The Muslim Brotherhood's Presidential Dilemma

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Mohamed Morsi, the group's official but less-than-ideal candidate for the Egyptian presidency, poses them with an existential challenge.


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Mohamed Mursi, the Brotherhood's presidential candidate, speaks during his last campaign rally in Cairo. (Reuters)

CAIRO, Egypt -- When the Muslim Brotherhood announced that Mohamed Morsi would be its candidate for president, the Egyptian press had a field day. Morsi was an accident of history, the "substitute" candidate after a state election agency disqualified the Brotherhood's first choice, lanky millionaire financier Khairat al-Shater. Morsi was, correctly, charged with lacking the same charisma or crossover appeal. Many analysts wrote the Brotherhood off. They couldn't imagine someone like Morsi getting to the second round of elections, much less winning.

But the Brotherhood seems to think victory is within reach. Though burdened with a weak candidate, the group's members have fanned across the country, promoting Morsi's so-called "renaissance" project. On Sunday night, the Brotherhood, in its latest show of strength, held 24 simultaneous mass rallies across the country.

I asked a young Brotherhood activist if he was enthusiastic about Morsi. He smiled, then laughed. A significant but small minority of Brotherhood youth are supporting "liberal Islamist" Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. But he wasn't, at least not yet. For him, this was not about any Obama-esque belief in post-partisanship or finding the "best" candidate. "This is about the preservation of the Brotherhood," he told me matter of factly. The Brotherhood's loyalists are treating this as an existential moment, in part because it is.

The group's internal discipline is being called into serious question. A Morsi defeat -- particularly at the hands of presidential competitor Aboul Fotouh, himself a Brotherhood defector -- could spur a major internal split. The most difficult question is what the group would do if Aboul Fotouh faced, say, former foreign minister Amr Moussa in the second round. Brotherhood leaders, although they won't say so publicly, strongly prefer a Moussa presidency. They can find a way to work with the non-ideological Moussa. Aboul Fotouh, however, is more dangerous for them. Charismatic and with his own distinct sources of legitimacy, the 60-year-old doctor fell out with the Brotherhood's conservative leadership for a variety of reasons, among them his desire to the keep the group out of party politics. As president, he would undermine the group's once firm grip over Egyptian Islamism. And if Aboul Fotouh created a movement or party behind his presidency, it would force the Brotherhood into a perpetual state of defense. It doesn't help that Aboul Fotouh has threatened to treat the still-secretive Brotherhood like any other non-governmental organization, requiring it to disclose its sources of funding.

For the Brotherhood, then, this is not about the candidate. The fact that it is Morsi, rather than someone else, is almost beside the point. This is about the future of an organization that has become accustomed to finding enemies and fearing the worst. In times of repression, this may have made sense; less so during a democratic opening. To be sure, Brotherhood leaders have always prided themselves on being a group that favors institutions over individuals. It just so happens that, today, the institution they favor most is their own.

At the Sunday night rally near the historic Abdeen Palace, there were three jumbo screens, fireworks, face painting, and a sea of thousands of supporters. Football stars, actors, and hardline Salafi sheikhs took turns speaking on stage. They supported Morsi not for who he was but for what he represented. They had little of note to say about Morsi as a person. It resembled a rock concert but without the rock star. That, of course, was the point. 

Aboul Fotouh's campaign couldn't be more different. When Aboul Fotouh supporters talk about why their candidate will win, they talk about the unifying appeal of Aboul Fotouh. They believe in him. When Brotherhood members talk about why their candidate will win, they use hard math and break down the numbers. They talk about their unparalleled electoral machine. They talk about how, in their projected "worst-case scenario," Morsi will still manage to cobble together 9 million votes. And that will be enough to get to the second round. And, if they get there, they'll at least live to fight another day. Just like they always have.

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Shadi Hamid is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, and the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.

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