Egypt's Muddy Waters

The Muslim Brotherhood's decision to nominate a presidential candidate throws Egyptian politics—and the Brotherhood itself—into uncharted territory.

The decision of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to nominate Khairat al-Shater to the presidency plunges Egypt’s transition—always a seemingly unsteady affair—into complete uncertainty. For all the day-to-day gyrations to date, there had been some consistent trends as Egypt moved gradually from the politics of demonstrations to those of the polling place. The country’s revolutionary youth groups have slowly lost their hold on the society, the interim military rulers have seen parts of their monopoly on decision making wither, and Islamist movements have watched their fortunes rise from one election to the next. But al-Shater's entrance into the race makes a leap into the unknown.

One year ago, when I met him shortly after he was released from prison, I pressed al-Shater on the Brotherhood’s electoral ambitions. He was clearly haunted by the experiences of Algeria’s Islamists (FIS) and Palestine’s Hamas. (In his mind, both groups were denied the fruits of their electoral victory by domestic and international actors who preferred a coup to democracy.) Thus, the Brotherhood’s path to power would be gradual, he said. Yes, they might seek an electoral majority in a decade, but by that time he anticipated being in retirement. But now, merely twelve months later, al-Shater is running for his country’s top job.

The problem for Egypt is not al-Shater personally. Since the Brotherhood is still a fairly closed organization with a strong sense of discipline, it is difficult to state with precision very much about individual leaders. But my personal impression—formed in a series of meetings with al-Shater over the past year—is that he stands out among his colleagues for his practical focus, sense of responsibility and ability to listen carefully to other points of view. It is certainly those characteristics that endeared him for a while to many young mavericks within the movement (before he showed that he expected them ultimately to toe the line); it has also led him to take the lead in finding ways to reassure visiting foreign leaders anxious about the implications of the Brotherhood’s rise.

An Unpredictable Environment

For all his talents, al-Shater’s candidacy throws Egyptian politics into a state of complete uncertainty. First, there is the question of whether the presidential election will take place as planned. While there has been no move to cancel or postpone it, the announcement of al-Shater’s candidacy comes as the Brotherhood finds itself in the midst of bitter feuds with almost every other political actor and some key institutions: in recent weeks, the movement has publicly (if only verbally) clashed with liberals, the Coptic Church, the Islamic university of al-Azhar, Salafis, the military, the media and the judiciary. At this point, the movement seems to have picked a fight with everybody except the U.S. Department of State and Senator John McCain.

The Brotherhood’s political isolation, combined with its popularity and legions of loyal foot soldiers, may make for an unsteady mix. A full coup would not be necessary to disrupt the process. It might be possible for Brotherhood opponents to disrupt things through various legalisms, such as lawsuits or by finding al-Shater legally ineligible because of his past (highly political) convicitions. The Brotherhood clearly fears such a path, since it has criticized the Presidential Election Commission (whose decisions cannot be appealed) and implied its head is in the military’s pocket.

A second source of extreme uncertainty is the election itself. Assuming al-Shater’s candidacy and the balloting move forward, Egypt simply has no experience in competitive presidential campaigns, making it very hard to predict how people will vote. After the 2011 parliamentary elections, we have some sense that in those elections, organizational presence and local reputation are critical to mobilizing supporters, likely far more than specific program or ideology. But what of presidential balloting? The campaign and the balloting could be quite different. Who will vote, and how much will name recognition, individual reputation, personal charisma, program, organization and ideology count?

Yet another source of uncertainty stems from the fact that the rules of the political game are not yet written. The process of drafting a new constitution is in complete shambles as a result of the Brotherhood-led parliament having elected an Islamist-dominated body, provoking most non-Islamists (at this point, more than one quarter of those designated) to refuse to take their seats. The interim constitution--in operation until the permanent one is approved--is full of gaps and ambiguities, and even when it is comparatively clear, its operation is unpredictable. Consider one example of the many possible political paths: right now, the Brotherhood’s political party holds about 40 percent of the seats. That is enough to dominate the parliament with some parties in an electoral alliance with the Brotherhood and others in disarray. But an elected Brotherhood president might provoke most of the other deputies to line up against the Brotherhood, leading to gridlock.

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