Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood today rejected proposals to bring forward presidential elections scheduled for mid-2012, insisting that a revised timetable would give too much authority to a new president at the legislature’s expense.
Liberal parties and the largely secular protesters who clashed with security forces in Cairo this week have called for a presidential poll by January 25 to accelerate the transition from military rule.
“We have absolutely no confidence in the military council,” says Ahmed Maher, a leader of the April 6 youth movement. “They have tricked us, they have been trying to circumvent [the revolution] and they are tarnishing our reputation. How can we trust them?”
But Essam el-Erian (above), deputy head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, dismissed the idea, suggesting that the current schedule should be maintained.
“I think that is better than arranging it as soon as possible because this may create chaos,” he told Reuters:
Holding a presidential vote before both houses of parliament were elected and able to draw up a new constitution risked handing too much power to a new president. “We are not going to create a new Mubarak.” he said. Elections to both houses will not be completed until March.
“We believe the military should hand over power in no more than three months,” said a statement from the liberal Egyptian Bloc. The coalition trailed in third place behind the FJP and hardline Salafi Islamists following the second round of parliamentary elections.
“This is a transitional period where one party hands power to another. A deal must be struck. This is politics,” said a source close to the military.
Secular activists accuse the Brotherhood of colluding with the military in an opportunistic power-grab.
“It is almost funny, but too dangerous, to think that it was because we died and fought for Egypt this year that they even have a chance in politics and now they fail to support the very change that got them there. It is sad,” one activist told Bikyamasr.com.
“We want change and the Islamists are going to be happy if they can sit back and take our revolution away from us through their alliance with the military and the public, who are given lies as truth,” she added.
Some observers suggest that such comments confirm the protesters’ political naivety, inability to make the transition from protest to politics and failure to appreciate ordinary citizens’ concerns over insecurity and instability.
The dispute over the election schedule is the latest manifestation of a growing rift between the largely secular activists who led the Jasmine revolution and the Islamist groups who have emerged as its principal beneficiaries.
“Most dispiriting has been the fracturing of the unity of purpose that prevailed during the protests,” writes Heba Saleh, in a must-read Financial Times special report on Egypt in transition. “Within weeks of the revolution, the political scene became deeply polarized as Islamists and liberals traded invective and maneuvered to shape the emerging order.”
A widening rift between the young revolutionaries who led the uprising against Mr Mubarak and the army generals who pushed him out has also contributed to the sour public mood. Activists have accused the ruling generals of trying to “confiscate the revolution” by reviving the much-hated emergency law and stalling on reform. The military has intimidated and arrested critics, sometimes accusing them of working for foreign powers.
“The military are part of the old structure and they have been fighting to preserve their status under the new structure,” says political analyst Khalil Anani. “There is [still] a deferred battle over the shape of the new political order.”
He anticipates growing tensions between the new parliament and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
“The end of military power is inevitable,” he says. “At the conclusion of this political process, there will be a diffusion of power between the military, the Islamists and part of the civilian elite. But we are not there yet. We are still grappling with dismantling the old structures and building the new.”
The resilience of old structures and practices was evident in the excessive violence employed by police in recent clashes with protesters, say rights activists, who have called on the SCAF to reform the security services.
“We should be using international expertise to train them to deal with civil society and legitimate protests,’’ says Hafez Abu Saada, president of the Egyptian Human Rights Organisation. “If they refuse to reform, we could replace most of them with unemployed graduates.”
Although Islamist parties are likely to emerge from the elections with a clear majority, the Brotherhood wants a partnership with liberal secular parties in a broad coalition.
“We want to team up with others for the sake of stability and to benefit from everyone’s experience,” says Saad al-Katatny, a senior FJP leader. “Monopolising power is a bad idea, especially in the case of Egypt, where the governing party can face hostility from a large portion of society and from other political forces.”
The FJP prefers a ‘centrist’ alliance with secular forces to forming an Islamist bloc with the Salafists.
“The answer for us is to seek to forge a wider national consensus that goes beyond the Islamists [in parliament],” says Mohamed al-Beltagi, a senior FJP official. “This would be a centrist bloc that would be able to apply pressure on all those on the edges.”
The party is also dubious that the Salafists can offer any serious expertise or policy input, and fearful that their hardline agenda will alienate voters and investment.
“The country has many problems that no one party can address alone,” says Saad al-Katatny, another senior FJP official. The Brotherhood’s ultraconservative rivals, he says, still need “experience in political practice … training and flexibility.”
Opting for a centrist alliance with seculars instead of an Islamist coalition reflects the movement’s strategic patience, observers suggest, and a concern to ensure that other parties share responsibility if Egypt’s post-transitional government fails to meet voters’ expectations.
“The Brotherhood has been waiting for 80 years,” says a western diplomat. “They are prepared to wait longer to get it right. I don’t think they want to govern alone now because the economy is worse than it has been. They want to be able to show voters there has been a benefit in voting for them, so they need to deliver some short-term gains to be assured of a second term.”
The Brotherhood is maneuvering to become the principal powerbroker without assuming control of both the parliament and presidency, analysts suggest:
Contrary to earlier statements in which it seemed to favor a parliamentary political system, the FJP is now arguing for a constitution that would produce a mixed system with power shared between parliament and a president. The Muslim Brotherhood, and its affiliated FJP, are adamant they will not run a candidate for the top job. Conceivably, some analysts say, they are leaving that post to a figure who enjoys the confidence of the military, and to whom the Islamists would give their electoral endorsement.
“This is a change in the position of the Brotherhood,” says Anani. “I think the president will be the mediator between the military and the Islamists. If they allow a president with some authority, then that will be the common ground for negotiation.”
While the Brotherhood has used welfare programs and social justice slogans to built a solid support base among Egypt’s impoverished masses, its economic policies are largely designed to appeal to its ‘petty bourgeois’ supporters, writes Borzou Daragahi:
Ask a typical Egyptian politician what he plans to do to create jobs, and he will give a murky answer about creating more opportunities for aimless young people. But ask a Muslim Brotherhood official and he will give a 45-minute lecture on the movement’s vision for reforming Egypt’s economy and society, including restructuring the tax code to increase the burden on the rich and expanding loans for the kind of small business owners who are a pillar of the organisation’s support.
Businesses form an important pillar of the Brotherhood’s political base, and the organisation is a strong advocate of the free market. Khairat al-Shater, the deputy leader, told the Financial Times that an “Islamic system” gives “a lot of freedom” to the private sector but within “social constraints”.
“The Muslim Brotherhood’s ideas are real,” says Ahmad Elsayed Elnagar, an economist at the Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies. “Some of the others talk in very vague terms.”
But some observers suggest that the Salafists’ unanticipated gains may force the Brotherhood’s FJP to make concessions on the ultraconservatives’ agenda, including prohibitions of the sale of alcohol and the mixing of males and females on beaches. Some Salafists have also called for a special tax on Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority:
Analysts say the Salafis’ political debut and their surprise electoral success has given Christians fresh incentives to withdraw from cultural and political life, further undermining the vision of the integrated democratic state that had inspired hope during the revolution. “I used to think that the Salafis are sort of Sufis, peaceful dedicated Muslims who called for reviving the old days of Islam religiously,” says Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic weekly, Watani. “But when after the revolution they stunned everybody. They say, ‘We don’t believe in the state. We only believe in Islam. No laws – only the penal code of Islam’,” he says. “We thought these were newcomers that sooner or later would integrate themselves under the Muslim Brotherhood. But they kept striking upon the Copts, time after time.”