By Mai Shams El-Din
CAIRO: The nomination of former deputy supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Khairat Al-Shater to the presidential race leaves open possibilities for drastic changes inside the Brotherhood in Egypt and in the region at large if he wins the top post.
Analysts are concerned about internal divisions within the group, if they reach the top of the executive authority in post-Jan. 25 Egypt, in a way that would constitute a stumbling bloc in the road of democracy in Egypt.
Possible internal divisions
Al-Shater was declared as the official candidate of the Islamist group after a meeting of its Shoura Council voted in favor of his nomination. Fifty-six members of the council voted for his nomination while 52 rejected it.
According to a former Brotherhood member Haitham Abou Khalil, the council met three times to discuss Al-Shater’s nomination.
“In the first meeting, 82 percent of the council members voted against his nomination, the percentage was reduced to 62 in the second meeting, until we reached 48 percent opposing his candidacy,” the former member told Daily News Egypt Monday.
“I am surprised that he accepted his nomination with the fact that only four members [difference between 56 and 52] caused this decision,” he added.
Abou Khalil added that in the first meeting of the general office of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Brotherhood, 57 voted against Al-Shater’s nomination while 13 voted for it.
“After too much pressure, 60 voted for his nomination and 20 against it in the second meeting,” he explained.
Expert on Islamist movements Khalil El-Anani agreed with Abou Khalil, attributing the final decision of the Shoura council to “the power center” Al-Shater controls within Egypt’s largest Islamist group.
“But we cannot take this percentage as an indication of a real or serious split inside the group; it will result only in a usual split between the old and young generations who find themselves unable to justify the actions of their leadership to the public,” El-Anani told DNE Monday.
“It will definitely create a level of controversy, but not a real split.”
Abou Khalil disagreed. More resignations are coming not only from the group’s youth, but also from major leaderships, he explained.
“We have seen resignations from a public figure like Kamal El-Halabawy who resigned on air on a major talk show, in addition to the resignation of Abdel Azim El-Ashry who enjoys wide popularity in the Fayoum province,” Abou Khalil said.
“What makes the issue more dangerous is the fact that many members will stay in the group, but will lose faith in the leadership and the message of the group, which is more dangerous for the future of the Brotherhood than leaving it,” he asserted.
Historian and a former member of the Brotherhood Mohamed Elhamy told DNE Monday that the resignations of the Brotherhood youth has been happening since the Jan. 25 uprising, due to the Brotherhood’s conservative stance towards the revolution since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.
“The effect of the youths’ resignations is not very obvious in the eyes of the media and the public, because media usually focuses on the public figures that are usually attached to the group more than the youth,” Elhamy said.
Away from the well-connected, older members, the increasing number of resignations by “effective” younger members is taking its toll on the group internally, “more than anyone could imagine,” he said. Half of that sector has resigned since the ouster of Mubarak, he added.
FJP MP Hassan El-Brins didn’t see such rift. He described the decision of the Shoura Council to back Al-Shater as “legitimate, and legal.”
“The council discussed the matter in three hours. It is an elected council in which every province is represented with around five members directly elected by their fellows. We respect democracy rules,” he said.
“The positive side of the issue is bigger than the negative side of it and there is no wrong or right decision in it,” the MP added on his official Facebook page, encouraging Egyptians to support Al-Shater’s “renaissance project” for Egypt.
Impact on democracy and pluralism
The internal rifts within the groups compound other, more common concerns. Fears are mounting as critics see the grip of the Brotherhood tightening on state institution; it controls the majority in parliament and the Constituent Assembly that will draft the constitution.
Controlling the executive authority, critics say, will threaten political plurality and the democratic process in post-Jan.25 Egypt.
“If Al-Shater wins the presidency race, this will not be in favor of Egyptian democracy,” El-Anani said, adding that fears get worse with the possibility of a deal or an understanding with the ruling military council.
“I’m not convinced that there is a confrontation between both sides; the current escalation and Al-Shater’s nomination could be an attempt from each side to improve his own stance in the negotiation process,” El-Anani added.
The group was reluctant previously to take on all political responsibility at this critical stage. Many relied on this theory to prove that the Brotherhood won’t contest the presidential race. Generally conservative in its politics, the group was also seen as treading a fine line of diplomacy with the ruling generals. An alleged power-sharing deal has been repeatedly denied by both sides.
In what seemed as a change of tact, the group started an exchange of critical statements with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, accusing it of backing the “failing” Cabinet of Ministers and of taking a jab at the revolution.
“Al-Shater’s nomination is a crime that will split the vote of Islamist candidates in favor of the candidates affiliated with the former regime,” Abou Khalil said.
“The group lost a lot of its credibility after being not up to its promises which will cause panic in the political scene with a complete control over most of the state’s institutions,” he added.
Elhamy, on the contrary, believes that the chance should be given to the Brotherhood to present its project, ruling out the usual fears of creating a new National Democratic Party, the now disbanded party of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
“We have to differentiate between our criticism of the policies of the Brotherhood and the fact that they were fairly elected by the people to run the state’s affairs,” Elhamy explained. Criticism directed at the way the group has dealt with the revolution should not let people fear the Brothers’ rise to power, he added.
Reformist Brotherhood member, MP Mohamed El-Beltagy, had expressed his fears of nominating a president from within the group prior to Al-Shater’s nomination.
“It is unfair to the Brotherhood and to Egypt for one group to bear the burden of the country responsibility all at once,” he said.
“The Islamic project that waited for 80 years, which has been [growing] believing in gradual [change], should not be involved in burning all these stages in one month,” he added.
El-Beltagy was not immediately available for comment on Monday.
Critics also fear that Al-Shater’s business background could lead to another marriage between politics and money, like what happened with the Mubarak regime.
Comparisons have been made with steel mogul and NDP leader Ahmed Ezz, who is now behind bars.
“It is unfair to mix between a corrupt regime and Al-Shater even if he comes from a business background,” El-Anani said.
Elhamy agreed, adding that the comparison is unfair for the Brotherhood. The group’s project should be given the chance, he said.
MP El-Brins described the new presidential candidate as the “Erdogan of the Arabs,” referencing the Turkish leader, and also the “savior of the Egyptian economy.”
“He is the engineer of Egypt’s renaissance project in which 1,000 Egyptian scientists took part in. He met tens of Arab and foreign ambassadors and researched it with hundreds of Arab and foreign businessmen,” he explained.
Abou Khalil wasn’t as confident. “Al-Shater is a merchant; we have never seen him in the parliament, in a syndicate, or even in a protest. How we can judge his leadership skills then?”
Stable relations with the US
One aspect that critics won’t have to worry about now would be Egypt’s foreign relations, at least a major part of it. Experts speculated that Al-Shater received the green light from the US administration that sees in him a good broker who enjoys a favorable business mentality.
“For the US, Al-Shater is a good broker and a pragmatic leader,” El-Anani said. Closer to home, the nomination will have a “damaging regional dimension.”
“Will the Gulf [states] accept his nomination?” El-Anani wondered. “The US will have to pressure the Gulf to accept him.”
The Brotherhood doesn’t intend to challenge the American “political monopoly” in the region, Elhamy said, describing it as a positive sign for the group.
“The Brotherhood cannot nominate him without surveying the US opinion about it. But we should not take this as a conspiracy, because this happens in politics all the time,” Elhamy explained, adding that there will be an acceptance form the Gulf.
But the speculation about backroom deals is leading critics to slam the lack of transparency, including Abou Khalil, who nonetheless saw the balance tipping in Al-Shater’s favor.
“He has the full support of Qatar and the US administration will pressure UAE and Saudi,” he explained.