Egyptians are facing a major test in their selection of a presidential candidate. With fewer than four weeks until the deadline to register candidates, Islamic movements are becoming increasingly concerned, as they have not yet resolved the issue. There are two reasons behind the Islamists’ concerns: first, they have not yet agreed upon a consensus candidate worthy of their confidence, who would live up to their expectations. They look for someone who would not turn against them, as this has happened many times throughout their history. Second, they fear that they may choose a candidate who would not be approved by their supporters, which could lead to organizational divisions and damage their image and popularity.
Islamists have not fielded a candidate from their ranks because they are studying the situation in Egypt painstakingly, which is further proof of the degree of their pragmatism and political realism. This indicates that they are not dogmatic movements, making their decisions based on ideologies or to please the Egyptian street, as has been accused of doing.
Over the past three months, Islamists have had fluctuating positions with regard to their presidential candidate. They first required that the presidential candidate must have an Islamic background — whether formally or intellectually — as argued by the Salafists. Then, they favored a “consensus” candidate (consensus regarding political interests). Later, they said they would prefer a “technical” or “technocratic" president, who could manage the country during the next phase without being affiliated with a particular ideological party or movement.
As the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists are among the best-organized Islamist movements in Egypt, it is useful to review their positions on the issue, and the nature of their political calculations to solve this matter, before things slip through their fingers.
Before ousting Mubarak, the Brothers refrained from pushing one of their cadres or members toward the presidential post. It was part of their strategy in the post-revolution period to alleviate domestic and foreign fears, having pledged to compete for only 30% of the parliamentary seats.
However, following the overthrow of the president, Mubarak’s party was banned, causing a void in power. The Islamist movement, in coordination with some other political forces, changed course to compete for the majority of the parliamentary seats. Indeed, Islamists managed to dominate half of the seats in the parliament and the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party won the overwhelming majority.
As for the presidential issue, it was difficult (though not impossible) for the movement to change its position for many reasons. First, Islamists are trying to preserve their image, damaged by the movement’s positions, especially toward the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the revolutionary forces. Second, Islamists lack a significant figure within their ranks to run for presidency. However, their main choice remains Khairat al-Shater, a prominent Islamist engineer and businessman. The Islamist businessman seems to be under a lot of pressure with regard to the presidential issue, according to leaked information.
Talks of an al-Shater presidencial run were an attempt by the Islamist group’s leaders to divert attention away from Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former senior Muslim Brother who was expelled for his bold decision to run for presidency. Aboul Fotouh does not only raise concerns among Muslim leaders because he enjoys wide support from mild Islamists. He also attracts liberals and leftists, especially following the withdrawal of Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei from the presidential race, giving the impression that Aboul Fotouh was the number-one candidate of the revolution.
However, the candidacy of Aboul Fotouh may cause many problems for the Islamist movement. First, this candidacy would harm the movement’s credibility, as it had previously declared that it will not field a presidential candidate from its own ranks. Second, this decision could add fuel to conflicts within the organization, given the increasing support of the younger members for Aboul Fotouh, who is seen as the victim of a “double standard” imposed by the group’s cadres and leaders. Third, Aboul Fotouh is by nature a dour person who does not like to be placed under the spotlight, but prefers to manage things from behind the scenes. In other words, he tends to play the role of the “kingmaker” rather than being the “king” himself.
In order to find a solution to this impasse, the Islamic group was left with only one choice, which is to resort to the movement’s institutions to make a decision. It seems that the “dilemma of Aboul Fotouh” has revived the anemic role of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Shura Council, which has been convening for a week to decide on a solution to the candidacy issue.
However, some believe that the Islamist movement has already chosen its presidential candidate, but is trying to give the impression that its choice was based on an institutional decision. Should the candidacy issue remain unresolved, it is likely that it would be referred to the Brotherhood's Guidance Office, which will settle the matter and select a candidate who will be supported by the group during the elections.
Moreover, it is not likely that the Muslim Brotherhood’s blocs would support as many candidates as they want to, as allegedly happened in the 2005 elections. The movement will not risk missing a historic opportunity to support a candidate that might actually become the president, who would later on declare his allegiance to the group for the support it offered him. Moreover, it is in the best interest of the Muslim Brotherhood to support a candidate, even if he was chosen according to the will of the Egyptian street. The organization could then use him to maneuver with the rest of the political forces, especially with the military, which is keeping a watchful eye on the movement’s decision. Also, refraining from fielding a Muslim candidate would be deemed by some a weakness within the movement’s ranks, which could affect its image and its negotiating weight with the new president or the military. Also, of course, it would not be in the interest of the Muslim Brotherhood if the future president were not supported by the group.
There are many reasons behind the delay in resolving the presidency matters. First of all, the group is holding discussions and negotiations behind the scenes with some of the presidential candidates and ruling elite. The Islamic movement is also “checking the pulse” of the Egyptian street, so that it makes a safe bet. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to set the stage to absorb the reaction of the public in the event it chooses a candidate with an Islamic background but with no organizational ties to the movement, such as Salim al-Awa, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail or Bassem Khafaji, who has recently emerged on the Islamist map. However, choosing an un-Islamic candidate to run for presidency would raise many questions about the movement’s ideological and doctrinal commitment. Finally, the Islamic group is attempting to reach an agreement with other Islamic blocs, in particular the Islamic Salafists.
It is in the best interest of the Islamic movement, whether at the political or moral level, to support a candidate who is accepted by all Islamic stripes.