Several days ago, the Muslim Brotherhood endorsed one of its leading lights and main financer, Khairat al-Shater, for the presidency. This endorsement is somewhat surprising, as the Muslim Brotherhood has repeatedly pledged not to field a candidate. While many, especially in the West, will see this as a further attempt by the group to consolidate power in Egypt, it also exposes enormous rifts and fears within the organization and might be the event that truly divides the decades-old religious group.
Since the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood has struggled to maintain its unity. First came the decision to expel a popular and well-known member, Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh. His crime, according to the group’s Shura Council, was his decision to run for the presidency, violating the group’s pledge last February not to nominate any of its members for the presidency. Rather than hurt Abouel Fotouh’s image, this decision has instead caused intense internal discussion.
In addition to Abouel Fotouh’s expulsion, some members of the group, especially among the youth, were upset by the continued primacy of older decision-makers in plotting the group’s future. This dispute centered around the decision that MB members could only join one political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. This split ultimately led to several youth leaders exiled from the group and the founding of an alternate party, the Egyptian Current Party. The Muslim Brotherhood had the last laugh, however, as it won 47% of seats in parliament, while the Revolution Bloc, which includes the Egyptian Current Party, won only 7 seats, or 1.4%.
The presidential election has been the one area in politics the Brotherhood cannot seem to find a consistent and successful game plan. Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, considered by some to be a hard line Islamist, has seen his support surge, connected to his huge online presence. He is only one of several Islamist candidates, including Fotouh and Mohammed Selim al-Awa. Adding another Islamist will only further dilute the Brotherhood’s voting base. Unlike the parliamentary elections, the presidential election still appears to be a character-driven race. The decision was even extraordinarily controversial within the group’s Shura council, with a tiny majority voting to field a candidate only on the third ballot, 56 to 52.
Even if an Islamist is elected, this could be a much worse outcome than if a Mubarak-era candidate like Ahmed Shafiq is elected. Until the now controversial and very divided constituent assembly agrees on a new constitution, Egypt remains a country with a large amount of power concentrated within the presidency. Any attempts to attack the group by an anti-Brotherhood president such as Shafiq would only cause the group to unite in opposition. However, a President to the right of the Brotherhood, such as Abu Ismail, would surely cause headaches for the group in promoting a moderate international image. A former member like Abouel Fotouh surely has not forgotten his unceremonious end in the Brotherhood and could use his pedestal to create his own political party, a genuine worry by the group’s members. Other realistic candidates, such as Amr Moussa, would also in all likelihood try to create their own voting blocs or even parties, to the Brotherhood’s detriment.
The decision to nominate Shater smacks of desperation. Rather than consolidate its gains, the Brotherhood has either overreached or is relying too much on its belief that Brotherhood members will automatically vote for a Brotherhood President. This election, more than any other, will truly be the test of the MB’s future.