By Omnia Al Desoukie
CAIRO: While it remains unclear how well last minute contenders Omar Suleiman and Khairat Al-Shater will do in the presidential election, experts argue that the US is leaning towards the latter for his economic policies.
In post-Mubarak Egypt, the US administration was forced to engage in dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood which dominated the parliamentary elections and emerged as a front-runner for the presidential polls.
Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, explains that there are clearly some candidates who are viewed as far more challenging to US-Egyptian relations. He cited ultraconservative Hazem Abu Ismail, if he stays on the ballot.
“But the US does not have a favorite candidate. It does want to see further economic liberalization in Egypt; there are fears that populism would be unsustainable,” Brown said.
“Here it is Al-Shater’s policy positions, not his wealth, that the US finds reassuring. The Freedom and Justice Party – perhaps because of Al-Shater’s leading role – has begun to sketch out some detailed policy positions in economics,” he explained.
The US however has kept a low profile and remains tight-lipped about the candidacy of both Al-Shater and Suleiman, drawing uncertainty over who it will support.
“Suleiman’s candidacy is a surprise; his victory would plunge Egypt back into a pre-revolutionary position and might be bad for the country’s stability,” Brown added. “I see no evidence that the US is backing him.”
Earlier this week, Al-Shater made his first official media appearance in a press conference, throwing his campaign’s weight over the economic developments he is set to achieve if elected.
“It’s very important that, within the current gap we’re facing now, to depend on local, Arab and foreign investments in development programs,” Shater said. “Some people with ideological agendas might ask, ‘Engineer Khairat supports privatization and private sector?’ I say there is no other choice for Egyptians except to focus on financing a great deal of development projects outside the state budget.”
According to a former Brotherhood member Haitham Abou Khalil, who has close ties inside the movement, a number of closed meetings took place between Al-Shater and officials from the US administration including Senator John McCain last February.
Khalil explains that during the meeting with McCain, Al-Shater assured the US administration that if he is to win the election, he would ensure a growth of foreign and private investments in Egypt.
Earlier this month, a US congressional delegation met with Al-Shater, underlining that their talks were “interesting and enlightening.”
The five-member delegation, headed primarily by representatives from the Democratic Party, however downplayed the meeting, saying they had pre-scheduled the meeting with Al-Shater before his nomination for Egypt’s top post.
“As far as Al-Shater goes, he certainly has given reassuring signals to the US in two areas: economic policy and Camp David. On the first, he seems to be leading the Brotherhood in a liberal direction. On the second, he also seems to be part of the Brotherhood’s efforts – however reluctant – to insist that the treaty will be honored (though renegotiated),” Brown explained.
“That is enough to make him seem less threatening to the US. But I certainly don’t see him, or anyone else, as America’s candidate.”
Local newspaper Al-Shorouk’s deputy editor Wael Gamal echoed Abou Khalil’s claim of a meeting between Al-Shater and McCain, however, he said that the Brotherhood later denied this discussion.
Gamal added that it’s a common knowledge that the Brotherhood still maintains close relationships with the Mubarak-era businessmen, inviting them to official events.
“What we cannot ignore is that the Brotherhood is using the same economic policies that the people rose against,” Gamal said. “They don’t want to create a conflict with corrupt businessman. Whatever Al-Shater had to say during his press conference is a guarantee to all businessmen in the country that ‘we will not come near you’.”
Magda Kandil, director of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies, explained that Egypt’s economic problems can be attributed to privatization in addition to the deterioration of the public sector.
She explained further that if the Brotherhood is serious about addressing unemployment and the current economic situation they have to follow the right model which is not only privatizing companies but also creating a balance between the need to reform the public-private institutions in Egypt’s economy.
“Al-Shater is known to have a good network of business relations around the globe which then might help the economy with investments,” Kandil said. “Yet to say whether the US supports him for this [economic strategy] is very difficult to say, it may be that they are trying to capitalize on his potential business network.”
On the other hand, Marina Ottaway, a Carnegie Endowment senior associate, says that the US administration does not favor the candidacy of Al-Shater, given his affiliation to the Brotherhood.
“The US is worried about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood,” she said, “because it recognizes that it is a rising power that can no longer be ignored, but that does not mean that it is happy about the situation. The rumors that the United States supports Al-Shater are based on a deep misunderstanding of the US position.”
Abu Khalil agrees with Ottaway, describing the US as the “snake” that only aims to reach its target, explaining that the US administration cannot limit its ties with Egypt through the rulers only but molds itself to whatever the Egyptian people prefer.
“For the past year, the military has been the main interlocutor for the US,” Brown added. “But the US has been developing a better ability to speak with civilian political actors in Egypt. That might be a bit disconcerting at times to the military council, but it is an inevitable development.”