By Philip Whitfield
CAIRO: Egypt’s Islamic politicians couldn’t hold it together. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis are sowing seeds of mercurial destiny on a well-trod stage. Despite their protestations, both parties are fielding Delphic, ambiguous, ambitious presidential contenders.
SCAF and the Mubarakites must be drooling in their druthers. A week’s a long time in politics, opined Harold Wilson, Britain’s Prime Minister in the 1960s and 70s.
As well might Barack Obama, suddenly reincarnated as discordant religious Republicans knife each other in the back … as well might Nicholas Sarkozy where events in Toulouse wrong-footed his presidential opponents … as well might maverick UK MP George Galloway famed for tomfoolery on the Celebrity Big Brother reality TV show. Galloway came from nowhere to slay the David, Cameron and gangling Goliath, Ed Milliband in a crushing by-election victory on Friday.
Shakespeare said it first and best: O, beware, my lord, of jealousy. It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on. Or more aptly put by the Irish rebel poet and playwright Brendan Behan (1923 –1964): The first item on the revolutionaries’ agenda is the split.
While jousting quotes, an apt one popped out of the files: When we say we will not endorse or support any candidates from the Muslim Brotherhood, even former members, we are still steadfast in our position — Khayrat Al-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood’s millionaire strong man denying on February 28 they’d be fielding a presidential candidate. Let alone himself.
Yesterday Al-Shater threw his own hat in the ring. A few months ago the 62-year-old de facto leader of the Muslim Brotherhood expelled a fellow Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh for doing just that. Cunning as a fox, Al-Shater said he was resigning his membership.
Who set the cat among the pigeons?
Tens of thousands of adoring fans of the former Muslim Brotherhood preacher, ultra-conservative Salafi, Hazem Salah Abou Ismail.
He barnstormed Cairo’s cheering crowds thronging the streets from Dokki to Heliopolis on Friday, bringing four lanes of Salah Salem traffic to a standstill for hours. Needing only 30,000 signatures he presented no less than 150,000 powers of attorney endorsing his candidacy for President of Egypt.
Jamal Abdul Jawad, political science professor at the American University of Cairo thinks the Muslim Brotherhood are on the run. Interviewed on Saturday he said the Muslim Brotherhood is struggling to maintain and build on the political gains in the revolution’s wake.
After categorically stating they wouldn’t field a presidential candidate Jawad thinks they’ve lost credibility by reversing course amid the lack of any tangible progress in the country’s general malaise.
Dr. Omar Ashour, director of the Middle East Politics Graduate Studies program at Exeter University says the Muslim Brotherhood harbors hawks and doves. The hawks are behind a no-confidence vote against the government, want the constitution panel unchanged and now a presidential candidate they can call their own.
The doves have been routed. They wanted to withdraw some of the Islamists from the panel to write the new constitution and replace them with experts and neutral figures, says Ashour.
Tuesday’s rapturous reception for Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail at Cairo University has rattled the Brotherhood. Tens of thousands of young people turned out on Cairo University’s campus to hear the smooth-tongued Salafi cleric who doesn’t disguise his contempt for the US and Israel and what he sees as Mubarak-style appeasement.
Reports from sources close to the Muslim Brotherhood leadership say their own young supporters are drifting away in droves, favoring Abu-Ismail’s fiery anti-SCAF speeches.
He doesn’t mince his word. Abu-Ismail’s economic platform envisages greater emphasis on agriculture and less dependence on Suez Canal revenues and tourism, which he believes should reign in alcohol, bikinis and mixed bathing.
The Muslim Brotherhood seemed to have it all wrapped up until a few days ago. With the best showing in the parliamentary elections they deserved every chance to demonstrate their oft-repeated pragmatic approach was worth following.
Then they blew it.
They congealed in complacency, believing they had won the right to negotiate with SCAF on behalf of the nation — to featherbed their future in secretive backroom deals. Typical was Al-Shater’s formidable influence.
Known as The Engineer, the multi-millionaire boss of a vast business empire runs a camarilla within the Muslim Brotherhood’s organization that mirrors his nemesis, Gamal Mubarak who’s ironically banged up in the same Tora prison Al-Shater walked free from last March. Field Marshall Tantawi absolved him from a 7-year stretch for alleged money laundering offenses, citing ‘health reasons.’
Some lawyers claim he remains a felon barred from running for office until the full term of his tariff is completed, unless he’s pardoned, which is within the gift of Field Marshall Tantawi.
Just as moderate Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland set aside their theological differences in a search for peaceful coexistence it seemed diverse groups were trying tentatively to bury the hatchet to give tolerance a chance in Egypt.
But just as egoism proved epizootic in Ireland the disease demonizes democrats in Egypt. The Irish compromisers were laid low by arrogant misplaced egoism. The fuddy-duddies in the Unionist party, the social democrats and the liberals withered on the vine.
Between 1969 and 2001, 3,526 Northern Irish lives were lost in a population less than 3 percent of the size of Egypt’s. In the end the militants were given the concessions they craved and took power.
I recall vividly listening to the hopes and aspirations of those who set out to introduce justice and fairness into Northern Ireland. At the time they were as genuine as the vast majority of Egyptians are today. They wanted to rout out corruption and to eliminate the scourge of religious bigotry. Power hungry unscrupulous megalomaniacs hijacked their dream and cynically consigned two generations to mortification.
Their grandchildren bear the brunt as the residual impact of an endemic violent streak in their society wreaks its revenge. Last Friday, as occurs quite frequently nowadays, two young gunmen were jailed for murdering a policeman.
Man is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight — Mark Twain.
Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.