A composite photograph of Egyptian Salafist presidential candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail (left), Khayrat al-Shater (center), and former Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Egypt’s election commission said on April 14, 2012 that the three men were among ten candidates barred from running for president. (Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)
The battle over Egypt’s democratic future is at a significant crossroads. But while the fight for succession to Mubarak’s throne is fully under way, the rules of the competition seem to be constantly changing.
Only two weeks ago, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) announced their decision to field a candidate for the May presidential elections. They nominated businessman and multi-millionaire Khayrat al-Shater. Fostering deep-seated fears about Islamist regimes, the Washington Post expressed concern that, should Shater win the elections, Islamic law would be enforced.[[MORE]]
A few days later, Army General Omar Suleiman came forward as a challenger. Suleiman led Mubarak’s Intelligence Service for more than two decades and was vice-president when the regime fell. He has support from the ruling Security Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), as well as support from members of society wishing for a return of the old order. With these two figures in the race, it seemed that the presidential contest would be between the Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of the old regime.
Overall there was a wide range of candidates — 23 applications were submitted to the Presidential Electoral Committee (PEC). The wide spectrum of candidates included the Salafist al-Nour candidate, Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail, whose views definitely pointed towards an Islamic State; and the secular liberal Ghad al-Thawra candidate, Ayman al-Nour, who famously challenged Mubarak in the 2005 elections.
Anxieties were growing about a potential take-over of an increasingly religiously conservative Brotherhood; a worry which was matched by the outright fear that “The Revolution” could be reversed by the SCAF. On April 16 the PEC announced the list of verified candidates, and ten candidates were struck off.
The Salafist Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail’s exclusion followed the disclosure that his mother was granted US citizenship in 2007. Electoral law states that both parents of a candidate must be Egyptian citizens.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Khayrat al-Shater, who was imprisoned for laundering money for the then banned MB, was caught up by his “criminal” past. Although he received a pardon, the PEC invoked the rule that only candidates with a clean record can stand for elections.
Omar Suleiman was controversially disqualified following the introduction of the “Disenfranchisement Law” just days before the PEC decision. The law disallows former members of the regime to stand for elections for at least 10 years.
With Al-Shater, Sulaiman and Abu Ismail gone, the clash of political extremes is significantly reduced. Whilst the Brotherhood were quick to endorse chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party Muhammad Mursi, and although the SCAF’s favour seems to fall onto ex-Prime Minister Ahmad Shafik, neither candidate seems to rally the public behind them sufficiently. Because of the PEC’s decision the pool of potential forerunners is greatly reduced, and eyes are now on mainstream nationalist and liberal Islamist candidates.
On the liberal Islamist side, we find Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh. His support spectrum ranges from Islamists to secular nationalists. Because of his past association with the MB, he might appeal to Brothers, particularly those who quietly shun al-Mursi. Last year Abul-Fotouh was expelled from the MB, ostensibly because his aim to prepare a presidential bid clashed with the organisation’s plans at that time, but more likely because his liberal Islamic ideas were a thorn in the side of the orthodox leadership. His improved chances epitomise the constant flux of fortunes in Egyptian politics.
The other major contender in the presidential race is now Amr Moussa. He served as Secretary General of the Arab League since 2001 and was Egypt’s Foreign Secretary for a decade before that. Back then, this role made him a potential successor to Mubarak; yet rumour had it that disagreements ended his amicable relationship with the former dictator. The positive slant to the dip in his previous career is that he is not seen as a vestige of the old regime. While the squabbles of the recent past had pushed Moussa’s chances to the margins, he has now returned with some force.
Looking at the spectrum of candidates today, there is again hope that the first free presidential elections will not intensify already existing tensions in Egyptian society. Still, there are many issues unresolved. With the constituent assembly in tatters over its composition and legality, it is unlikely that there will be a decision on the constitutional framework before the presidential elections. What does seem likely is that, despite the Brotherhood’s domination of the political scene, Egypt is not about to become an Islamic state.
Barbara Zollner is Lecturer in Islamic Studies in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck College. She is the author of The Muslim Brotherhood: Hasan al-Hudaybi and Ideology.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.