An Islamist bid for power in Egypt?

In the weeks following Egypt’s parliamentary elections, it seemed as if the country was beginning to stagger toward the orderly emergence of power-sharing agreements. But as events have developed more recently, especially the reversal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s pledge not to field a presidential candidate, the Egyptian political scene has become increasingly chaotic.

Efforts to craft a power-sharing arrangement acceptable to all three established power centers—the military, the “felool” (the remnants of the former regime, including the secret police) and the Muslim Brotherhood—along with the unorganized but socially powerful protest movement have essentially broken down.

The turning point appears to have been an exceptionally messy fight over the makeup of the Constituent Assembly created by the Islamist-dominated parliament to craft a new constitution for the country. Breaking earlier pledges not to align with the Salafist al-Nour Party, the Muslim Brotherhood joined with it to stack the hundred-member Assembly with at least 65 Islamists. Many non-Islamist members vowed not to participate.

With the apparent support of the military and possibly the Supreme Constitutional Court itself (which also withdrew its representative from the Constituent Assembly), non-Islamist groups have launched two lawsuits. The first challenges the electoral law that produced the current parliament, and the second the procedure for establishing the Constituent Assembly. Islamists had been attempting to shift the balance of power in Egypt’s political system away from the presidency and toward the parliament but were faced with multiple layers of opposition from all other forces in that effort.

This may be among the main reasons that the Muslim Brotherhood broke its long-standing pledge not to field a presidential candidate and nominated Khairat al-Shater for the position. The organization is going for broke and attempting to seize all levers of political authority rather than being satisfied with whatever increased powers it could negotiate for the parliament. Shater’s candidacy, however, is in question because, although he was released from prison, he is still serving out a criminal sentence and has not yet been pardoned.

The Muslim Brotherhood was also probably increasingly concerned with the rise in popularity of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who was expelled from the organization last year for disobeying orders that no member should stand for the presidency. Aboul Fotouh, a long-standing rival of the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide, Mohamed Badie, has been running significantly to the left of the organization as a “liberal Islamist.” He has apparently developed a significant following among Muslim Brotherhood youth members and some liberals who see him as both a less threatening figure and someone untainted by connections to the Mubarak regime.

Tensions between the military and the Islamists have boiled over into open confrontation. Real doubts now hover over the presidential prospects of the former head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa. A few months ago Moussa seemed exceptionally well-positioned to emerge as Egypt’s next president and has outstripped all rivals in every survey and opinion poll since the fall of Mubarak.

However, he will now have to contend with not only the rising popularity of Aboul Fotouh, but also the formidable organizational power of the Muslim Brotherhood behind the frankly uncharismatic Shater. Moussa’s connection with the former regime may have finally begun to undermine his candidacy, particularly given recent scandals over highly controversial charges brought against non-governmental organization workers by other former regime figures.

It’s also possible, however, that Moussa will benefit from a split within the Islamist vote given that Shater and Aboul Fotouh will be competing for such votes with at least two other significant candidates, the Salafist Hazem Abu Ismail, who has also demonstrated unexpectedly strong public support, and another “liberal Islamist” candidate, Mohamed Salim al-Awa. Awa has repeatedly warned, in vain, that a split in the Islamist vote would only benefit non-Islamist candidates such as Moussa.

If either of the pending lawsuits by the non-Islamist groups succeed, the emerging process for drafting a new constitution will be gutted. This is one path for the military and other non-Islamist forces to block an overt power-grab effort by Islamists.

The Muslim Brotherhood may well be overreaching and could have alienated even many of its supporters by so cynically breaking its word. But underestimating the organizational strength and discipline of the group, especially as other political forces are scrambling to play catch-up, would be highly unwise.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s bid for complete control of Egypt’s elected political power is facing the concerted opposition of virtually all non-Islamist forces in the country, in effect led by the military. The rest of Egyptian society would be reluctant to accept an Islamist president as well as an Islamist-dominated parliament. But the options for resisting or reversing that, should it come to pass, bode very ill for the emergence of an orderly, democratic system in the new Egypt.