Last weekend’s announcement by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood that it will field a presidential candidate, Khairat Shater, has drastically impacted the run-up to May’s elections. But his position on Israel is not significantly different than that of other candidates; indeed, some are more overtly hostile than he is.
Liberals now fear a speedy Islamist takeover of Egypt, while Islamic circles bemoan the splitting of the conservative vote. Both sides agree, it seems, that the Muslim Brotherhood has made a big mistake.
The Brotherhood, for its part, has claimed that it was forced to renege on its repeated promise not to field a candidate because the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) — Egypt’s de-facto ruler — has refused to replace the much criticized government of Kamal Ganzouri. The government was nominated by the SCAF, not chosen by parliament, which is now comprised mostly of Islamist members.
As nominations for the presidency closed Sunday, one might have expected Shater to be topping the polls for the race. The party that nominated him, the Muslim Bortherhood’s Freedom and Justice (FJP), swept 43% of the votes in the parliamentary elections. But in an unofficial online poll conducted last Monday by establishment daily Al-Ahram, Shater came in fourth, with a mere 7% of the public vote.
It is hard to determine whether this is the result of popular outrage against the Brotherhood’s zigzag, a natural reaction to Shater’s drab public persona, or a function of the newness of his candidacy. But the Muslim Brotherhood may be beginning to wonder whether it has miscalculated.
Shater, 61, is the deputy supreme guide of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group’s number two. An engineer by profession and a successful businessman, Shater made millions in the early 1990s through a computer information systems company and later as a consultant and manufacturer of products as diverse as furniture and machinery. Last week Shater promised a visiting American delegation that as president he would uphold the peace treaty with Israel. He has made similar comments about sticking to the treaty in the past.
Ironically, while Israel is wary about a Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate, not all the other candidates are notably warmer on Israel than he is.
Before the bombshell dropped by the FJP, the front-runner in the race was veteran diplomat Amr Moussa. A long-time foreign minister and Arab League chief, Moussa’s association with the Mubarak regime has not hampered his popularity on the Egyptian street. A poll published last Monday by the government-linked Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (taken prior to Shater’s announcement) gave Moussa 31.5 percent of the vote, far ahead of the other nominees.
Moussa, the first independent candidate to announce his presidential aspirations, is labeling himself as tough on Israel. In an interview with Al-Ahram on March 26, Moussa reminded readers of his fiery speech as foreign minister at the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, in which he “politically brought Egypt back to the Arab battlefield in its confrontation with Israel.”
On March 31, following political meetings with leaders in Lebanon, he wrote in his Arabic Twitter feed: “The message to Israel is clear: an entry permit to the region includes forgoing the policy of intransigence, threats, settlements and occupation and establishing a sovereign Palestinian state.”
In the Al-Ahram Center poll, the second-most popular candidate was the Salafist Sheikh Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail, garnering 22.7% of the vote. The unofficial Al-Ahram online poll placed Abu-Ismail a clear first, with no less than 44% of the votes. But on Thursday it seemed that Abu-Ismail’s mother’s American citizenship, which he denied, would disqualify him from running. Sources close to Abu-Ismail indicated that he would fight such a decision.
The most devout of Egypt’s presidential candidates, Abu-Ismail commented in an interview with the Egyptian Tahrir TV station February on Israeli fears of his candidacy.
“The Egyptians are good people, but the Zionists are not like that,” he told the viewers. “The Zionists analyze things carefully. If the president of Egypt is candidate X, their treatment of him will be different than if the president is candidate Y.”
During another televised interview in September 2011, Abu-Ismail defined himself as “an enemy of the Camp David peace accords [with Israel],” but indicated that as Egypt’s leader he would not abolish the agreements.
Ahmad Shafiq, lagging behind with only 10.2%, served as interim prime minister for Mubarak from January to March 2011. A former air force commander, Shafiq is the candidate most closely associated with Mubarak. The closest ally of Egypt’s military establishment, he was recently quoted by Al-Ahram as saying that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces alone maintained the right to dismiss the government of Kamal Ganzouri, deflecting demands by Egypt’s Islamists to sack the military-appointed government immediately.
Regarding the peace accords with Israel, Shafiq said it would be “crazy” to cancel them. “I tell all the demagogues: forget about tampering with Camp David,” he told the Egyptian press in February.
Closely following Shafiq, with 9.3% of the Al-Ahram sample, stood Mubarak’s intelligence chief and strongman Omar Suleiman. On Wednesday Suleiman announced that he would not run due to what he mysteriously called “organizational and financial” reasons.
But on Friday, in what he said was a response to public demand, he changed course and said he would run after all. Now he has till Sunday to get 30,000 signatures or the support of at least 30 parliamentarians in order to meet the official deadline. Suleiman could be the ruling generals’ preferred candidate, someone who would try to keep the old political system intact and protect the privileges of the military.
Meanwhile on Saturday, in yet another twist just hours before the deadline, the Muslim Brotherhood said it was also putting up party leader Mohammed Morsi as an alternate candidate to Shater. The party is apparently concerned that Egypt’s ruling military council may try to disqualify its first choice nominee.
Realizing that cutting ties with Israel would likely cost Egypt its annual aid package of $1.3 billion in military aid and $300 million in economic aid, all candidates acknowledge the strategic value of peace with Israel, albeit begrudgingly.
But relations with Israel will probably only grow frostier. With most candidates distancing themselves from the Mubarak legacy through blatant hostility towards Israel, the position of the newest candidate, Khairat Shater, is far from radical.
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