A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Khairat al-Shater Factor

Khairat al-Shater
After a week or so of waffling over whether it would actually name a candidate for President, and then saying it would meet Monday (today) the Muslim Brotherhood suddenly announced on Saturday that it would indeed run Brotherhood Deputy Leader Khairat al-Shater.  Sunday having now passed without the Brotherhood calling another press conference to say "April Fool!," it appears they really mean it this time. The announcement was initially made by the Brotherhood itself, not by its political front, the Freedom and Justice Party, which however (surprise!) promptly announced Shater as their nominee, though it had not previously been clear that he was even a member of the party.

So what does this mean to the Presidential elections?  Well, based on the Egyptian media, you can take your choice:
  1. The Brotherhood is directly challenging SCAF, which strongly opposed a Brotherhood candidate. (Evidence: the recent public rancor between SCAF and the Brotherhood.)
  2. SCAF and the Brotherhood are working hand in glove to elect a Brotherhood candidate, which SCAF has wanted all along. (Evidence: Shater had to be pardoned in order to run as he served prison time.)
  3. SCAF wanted a Brotherhood candidate but not because it wanted him to win, but to split the Islamist vote among three candidates and elect a pro-SCAF figure. (Evidence: there are now three Islamist candidates — Shater, former Brotherhood figure ‘Abdel Moneim Abu'l-Futuh, and poster boy Hazem Salah Abu Isma‘il — all with strong support bases.)
Other than the obvious fact that these three explanations are mutually exclusive, they all make a certain amount of sense, depending on one's biases and willingness to adhere to conspiracy theories.

While some may suspect that the Brotherhood intended all along to spring a candidate on voters at the last minute, there seemed to be genuine divisions about whether to do so. The Brotherhood and the FJP Party reportedly were in some disagreement, and the Brotherhood's Shura Council reportedly voted to support Shater by 58 out of 108, hardly unanimity. The pretense that the FJP is an independent party, which never was very convincing, has evaporated now that the Party has rubber-stamped the candidacy of a man chosen not by the party but by the Brotherhood's secretive Shura Council.

If the Brotherhood leadership really was determined not to name a candidate, why did they change their mind. They are seeking to convince the world it was because they feared otherwise a secularist backed by the Army, an Amr Moussa or an ‘Omar Suleiman, would win. A better explanation may be that they were concerned about the surging popularity of Abu'l-Futuh. A former senior figure in the Brotherhood, his decision to run last year led to him being read out of the organization and to the Brotherhood warning its members that it would expel anyone supporting Abu'l-Futuh. Still, many younger Brotherhood members were openly objecting to that decree, and planned to support Abu'l-Futuh. If an Islamist opposed by the Brotherhood leadership had won, despite the Brotherhood's opposition, it would be a major blow to their claims to be the preeminent Islamist movement. A victory by the Salafi Abu Isma‘il would be arguably even worse. So the Brotherhood decided to field a candidate.

Shater is a businessman, the mastermind of the Brotherhood's finances and, some argue, far more its real leader than General Guide Badie. Profiles of him here and here; his webpage here (Arabic); his curriculum vitae here (Arabic). And Marc Lynch's take here.   [UPDATE: The Arabist's Issandr El Amrani offers his views here.]

The sudden recent shift in the Brotherhood's approach to running a candidate has caught a lot of the other candidates off guard, however much they may be playing it down. Apparently, even some of Shater's ten children were shocked.

Does Shater become the front-runner,or does the presence of three Islamists split the vote? I'm going to say it's too early to know and suggest we wait and see.

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