of a broad spectrum, from liberals to Salafis, that it is hard to see how he can satisfy them all if elected. His relationship with the MB might change once in power, of course, but it’s hard to see how he would reconcile this with his campaign tactics. The divergence in his support base will translate into little agreement over any serious policy initiatives, seriously weakening his ability to reform.
Moussa, on the other hand, is capitalizing on the “anything but the Islamists” shout among secularists. This would be particularly important in the anticipated second round where his opponent is likely to be Abul Fotouh, portraying the contest more starkly as secular versus Islamist.
It is telling that when he was asked about Islamist candidates, Moussa replied that Egypt should "not get into an experiment that has not been tried before." But that’s precisely the logic that autocrats like Mubarak played on for so long: “either me or the Islamists.” Given Moussa’s ties with the old regime and his long years of service to it, it’s not hard to see him reviving that tactic to gain legitimacy, especially in the face of an overwhelmingly Islamist parliament.
Many secularists were quick to condemn the MB when it decided to field a candidate in the presidential race, arguing that it had broken its promises not to do so. In fact this should have been seen as a welcome development signifying that the MB is now ready to enter the democratic political arena, and consequently be judged by its standards. In accepting defeat, secularists can begin the long process of building alternative political movements with real grassroots support. Meanwhile, they should stay true to their principles and give the MB a chance. And hope that it fails.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.