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Egypt's looming showdown

The banning of Islamist presidential candidates could bring violence back into the streets.

April 18, 2012|By Rajan Menon
  • Among those the election commission ousted from the presidential ballot were Hazem Salah abu Ismail, left, Omar Suleiman and Khairat Shater.
Among those the election commission ousted from the presidential ballot… (AFP / Getty Images )

Like savvy boxers with knockout punches, Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, and the Muslim Brotherhood have circled each other warily since the Arab Spring toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. But after the SCAF-appointed election commission's banning last week of 10 candidates for the May presidential elections, including the Brotherhood's nominee, Khairat Shater, the phase of circumspection may be ending. Egyptians could be in for rougher times.

The SCAF abandoned Mubarak only after it realized that Egyptian protesters would not succumb to intimidation and force. But it feared the popular uprising and believes that its main consequence has been to empower the Brotherhood. Despite the Brotherhood's reassurances about democracy and religious tolerance, the generals remain convinced that its goal is an Islamic state. The military high command and the intelligence services no doubt worry that their record of repression during Mubarak's long reign would inevitably be investigated in a Brotherhood-governed Egypt, and that there would be score-settling, not least because the group's leaders were hounded, imprisoned and tortured.

The military-intelligence complex has reacted by trying to engineer a post-Mubarak polity that protects its vast economic empire and guarantees the army a political role. So it was shaken when the parliamentary election results were announced in January: The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and its allies won more than 45% of the 508 seats, the Salafists' Al Nour and its partners, 25%.

The Brotherhood's strategy has been to avoid giving the SCAF an excuse for a crackdown. Thus it hung back during some of the demonstrations that continued after Mubarak's fall, even at the risk of fanning fears that it was colluding with the generals. And despite its success in the parliamentary elections, it declined to field a candidate for president and prohibited its members from running. When senior party official Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh disobeyed and entered the contest last summer, he was summarily expelled. Not until March 31 did the Brotherhood, frustrated by the SCAF's political machinations and worried about the appeal of the ultraconservative Salafists' presidential nominee, Hazem Salah abu Ismail, change course and nominate Shater.

The election commission's move has raised the political temperature, even though it also banned Omar Suleiman, a longtime Mubarak confidant, vice president in the last days of Mubarak's rule and head of intelligence for 18 years before that. Suleiman is reviled because of his past, and he's widely considered a SCAF ally. Rumors of fraud were rife after he managed to gather more than the mandatory 30,000 signatures from 15 provinces within a few days of entering the presidential race.

But the Brotherhood won't be mollified by his disqualification, nor will many Egyptians. They understand that the SCAF knew that Suleiman could never win and that the generals encouraged his run and then stopped it so that they could appear evenhanded while pursuing their true goal: shutting out Shater, as well as Ismail, both charismatic figures capable of mobilizing voters. Other candidates have been banned, including the liberal Ayman Nour — who, like Shater, was imprisoned under Mubarak — but the Islamists are the SCAF's true targets, and few Egyptians buy the tortured legal rationales for the bans against them.

The election commission Tuesday rejected the appeals of the banned candidates, including those of the three main contenders — Shater, Ismail and Suleiman. We will now see whether the Brotherhood-SCAF detente is dead. If it is, the Brotherhood can bring thousands of supporters into the streets. The Salafists would also mobilize their followers. But because of the widespread belief that the generals are hijacking the political process, the crowds will also contain Egyptians of other political persuasions.

The SCAF's calculation may be that the remaining 13 candidates will divide the vote, denying anyone a decisive win. Then a non-Islamist, perhaps Amr Moussa, Mubarak's foreign minister and a former head of the Arab League, could win the second round. That would be a far better outcome for the military-intelligence complex than a Brotherhood president, particularly now that the Islamists control parliament.

If this is indeed the SCAF's gambit, it amounts to a big, dicey gamble. Should the streets overflow with protesters and the generals eventually unleash the army and police, massive violence could follow, and the SCAF and the Brotherhood could decide to go for broke. Egypt's uncertain move toward democracy could then be derailed and the country left in turmoil for a long time. If Washington really wants democracy in Egypt, given its long-standing ties to the Egyptian military and intelligence services, now would be a good time to speak up.

Rajan Menon is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

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