Many in Egypt have interpreted Khairat al-Shater’s presidential candidacy as a tactical maneuver by the Muslim Brotherhood in which the group agrees to use al-Shater’s candidacy to divide the Islamist vote in an exchange of interests with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Others claim it is a “deal” between the Brotherhood and the SCAF that includes al-Shater as a consensus candidate. But assuming al-Shater’s nomination is a deal or tactic would be both naïve and superficial—underestimating the real tension that has escalated between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military following the breakdown of negotiations, as well as ignoring the internal dynamics of the Brotherhood.
Interpreting al-Shater’s nomination as a tactical maneuver denotes unfamiliarity with his place within the Brotherhood. Unlike other prominent figures such as Saad al-Katatni or Mohamed Morsy, al-Shater is squarely positioned at the core of the organization’s power structure, having organized the Brotherhood through a web of regional, family, and funding loyalties. He is a force to be reckoned with, and it is very unlikely that he would be offered as a sacrifice to the SCAF in a maneuver for marginal gains.
A consensus candidate would have to be either a man from within the “deep state” (such as Omar Suleiman) or, at the very least, a statesman entirely unconnected to the Islamists (such as Amr Moussa). Al-Shater is definitely pragmatic, conservative, and disciplined, but in the final analysis—from the perspective of the state—he remains an outsider. The SCAF wants a clearly pro-military president or (if that should prove too difficult) a mere figurehead president, while the army remains the real power behind the throne. Al-Shater does not fit either of these roles. Despite the mutual understanding and commonalities between the military and the Brotherhood, we cannot underestimate how critical the differences are: the two organizations diverge in both structure and in their views on society’s relation to the state and economic reform. The military might accept the Brotherhood as an ally within the new political space, but it will not tolerate a Brother on top.
There are three leading issues in the recent rift between the Brotherhood and the military: first, the military guardianship over national security through the National Security Council; second, the president’s powers in the constitution and the structure of executive power (as the military insists on the president being vested with genuine executive powers); third, the identity of this next “pro-military, consensus president.” The Brotherhood may make concessions on the first point, but it will put up a fight on the second and third, particularly in light of Omar Suleiman’s candidacy.
Given the history of mistrust between the party and the former vice-president, the Brotherhood was unlikely to accept Suleiman. Contrary to popular belief, al-Shater’s entry into the race on March 31 came as a preemptive response to Suleiman’s candidacy; although Suleiman was not officially nominated until April 6, his candidacy was widely rumored an inevitability, especially after the appearance of unofficial campaign ads. Furthermore, Suleiman’s March 30 statement that he “might agree” to run coincided with the withdrawal of Mansour Hassan—widely regarded as the SCAF’s unannounced candidate. This hastened the Brotherhood’s nomination of al-Shater the very next day and strengthened the group’s insistence that the Ganzouri government step down, fearing its administration would rig the elections (especially since the military has insisted on retaining Article 28 in the Presidential Elections Law).
Al-Shater’s nomination also reflects the Brotherhood’s worry that it will not be able to frame a constitution before the end of presidential elections—a very likely outcome given that various political parties and state institutions have rejected Islamist hegemony over the constitutional assembly. An administrative judiciary court ruling to void the constitutional assembly’s work and recreate it on a different basis has confirmed this fear. A pro-military president could use the broad powers granted to the president in the interim to dissolve parliament and form a new constitutional committee without the Islamists—marginalizing them from setting shaping of the new political system and its distribution of power.
From this perspective—and left with no option but to up the ante—the Brotherhood could either put pressure on the military and force it to withdraw Suleiman, while accepting Amr Moussa as the most palatable compromise candidate; or else to try and win the presidency, thus entering into an all-out confrontation with the SCAF. The Brotherhood has bet on the second and on al-Shater’s ability to prevail (with al-Noor Party, the Salafi Da‘wa, and the Jurisprudence Commission for Rights and Reform all backing al-Shater).
But interpretations of al-Shater’s candidacy have not given the internal repercussions of this turning point full due. Al-Shater has met with stiff resistance from the Brotherhood’s Shura Council for his candidacy, and the organization’s internal cohesion—its most prized asset—has been in question for some time now. The Brotherhood committed a serious tactical error by initially rejecting the idea of a presidential candidate; first on the grounds of respecting a spirit of “national consensus” and later as a sort of unspoken arrangement with the military that Islamists would have parliament and the military would have the president. This was impossible to market to their core ideological supporters; how could they convince them that support of a non-Islamist candidate in the face of three Islamist candidates (including a former Brother) was a step forward—particularly following the overwhelming support for the Freedom and Justice Party and al-Nour in the recent parliamentary elections? As a result, significant segments of the Brotherhood began to side with the independent Islamist presidential candidates, regardless of the organization’s decision; more liberal members leaning towards Aboul Futouh and more conservative elements preferring Abu Ismael. The presidential election has placed the Brotherhood in grave danger of losing its historical control over the moderate Islamist movement to independent Islamists on either side of the aisle. In this context, Al-Shater had no choice other than to step forward and close the group’s ranks with his candidacy.
But it is difficult not to read al-Shater’s nomination as a strategic mistake. His chances of victory are slim. Ultimately, despite the Brotherhood’s efforts, the Islamist vote is still divided, and many will favor Abu Ismael and Abu al-Futouh. Compounding this is the fact that al-Shater is relatively unknown outside the Brotherhood’s networks and lacks the fame and statesman’s reputation of others like Amr Moussa. If he loses, it will be a monumental defeat, and reduce people’s confidence in him and his standing. Meanwhile, if he wins, he will be embroiled in a situation where success is virtually impossible with the rampant economic and social crisis.
The candidacy comes with other losses for the Brotherhood. For one, its inconsistent message and its violation of previous vows not to run for the presidency has lost it much credibility. But the gravest loss comes from the polarization of the political arena into SCAF and MB camps. Meanwhile, in parting ways with the revolutionary bloc after the March 2011 referendum, the Brothers made another serious error which will only now just begin to manifest; they will not find the necessary mass revolutionary backing to turn their battle against the military establishment into the revolution’s battle against the SCAF.
Khairat al-Shater has embarked on the gamble of his life with a nomination where he will lose out whether he wins or loses. The only advantage to the current tension is that what was once concealed is now slowly inching out into the open.
Ashraf El Sherif teaches political science at the American University in Cairo and specializes in political Islam.
* This article has been translated from Arabic.