Muslim Brotherhood's 'Strongman' Looking Pretty Good in Egypt

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They used to be the biggest bogeyman in town, but in the run-up to Egypt's first presidential elections, the Muslim Brotherhood is looking like the safest bet to lead the turbulent country. This weekend, the Brotherhood announced its decision to run a candidate in the presidential elections—a race it previously vowed to stay out of. But surprisingly, the U.S. and its allies are not reacting to the decision with the level of opprobrium some expected. The reason is a little frightening: The alternatives to a Muslim Brotherhood candidate are much, much worse.

The first sign of this came from Israel, which on Sunday downplayed the Brotherhood's decision to enter the race. "As long as ... the Muslim Brotherhood president understands Egypt's commitments and its interests, that will preserve the peace deal," said Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon on Israel Radio. According to the Associated Press, Yaalon said maintaining the 1979 peace deal was likely to be in any Egyptian president's interest. The second sign came in a surprising statement from a State Department official to The New York Times, who said the department is "untroubled and even optimistic about the Brotherhood’s reversal of its pledge not to seek the presidency."

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How can this be?

The Times' David Kirkpatrick suggests that it's because ultraconservative candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail has surged in the polls in recent weeks to become a front-runner for the election. And this guy is not someone the U.S. has any interest in becoming Egypt's president. "He wants to move toward abolishing Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and cites Iran as a successful model of independence from Washington," writes Kirkpatrick. "He worries about the mixing of the genders in the workplace and women’s work outside the home. And he promises to bring extraordinary prosperity to Egypt, if it turns its back on trade with the West."

The fear of Abu Ismail surging in the polls isn't the only reason the U.S. and Israel may be downplaying the Muslim Brotherhood's entrance into the race. It's also because of who the Muslim Brotherhood selected as its candidate: Khairat al-Shater. As Reuters' Edmund Blair explains, Shater is "seen as the group's chief financier and a moderate... one Brotherhood member described Shater as a 'excellent strategist' who has kept a tight rein on dissent although that has left some youths disenchanted. But his public message is one of inclusion." That moderate tone stands in contrast to Abu Ismail. Shater also an "accomplished engineer and a businessman," explains Foreign Policy. He also spent several years jailed under former President Hosni Mubarak's regime, which banned the Mulsim Brotherhood.

Obviously, that doesn't mean he's a dream candidate. As the Times notes, "the Egyptian media usually refers to Mr. Shater as the Brotherhood’s 'strongman' [who] inspired 'fear,' not 'sympathy.' Still, it looks like the U.S. will take what it can get.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.