Shater: between the Deep State and a fractured Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood’s nomination of Khairat al-Shater can be read as a deal to field Shater as a “consensus president,” or as a Brotherhood maneuver and exchange of mutual interests between the group and Egypt’s military leaders, in which case Shater’s bid for the presidency cannot be considered a serious one.

In a third explanation, Shater’s nomination may have been prompted by mounting tensions and stalling negotiations between the Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and is an outcome of internal problems within the group. I am inclined to believe the final scenario is the most likely to be true.

In fact, to say that Shater’s nomination is a deal or a maneuver would be extremely naive and superficial. Shater has considerable clout within the group and strong organizational power that enabled him to regulate the group’s activities across interlocking networks. Shater is not the type of Brotherhood member who would let himself be exploited for partial gains, such as splintering the Islamist vote for the SCAF’s sake, like some are claiming.

Nor is it logical to say that Shater is a consensus candidate. For the SCAF, the quintessential consensus president would have to belong to the “deep state,” such as former General Intelligence Services chief Suleiman, or at least be a statesman with no links to Islamists, such as former Arab League chief and former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa.

Indeed, Shater may be pragmatic, conservative and well-connected to a complex web of regional and local interests; yet, he is still an outsider to members of the deep state. Even though the SCAF and the Brotherhood may agree on several issues, differences stemming from the disparate natures of their organizations and their relationship with the state, and their views on economic reform, should not be downplayed.

The SCAF may accept a Brotherhood ally within the political sphere, but it will not accept one of the group’s members atop the political system. The junta wants a pro-SCAF president, and if that is not possible, then any president — with the exception of Hazem Salah Abu Ismail — with no real power or influence, so it can control the president from behind the scenes. Shater is not the kind of president that the SCAF would favor.

Recent developments, however, reflect the difficulty in demarcating the SCAF’s deep state and the Brotherhood’s margin of political engagement. The SCAF and the Brotherhood differ over the military institution’s hegemony over national security affairs through the so-called National Security Council. They also disagree on the president’s constitutional powers and the structure of the executive authority, given the SCAF’s insistence that genuine executive authority should remain with the president. Finally, they differ on the identity of the coming pro-SCAF consensus choice for president.

The Brotherhood may make concessions regarding the military institution’s oversight of security affairs, however, it would not do the same on the other two points, particularly after rumors circulated in the media prior to Shater’s nomination that Suleiman might run for the post.

The Brotherhood’s insistence on removing Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri’s government demonstrates its fear that the presidential election will be rigged — especially since Article 28 of the Constitutional Declaration prohibits appeals of the election results.

The Brotherhood can do nothing except heap pressure on the SCAF, either forcing it to withdraw Suleiman from the race — which seems to have happened, since Suleiman announced yesterday that he won’t run — and accept Moussa as the most acceptable consensus candidate, or by entering into a battle with the SCAF, in which Shater’s ability to mobilize voters from the ranks of Brotherhood supporters and Salafis would be put to the test.

The only loophole which overturns this analysis is the SCAF’s recent decision to pardon Shater, thus allowing him to officially register his nomination.

Aside from the SCAF-Brotherhood standoff that might have pushed Shater to run, there are also internal reasons within the group that might have motivated this decision. The coherence of the Brotherhood, sacrosanct for its members, is being put to the test. The Brotherhood made a grave tactical mistake when it rejected the idea of nominating a presidential candidate, on the pretext that it wanted a consensus president. The Brotherhood also seemed to have been complying with a covert agreement with the SCAF, allowing the military to grab the presidency after Islamists seized Parliament.

The Brotherhood leaders were mistaken to think they could sell this idea to their members, for how could they justify their support for a non-Islamist candidate — particularly when three other Islamist candidates, one of them a former Brotherhood member, are running? The Brotherhood’s voting constituency is unlikely to buy into the idea of supporting a non-Islamist president, especially after it was mobilized to vote for Islamists in the parliamentary elections amid promises of the establishment of an Islamic state.

In fact, several members of the Brotherhood had already grown attached to Islamist candidates, although the group itself had initially decided not to nominate its own candidate or endorse anyone until after the nomination process closed. The more moderate ones supported Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, while the more conservative ones were inclined to support Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. As such, the presidential race threatens to rob the Brotherhood of its historical hegemony over the moderate Islamist movement, in favor of independent Islamists on the right and the left.

Shater had no choice but to run for president to reunite members of the Brotherhood, even though the group had chosen to stay out of the race for one whole year. But the fact that Shater’s nomination did not easily garner full Brotherhood approval demonstrates how problematic the whole internal affair must have been.

Shater has embarked on the gamble of his life, but he will turn out a loser either way. That loss will be both for him as a leader and the thoughts and approach for which he stands. His odds are low because of the SCAF’s preferences and the voting patterns of Egyptians; Shater is unknown to Egyptians outside the Brotherhood and does not enjoy the fame of a statesman like Amr Moussa. This is in addition to the likely scenario that votes will be scattered among the various Islamist candidates.

Even in the chance event that Shater wins, he will carry a huge responsibility in a near-impossible mission to drag the country out of its current economic and social crises.

Another loss the Brotherhood will incur will be the impression that it betrayed a former pledge, as it had promised the public it would not nominate any of its members for the presidency. But perhaps the most dangerous outcome will be how Shater’s competition with a SCAF-backed candidate threatens to intensify the country’s ongoing political and social conflict, threatening the Brotherhood’s gains over the past year.

The Brotherhood made another tactical error when it abandoned the revolutionary bloc after the March 2011 referendum. As a result of the move, the Brotherhood lacks the popular base needed to turn its own battle with the military into one between the revolutionary camp and the military.

In my opinion, Shater, a pragmatic person who takes little risk, has not calculated this step well. However, the outcome of this gamble largely depends on the SCAF’s reaction, which has the ball in its court now. The only advantage of the current ongoing developments is that political conflicts are increasingly being played out in the open.

Ashraf El-Sherif teaches at the American University in Cairo.

Translated by Dina Zafer.

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