The Muslim Brotherhood's Bold New Strategy

The Egyptian Islamist group is trying to consolidate its new-found power -- and fielding a presidential candidate.

MB april3 p.jpg

Khairat al-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate for Egypt's presidency Reuters

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood announced this weekend that, despite its long-standing promises to the contrary, the group will be running a candidate for president. This is a tremendous break from their previous strategy, which has been to bide their time and extend their influence very slowly, so as not to arouse the ire of the Egyptian military or the international community. The experiences of Islamists in Algeria and Turkey, where the military overturned sudden Islamist victories, were very present for Muslim Brotherhood members I've interviewed in Egypt. If there's been one constant in the Brotherhood's strategy, it's patience.

The group took a bold step last year in deciding to run a full slate of parliament candidates (breaking from their earlier commitment to contest less than 50 percent of the races). The idea of running a presidential candidate seemed like too much, too fast. But, on Saturday, they announced they are nominating outgoing Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat al-Shater for the May 23 presidential race.

So why the change of heart? The Arabist's indispensable Issandr El-Amrani argues that it started with the decision of current and former Muslim Brotherhood members to run without the organization's permission. The Brotherhood might as well run a candidate anyway, they seem to have concluded -- especially since the renegade candidates would not necessarily be beholden to the Brotherhood.

Ashraf al-Sherif, a political scientist with the American University in Cairo, argues that the Brotherhood was worried that these other Islamist candidates would splinter the group, especially its youth wing:

Over the last year, both Abouel Fotouh and Abu Ismail have established themselves as viable candidates. By attracting backers and campaigners from the Brotherhood against the will of the group's leadership, both presidential hopefuls have posed challenges to an organization long known for its strict internal discipline.

The Brotherhood's deteriorating relationship with the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), as well as the rise of Brotherhood-unfriendly Amr Moussa as the presidential front-runner, has also scared the group into consolidating whatever gains they've made since the revolution -- a quest for "full-spectrum legitimacy," as Amrani calls it.

"The Brothers had to choose a candidate who could be certain of the full backing of the group in its ongoing fight with the SCAF and be a credible interlocutor in that fight," Amrani writes. "It cannot afford to rely on parliament alone." According to reports in the Egyptian press, the group had tried to convince more pro-Brotherhood outsiders to run for president and only settled on one of their own when none of the other options panned out.

Amrani also argues that the Brotherhood's decision to try to capture the Executive Branch is a reflection of its frustration with its short foray into legislative politics and "mounting contempt by MB leaders for the rest of the political spectrum. ... Having been unable (or failed) to build a democratic consensus with other political forces (a shared failure), which it always suspected would eventually ally with SCAF against them or simply brought very little to the table, the MB decided to go it alone."

International factors are also playing a role:

The US is still putting all of its eggs in the military's basket, as the recent waiver for aid to Egypt and the backroom deal over the NGO affair showed. Gulf states like the UAE are in full-blown anti-MB hysteria, reflecting a wider unease in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and even Qatar about a MB-led Egypt. A president it does not control would use such tensions in foreign relations to domestic ends, enlisting outside help in containing the MB's ambitions to fundamentally transform the Egyptian state. Having Shater as president removes much of the ambiguity that would have been used to marginalize the MB's voice in foreign policy and set limits to what it can do domestically under another president.

Amrani thinks that this is clearly an anti-SCAF move. But there is an interesting debate as to whether this decision, on its face a brazen defiance of the SCAF, may actually be a behind-the-scenes ploy between the two groups. Sameh al-Barqy, a former member of the Brotherhood and a founding member of the unofficial Egyptian Current Party, talked about this in an interview with the Egyptian Independent:

Barqy's theory draws on the long-held political reading that the SCAF and the Brotherhood have already struck a power-sharing deal, whereby the military elite would maintain its economic and political privileges and Islamists form governments and rule directly. This proposition derived evidence from the Islamists' consistent reluctance to criticize the SCAF's performance or hold it accountable for the killing of dozens of protesters during the transitional period. ...

For Barqy, this [recent] confrontation is a sheer "bluff" meant to conceal a partnership between Islamists and the military elite. He went on to argue that both sides are contributing to "reproducing the old regime," but with an Islamist favor.

Barqy makes the compelling case that if the army really did not want Shater to run, they would not have pardoned him earlier this year from a 1995 conviction -- a move that now makes him eligible for the presidency.

Regardless of whether this move was done in cooperation with or in defiance of the military, it is clear that the Brotherhood is shedding its cautious strategy and making a go-for-broke run to consolidate its new power in Egypt.

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Zvika Krieger is a former editor and writer at The New Republic and a former correspondent for Newsweek based in Egypt and Lebanon, covering most of the Arab world. More

Krieger has received fellowships to study topics including the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, the Kifaya reform movement in Egypt, public health in Bombay slums, religious identity in Kashmir, historical memory in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, and the role of religion in Lebanese politics. He has also reported from such places as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Libya, North Ireland, Sri Lanka, Japan, and Korea. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Slate, New York, Arab Reform Bulletin, New Stateman, Chronicle of Higher Education, Daily Star (Lebanon), Cairo Magazine, Jerusalem Post, Christian Science Monitor, and various other publications, and he has appeared as a Middle East analyst on NBC News, CNN, Fox News, and Air America. His writings have earned him awards from the Overseas Press Club, the Scripps Howard Foundation, and the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. He is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He has a bachelor's degree in Middle East Studies from Yale University and studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo.

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