Analysis: Egypt - And then there were three

With Brotherhood's main candidate barred, two other Islamists jostle with ex-foreign minister for presidency.

Supporter of Salafi presidential candidate Abu Ismail 370 (photo credit: REUTERS /Asmaa Waguih)
Supporter of Salafi presidential candidate Abu Ismail 370
(photo credit: REUTERS /Asmaa Waguih)
For two weeks – from March 31 to April 14 – the Muslim Brotherhood appeared poised to capitalize on its sweep of Egypt’s parliamentary elections to ride straight into Cairo’s presidential palace.
After initially announcing it would not field a presidential candidate, the group last month reversed its decision and said veteran financier Khairat al-Shater would represent the 84-year-old Islamist movement in May’s presidential ballot.
Then this weekend Egypt’s electoral committee dropped a bomb: Shater, fellow Islamist Hazem Salah Abu Ismail and ex-spy chief Omar Suleiman were all disqualified from running – Shater due to an outstanding prison sentence, Abu Ismail over his late mother’s US citizenship and Suleiman for failing to gather enough signatures of support from voters in the southern province of Assiut.
With these erstwhile frontrunners now barred from competing, the race for the presidency has narrowed to three: the nationalist ex-foreign minister Amr Moussa, the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi and former Brotherhood official Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh.
Moussa launched his campaign Wednesday evening from a Cairo slum, Al-Ahram newspaper reported. The former Arab League chief’s populist nationalism endears him to many ordinary Egyptians, but his close association with deposed president Hosni Mubarak’s regime may prove a significant liability.
On Wednesday, Moussa promised economic reforms and the protection of women’s rights. “Post-revolution Egypt will not be a country in which women are stripped of their rights and freedoms,” said Moussa, who also enjoys close ties with the country’s powerful military.
Mursi is chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party, founded by the Brotherhood a year ago after the decades-long ban on the group was lifted in the wake of Mubarak’s February 2011 ouster.
The 61-year-old engineer has modest name recognition among Egyptians. From 2000 to 2005 he led the Brotherhood’s unofficial bloc in parliament (under Mubarak, largely a rubber-stamp body), and like other leading Brothers has served jail time for his membership in the group.
Earlier this month the Freedom and Justice Party announced Mursi as its “backup candidate” should Shater’s candidacy be annulled.
“Mursi was the backup for a reason,” Shadi Hamid, an expert on the Brotherhood at the Brookings Center Doha, told Reuters. “Shater was the only one among them who looked remotely presidential. It’s a big blow to the Brotherhood.”
The Brotherhood has skillfully exploited the same social-media tools employed by youth activists who toppled Mubarak after 18 days of protests. On Saturday – the day Shater’s ban was announced – it launched the Facebook page “Mohamed Mursi for president of the republic.”
The page now has 2,600 “likes” (a grassroots page called “I’m not voting for Mohamed Mursi” has a similar number), a far cry from Shater’s more than 100,000 Facebook followers.
Mursi has remained evasive over whether he supports Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Speaking to CNN last year, he said the Brotherhood would put the matter to a public referendum.
“We are not against Jews; we are against Zionism,” he said, adding that he believes Palestinians have the right to “armed resistance” against Israel.
“Resistance is acceptable by all mankind. And it is the right of people to resist imperialism,” he said.
Abol Fotouh is more of a known quantity among Egyptians, having already earned the endorsement of Yusuf al- Qaradawi, the influential Qatar-based cleric who is the Brotherhood’s chief ideologue.
The 60-year-old physician launched his campaign a year ago after he was expelled from the Brotherhood for defying its orders to members against running for president. Many voters who may otherwise have voted for Shater or the Salafi Abu Ismail may choose Abol Fotouh rather than the Brotherhood’s official candidate.
A Brotherhood member since the 1970s, he sat on its executive committee (or “Guidance Bureau”) for two decades aside from a five-year prison term from 1996 to 2001. Today Abol Fotouh is head of the Arab Medical Union, a pan-Arab association of religiously minded and politically active physicians.
When in 2009 Henrique Cymerman of Israel’s Channel 2 News interviewed the then- Brotherhood official, Abol Fotouh assured him his movement would respect the treaty with Israel and encourage the Palestinians to recognize the Jewish state. Speaking in Arabic at a press conference this month, Abol Fotouh dismissed the entire interview as a “fabrication.”
“It was said that I told an Israeli journalist that I accept Camp David, that Palestinians need to recognize Israel and that Israelis need to recognize Palestine. There is no truth to this. This all has been fabricated,” he said. “The Palestinian cause is not an Arab-Zionist struggle but an Egyptian security issue. We need to stand steadfast against this exchange [of recognition], because it is not only dangerous to Palestinians but the entire Arab world.”
Reuters contributed to this report.