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Egypt's Complex Presidential Politics

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
April 9, 2012

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With Egypt's presidential elections due to occur in little more than a month, there is tremendous agitation going on over the principal candidates for office, says Steven A. Cook, CFR's top Egypt expert. He says the front-runner now is Khairat al-Shater, representing the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, but another contender to watch is Omar Suleiman, a top intelligence official under Mubarak, who was briefly his vice president and who may or may not have military backing. On Shater, Cook says his front-runner status comes from "the significant resources and the organization of the Muslim Brotherhood behind him." On Suleiman, he says there is a notion that Egyptians will vote for him "because he can bring security and stability back to the country," noting, "it is not at all clear that he can."

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood had a delegation in Washington last week, meeting with officials and congressmen on Capitol Hill and speaking to academics and foundations. They were received warmly.

They had meetings with the State Department; they were on the Hill; they met with different groups and different think tanks; and by most accounts, they were warmly received. I don't think that means that some folks don't remain skeptical of the Brotherhood and its intentions, but nevertheless, this was billed by the delegation as a getting-to-know-you and building-bridges visit.

A few years ago, nobody would have met with any of those people, right?

Nobody would have met with them, and certainly they would not have come to Washington a few years ago.

There's a presidential election that will take place on May 23-24 with a runoff in June. The deadline to enter as a candidate has just expired. What are the high points?

There has been huge interest in the presidential election, and hundreds upon hundreds of people have picked up the papers to register for the presidential election. I think that when you think about contenders for the presidency, it is down to a number of people. [One is] Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister under ousted president Hosni Mubarak and former Secretary-General of the Arab League. [Another is] Khairat al-Shater, essentially the number two in command of the Brotherhood, who was just nominated by the Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party. Al-Shater's nomination is causing tremendous controversy in Cairo because the Brotherhood had earlier pledged not to seek the presidency.

Then there is Abdul Monem Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who has declared his intention to run for the presidency in May. He has actually quite a diverse following: Islamists, liberals, opposition politicians during the Mubarak period, and others. He was at one time ultra-conservative, but he has moved toward the center recently.

The next name that is often heard is Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the Salafist candidate. There is controversy raging over his candidacy because apparently his mother carried an American passport, indicating that she was an American citizen. He claims that she was not an American citizen, but was a green card holder. Nevertheless, he has, as the New York Times reported, been "effectively disqualified" from the race.

There is also Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister under Mubarak, who stayed in that job for a short period into the transitional period. He is a former air force commander and prior to the uprising was the minister of civil aviation. And [lastly,] Mubarak's intelligence chief and vice president (for ten days), Omar Suleiman, has announced that he is getting in the race. There are others, but these are the names that are now being bandied about.

So who is leading the race at this early stage?

There has been huge interest in the presidential election, and hundreds upon hundreds of people have picked up the papers to register for the presidential election.

I think you would have to give Khairat al-Shater, the gentleman who has been just nominated from the Freedom and Justice Party, the front-runner status, if only because of the significant resources and the organization of the Muslim Brotherhood behind him. We know that they can bring people out in the streets to vote in support of him. He is automatically vaulted into the front-runner status. Prior to his nomination, we had Amr Moussa leading to Monem Aboul Fotouh in polls.

Why the controversy?

The controversy over Khairat al-Shater is based on the fact that the Brotherhood had said that it was not going to run its own candidate for president. There's a lot of criticism of the Brotherhood from many circles, including within the Brotherhood itself, for breaking this promise.

The spokesman for the Freedom and Justice Party and for the Brotherhood has said, and I am paraphrasing, "Look, the circumstances have changed since early on in the transition; we've been unable to find a presidential candidate that's acceptable outside of the Brotherhood. We are concerned that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will find a way of dissolving the parliament in which [we] now hold the plurality of seats, which would in turn throw the constituent assembly that's charged with the writing of the constitution into question and possibly also dissolved. That would leave a president under the existing constitution, and under the existing constitution, the president has outsized powers, and we don't want that; we don't want to be subject to a president with such powers. So we might as well have our own candidate."

That is the Brotherhood/Freedom and Justice Party rationale for going back on their promise not to field a candidate.

Other theories?

There are competing theories about what is behind the Muslim Brotherhood's change of heart. Some observers--both Egyptian and foreigners--believe that the Brotherhood is openly defying the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in nominating al-Shater. There's certainly some credibility to this hypothesis, especially when the situation is described by the Freedom and Justice Party itself as being one in which they are concerned about the dissolution of the parliament and confronting a president with powers on the existing constitution.

At the same time, some interesting things have happened that suggest perhaps al-Shater's emergence is not necessarily the result of Brotherhood-SCAF competition. Khairat al-Shater was in prison at the time of the uprising, and a few weeks ago he was very quietly pardoned by a military court. He could not run for president without the pardon. (I should note that there is a legal question [of] whether al-Shater can run even with the pardon.) Also, the Brotherhood after all these many years has certainly had confrontations with the state that have led to their members being imprisoned, but they have also sought to avoid direct confrontations and direct challenges to the central authority of the state. And while it's true that the military's authority has waned as the transition has continued, this direct confrontation, direct challenge to the authority of the military doesn't really track with the way the Brotherhood has behaved historically. That's why there is some credence to the idea that al-Shater is not running in direct confrontation with the military, but actually part of some sort of deal with the officers.

Did the military have a favorite at one time?

The military was not satisfied by the crop of presidential candidates. I understand that they liked Ahmed Shafiq, but he is only polling in the low double digits. The recent emergence of Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the Salafist candidate who brought twenty thousand people with him when he presented his papers to run for presidency of Egypt, was likely a concern.

Also, the SCAF may have calculated that the Brotherhood, being in a relatively good political position, having 45 percent of the seats in the People's Assembly and a large number of seats in the Shura Council (Egypt's upper house), is the only group with whom the military can make a deal that would ensure the officers' interests in the economy and their influential place in the political system, as well as block the likes of Abu Ismail or Amr Moussa, for that matter. This doesn't mean that that the Brotherhood and the military are no longer competitors, it's that at this moment they may have common interests and that's why we see the emergence of Khairat al-Shater. Again, there's a reason to believe the other stories as well; we just really don't know how the nomination happened.

Talk more about the last-minute entry of Omar Suleiman, who was Mubarak's top national security aide, and is close to the Israelis. He entered the race at the last minute, after first backing off.

Indeed, in yet another twist in Egypt's ongoing drama, Omar Suleiman declared that he was "bowing to the will of the people" and running for the presidency. He could be anybody's candidate, though some observers suggest that he is the military's candidate. It is possible. He does, after all, hold the rank of Lieutenant General, even if he hasn't been an active military officer since the mid-1980s.

At the same time, there are stories suggesting that the relationship between Suleiman and the SCAF are not good. He is not a member of the military council, and there are rumors that the SCAF was somehow involved in a botched assassination attempt on Suleiman during the uprising. Suleiman doesn't have any organization, and it is important to remember that the party and political figures most closely associated with the former regime--the so-called felool--were wiped out in the parliamentary elections.

There is the notion that Egyptians will vote for Suleiman because he can bring security and stability back to the country. It is not at all clear that he can. His performance during the uprising was hardly stellar. Granted those were extraordinary circumstances, but Suleiman is associated with tactics that most Egyptians, regardless of their position on the uprising, seem to reject. Then again, this is transitional Egypt. Anything can happen.

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