By Maggie Michael / AP
CAIRO: The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate for Egypt’s presidency is lobbying hard for support of ultraconservative Muslim clerics, promising them a say over legislation in the future to ensure it is in line with Islamic law, as he tries to rally the divided Islamist vote behind him.
The campaign dealmaking is a sign of how the Brotherhood, which is Egypt’s strongest political movement and presents itself to the public as a moderate force, could be pushed into a more hard-line agenda by competition from the ultraconservatives known as Salafis.
Giving Muslim clerics a direct say over legislation would be unprecedented in Egypt. Specifics of the Brotherhood promise, which Salafi clerics said Wednesday the candidate Khairat Al-Shater gave them in a backroom meeting, were not known. But any clerical role would certainly raise a backlash from liberal and moderate Egyptians who already fear Islamists will sharply restrict civil rights as they gain political power after the fall last year of President Hosni Mubarak.
It would also damage the image that the Brotherhood itself promoted for the past year, insisting it does not seek a theocracy in Egypt or to quickly implement Sharia.
Al-Shater, a strongman in the Brotherhood, is pushing heavily to prevent a split in the Islamist vote in the May 23-24 vote to elect the first president since Mubarak’s ouster. A single Islamist candidate could enjoy a widespread popular base, since the Brotherhood and Salafis together won more than 70 percent of parliament in elections late last year.
The Brotherhood alone holds nearly half of parliament and, alongside Salafis, dominates a new commission formed to write a new constitution. It is hoping for the presidency to seal its power.
But there are multiple candidates running on their Islamic agenda, dividing the vote and raising a possible window of victory for a non-Islamist figure.
Al-Shater faces tough competition from a lawyer-turned-TV preacher, Hazem Salah Abou Ismail, who is the favorite of Salafis. Abu Ismail has become ubiquitous in the campaign, plastering what seems like every other lightpost and wall in Cairo with campaign posters showing his cheerfully smiling face and long, conservative beard. After Al-Shater announced his candidacy over the weekend, Abu Ismail rejected pressure to quit the race and many prominent Salafis announced they were sticking with him.
“There is grave fragmentation among ranks of Islamists and its getting worse with strong polarization between the two camps of candidates,” Khaled Said, a Salafi leader, said.
Salafis are the most hard-line of Egypt’s Islamists, depicting themselves as the “guardians of Sharia” and touting a strict interpretation of Islamic law similar to Saudi Arabia’s. Many of them see the Brotherhood as too willing to compromise on implementing Sharia and despise its political pragmatism.
Leading clerics with their trademark long, bushy beards and robes have become regular guests on TV talk shows and issue fatwas or religious edicts attacking secularists, saying Christians and women can’t run for president, and calling for greater segregation of the sexes.
Al-Shater met for four hours Tuesday night with a panel of Salafi scholars and clerics, called the Jurisprudence Commission for Rights and Reform, trying to win their support.
The discussion focused on “the shape of the state and the implementation of Sharia,” the commission said on its Facebook page Wednesday.
“Al-Shater stressed that Sharia is his top and final goal and that he would work on forming a group of religious scholars to help parliament achieve this goal,” the statement read. The commission is an umbrella group of Islamist factions, mostly Salafis, set up after last year’s anti-Mubarak uprising.
A Brotherhood spokesman could not immediately confirm the offer and attempts to reach the head of the commission went unsuccessful.
The promise resembled an item in a 2007 political platform by the Brotherhood, when it was still a banned opposition movement. It called for parliament to consult with a body of clerics on legislation to ensure it aligns with Sharia. The proposal was met with a storm of condemnation at the time, and the Brotherhood backed off of it.
Mohamed Habib, who was the Brotherhood’s deputy leader at that time, says the platform item was for a body of clerics simply to advise lawmakers, but that some in the group wanted it to have a more powerful role to vet legislation.
Of Al-Shater’s reported proposal, he said there were many questions. “Does it cut powers from parliament? Would it have the power to impose anything on parliament?” he said, speaking to the Associated Press.
Tharwat El-Kherbawi, a former Brotherhood member who fell out with the group, said the council appeared similar to Iran’s system of clerical “guardians” over the elected government.
“Al-Shater wants to give Salafi clerics what they want,” he said. “The clerics will work on moving the Salafi mountain from Abu Ismail to El-Shater but first they need some melting of the ice. And this is the way to get through it.”
The Brotherhood announced Al-Shater’s nomination over the weekend, breaking a yearlong promise that it would not run a candidate for the presidency. The move raised accusations that the Brotherhood is trying to monopolize all levers of power. It also angered many Salafis because it would split the Islamist vote.
Another Islamist candidate in the race is Abdel Moneim Abol Fotoh, a longtime Brotherhood member from its reformist wing who was booted out of the organization last year when he announced he would run for president. His campaign has drawn support from young, reform-members of the Brotherhood.
Al-Shater has held multiple meetings with Salafis trying to win support and pressure Abu Ismail to drop out, said Salafi cleric Amin El-Ansari, who is close to Abu Ismail’s campaign.
Some Salafis do see an appeal in Al-Shater because the Brotherhoods’ more disciplined organization could be more likely to bring results, El-Ansari said.
“This is reassuring to the clerics and to the voters,” he said. “The Muslim Brotherhood members are like cogs in a machine and like soldiers who wouldn’t violate the decisions of their leadership.”
So far, however, Abu Ismail is staying in the race.
In a meeting in the Mediterranean city and Salafi stronghold Alexandria, Abu Ismail was asked to withdraw. He refused, replying, “the one who created sedition is the one who should put it down,” in reference to Al-Shater’s nomination, according to his aide Gamal Saber.
Saber also threatened that unless the Nour party, the Salafi’s main political arm, endorses Abu Ismail, hundreds of young party members would break away.
Abu Ismail faces a possible hitch. Opponents are demanding an investigation into reports that his mother holds American citizenship. If true, it would disqualify him from the race, since the rules bar any candidate with a foreign parent. Abu Ismail has insisted his mother is not a US citizen.
Meanwhile, Al-Shater has also pledged to press for the implementation of Sharia (Islamic law) if elected, a Muslim think tank said on Wednesday.
He said “he would work to form a group of scholars to support parliament in achieving that goal,” according to a statement on the group’s website.
When asked by AFP, a senior official with Al-Shater’s campaign did not deny the statement, but clarified that Al-Shater shared his electoral program with the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.
The FJP calls for an “Islamic, constitutional and democratic” state, but not a “theocracy,” which it defines as rule by religious men. The Muslim Brotherhood advocates an Islamist state achieved through peaceful means.
The official said Al-Shater, who has refused interview requests, would prioritize “democratic institution building and an economic renaissance” if elected.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he added that Al-Shater “is committed to the constitution and Article 2, which all Egyptians agree on.”
The constitution was suspended by the military after an uprising overthrew president Hosni Mubarak last year. Article 2 stipulates that the principles of Islamic law are the main source of legislation.
But there is not universal interpretation of Sharia.
Many Coptic Christians, who comprise about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80-population, worry about the growing power of Islamists in the country, but Al-Shater’s campaign official said he would guarantee them their rights.
Secularists and liberals are also concerned.
Mainstream Islamic scholars say Sharia, which stipulates punishments such as amputation for theft and stoning for adultery, offers Christians and Jews protection under an Islamic state. But they believe that only Muslim men can rule. –Additional reporting by AFP.