Egypt is scheduled to hold its presidential election May 23-24. If there is no clear winner, a runoff will be held June 16-17. The timetable set by the SCAF for the political transition also entails having a constitution drafted by an MB-led panel and ratified by the public, as well as an official transfer from military to civilian rule by the end of June.
After the MB's Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist al-Nour party won a combined 70 percent of parliamentary seats, the MB gave public assurances that it did not intend to field a presidential candidate. This pledge was meant to assuage concerns about Islamist control over the Egyptian political system and prevent backlash from the military and secular-leaning liberals.
However, the group went back on its word with its announcement that it would field the MB's deputy supreme guide, chief strategist and chief financier, Khairat el-Shater, for president. The MB and the SCAF publicly quarreled for a week prior to that decision, with the MB questioning the military's sincerity in the political transition and the SCAF sternly reminding the MB of the risks of pushing its demands too far. In that struggle, the MB threatened to go back on its word and field a presidential candidate, raising questions over how far the military would go in trying to contain the MB's political ambitions.
The tone then dramatically shifted. The SCAF announced April 1 that it had dropped two court convictions against el-Shater that cleared him to run in the elections. Stratfor has received indications that the negotiations between the SCAF and the MB over el-Shater's pardon took place over the course of the past three weeks. In other words, while legitimate distrust continues to exist between the SCAF and the MB, the previous week's verbal sparring may have contained an element of political theater from both sides.
The Prospects for an Islamist Presidency
The MB needs to ensure that its parliamentary weight translates into actual power in this political transition. This entails a complex negotiation with the military rulers of the state, who want to keep a check on the Islamist parliament and maintain the right to intervene in the civilian affairs of the state.
The SCAF would prefer a strong presidency that remains out of Islamist hands and is subject to the military's influence. The problem the SCAF faces is that none of the non-Islamist contenders has a clear chance of winning the election. It is unclear that the SCAF is willing to risk the backlash of engineering the election to ensure its ideal candidate wins.
Amr Moussa, former secretary-general of the Arab League and foreign minister under the government of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, is the leading secular candidate. The list of non-Islamist candidates the SCAF presumably favors includes Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister appointed by Mubarak and Egypt's former air force chief; Hossam Khairallah, who headed Egypt's general intelligence apparatus; and Mansour Hasan, the head of the SCAF advisory council.
But if the parliamentary polls are to serve as an assessment of popular political leanings, then the SCAF simply cannot be confident that the majority of votes will go to a non-Islamist candidate. Indeed, the frontrunners of the presidential race so far have been Islamists.
Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh is a trained physician and was a member of the MB until he was expelled from the group last year for insisting on making a bid for the presidency when the group's leadership was still sticking to its promise to not field a candidate. Fotouh's liberal ideological stance, advocated from an Islamist perspective, has given him broad appeal. Well before his break with the MB, he was leading a dissenting faction of the movement that advocated a bolder strategy against the military to ensure civilian dominance of the government. However, the MB's more pragmatic leadership understood the need to work with the military to gain access into the political system and thus viewed Fotouh as a growing liability to the movement's political trajectory.
Following Fotouh, another prominent Islamist gaining popularity is the far more radical Hazem Sallah Abu Ismail, a well-known lawyer and Salafist preacher running as an independent. Abu Ismail will not be much competition for Fotouh or el-Shater due to his austere ideological views and his lack of a wider support network, but he does claim a large segment of the Salafist vote.
In viewing the options in the Islamist camp, the SCAF would prefer to work with an MB leader that is accustomed to doing business with the military as opposed to a more ideologically hardened liberal Islamist who is intent on bringing the military under civilian control. This likely explains why the SCAF ultimately agreed to pardon el-Shater and clear the way for him to compete for the presidency. Since both the MB and the SCAF have been widely criticized in Egypt for their behind-the-scenes negotiations, the verbal sparring that preceded the announcement of el-Shater's candidacy may have helped in providing political cover for both sides to proceed with this deal.
Too Much, Too Fast?
The MB's move comes with significant risks, however. Following the March 31 announcement, speculation spread over whether the MB was splitting internally when the youth faction publicly lambasted the group's leadership. Immediately following the announcement of el-Shater's nomination, senior MB figure Kamal el Helbawy resigned from the group during a live television broadcast, accusing the MB leadership of committing a major mistake and stating that he was "very upset by the group's rambling performance." El Helbawy's showy resignation must be put in context, though. He had long been a vocal dissenter within the group and was essentially living in exile in Europe for several years. The MB's youth faction had also already largely aligned itself with more liberal and ideological-leaning veterans like al Fotouh. While the el-Shater candidacy has further exposed these rifts within the MB movement, they are not altogether new.
That said, the narrow 56-52 vote within the MB's Shura Council to approve el-Shater's candidacy reveals the legitimate cause for concern many MB leaders have over the group's shifting political trajectory. The more confident the MB has become in its popular support, the more risks it has taken in trying to enlarge its political presence. For example, the MB first said its target for the parliamentary goals was to secure 35 to 40 percent of seats. Within a month, that target shifted to contesting half of the parliamentary seats. The leadership then said the group would control more than 75 percent of parliament if it were to contest all available seats.
The MB already has a clear majority in parliament. The group has used that majority to steer a panel to draft a new constitution. Fearing MB domination, liberal and leftist parties have pulled out of the constitutional panel to protest the heavy concentration of Islamists. What many MB members quietly fear is that the leadership is creating a political quagmire for itself in seeking too much political power too quickly.
Should the MB win the presidency in addition to controlling the parliament, it will be held all the more accountable for the government's failings. No amount of campaign rhetoric will be able to rapidly reverse Egypt's deep-set corruption and inefficiencies that plague the Egyptian economy. Egypt is also facing a number of foreign policy challenges, including increasing border tensions with Israel, a continuing struggle with Hamas, spreading Iranian influence, increasing uncertainty in Syria and instability in Libya. The MB already faces a great deal of skepticism from non-Islamists in the country. Moreover, it must balance with the Salafists, who are growing in popularity and further dividing the Islamist camp.
This may be precisely what the SCAF is calculating. Egypt's military rulers do not have the ability to dictate the political transition and risk the backlash of stripping the MB of its parliamentary presence and of engineering the elections. The SCAF is maneuvering behind the scenes to ensure it maintains its quiet authority and economic assets, but it is also facing the uncomfortable reality of having to deal with an Islamist-dominated government. If the military has resigned itself to dealing with an Islamist government, then it also will facilitate an environment that exacerbates divisions within the Islamists and between them and the secular liberals. In the end, the military will aim to develop a political system that holds the MB accountable for government but limits its actual political authority.
The heavy bargaining between the MB and the SCAF in this political transition is now in plain sight. Now that the SCAF appears to be making concessions to the MB on the presidency, it will be important to watch for the release (or leak) of a constitution draft that leaves substantial room for the military to exercise its power. If the military feels the MB is not cooperating toward this end, it still has the option of using its influence with the judiciary to undermine the legality of the MB-run constitutional panel and disrupt the process.