Egyptians wonder if a Muslim Brotherhood president would serve party or country

McClatchy NewspapersMay 2, 2012 

— The Muslim Brotherhood, the most influential political bloc in Egypt, is confronting a new worry among some voters as the country’s presidential election nears: Would a president with Brotherhood roots be subservient to the group’s mourshid, or supreme leader, rather than to the interests of Egypt’s population of more than 80 million?

The concern has been voiced in opinion columns and coffeehouses, with some analysts arguing that a Brother-turned-president would, at best, rule with divided loyalties. Some even describe a scenario akin to Iran’s Islamic Republic, where the highest power isn’t the president but supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Clarifying the supreme leader’s role is just one part of deeper voter scrutiny of the Brotherhood after a year of broken political promises, shrewd alliances and internal dissent.

“There will be an inevitable conflict between his oaths: Will he be loyal to a developing country or to a religious movement, a movement that could very well be considered a state within a state?” asked Mustafa al Labbad, the chairman of the Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies, a research institute in Cairo.

The Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, who led the group’s spinoff Freedom and Justice Party, is considered a serious contender for the presidency, though he faces formidable opponents in a rival Islamist and former Brotherhood luminary, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, and the two figures from the era of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa.

Morsi’s chances in the May 23 and 24 voting are hurt by concerns that he’s not strong enough to stand up to the generals who now rule Egypt by decree; the new president will have to negotiate just how much authority the generals retain. Outside the Brotherhood itself, Morsi has picked up the support of one influential Islamist bloc, the Islamic Legitimate Body of Rights and Reformation, but not of another, the ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party, which has endorsed Aboul Fotouh.

Roiling the campaign, however, has been a photograph that shows Morsi bowing to kiss the hands of the Brotherhood’s elderly supreme leader, Mohamed Badei, the group’s eighth supreme guide and one of its most conservative, if not radical, leaders. A veterinarian by profession, Badei was close to Sayyid Qutb, the radical Islamist theorist and top member of the Muslim Brotherhood whom Egyptian authorities executed in 1966 for plotting against the government.

Since the photo appeared, Morsi has been vocal about stressing his independence from the Brotherhood’s religious leaders.

“Neither the Brotherhood nor the Freedom and Justice Party will rule Egypt,” Morsi told a news conference recently. “Egypt will only be ruled by the president, who will abide by the constitution and the will of the people.”

Former Brotherhood members, many of whom defected because of what they described as a creeping authoritarianism within the group, say, however, that Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party would never be truly independent from the Brotherhood, or, by extension, the supreme leader.

Mohamed Abbas, a young Brotherhood defector who ran against, and lost to, a Brotherhood candidate in last winter’s parliamentary polls, said members were taught from Day 1 that the long-time goal was turning Egypt into an Islamist state. Brotherhood politicians’ statements dialing back on that goal, he added, sounded disingenuous.

“The Brotherhood is the body, and the party is the political arm. We can’t expect the arm to exist independently of its body,” said Abbas, a co-founder of the Egyptian Current Party, a liberal party formed after Mubarak was toppled last year.

The Sharq center’s Labbad agreed that the Brotherhood’s ultimate goal is an Islamist state, and he worried that that could lead to “a lower form of the Iranian Islamic Republic” model. He noted that the Brotherhood’s selection of a mourshid is strictly an internal issue for the movement, whereas the selection of the supreme leader in Iran, whose final authority on all matters is enshrined in that country’s constitution, is a more public process.

“In the case of the Brotherhood, the mourshid, or supreme leader, is neither a constitutional nor an official figure, so his appointment or elimination is an internal matter administered only by the Brotherhood,” Labbad said.

Other analysts doubt that Egypt would be likely to become the home of an Iran-style theocratic state under Brotherhood rule, though they agree that the state under a Brotherhood president wouldn’t resemble the secular one that revolutionaries envisioned during the uprising that forced out Mubarak.

In political circles, and even among the Brotherhood’s increasingly noisy internal dissidents, there are already snide comparisons of the Brotherhood to Mubarak’s former National Democratic Party, which claimed more than 2 million members and operated with offices across the country. The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party reneged on promises to contest only a fraction of legislative seats and not to seek the presidency, jettisoned revolutionary causes when its leaders were closer to the ruling military and tried to put its stamp on a new constitution. In the past year, defectors and close observers say, the Brotherhood also cracked down on internal voices of opposition who were admonishing its leaders for moves widely seen as greedy and self-serving.

Morsi is more palatable to some than the Brotherhood’s original candidate, Khairat el Shater, the group’s wealthy financier and strategist, whose charismatic conservatism made him appealing to a broader range of Islamists. Morsi took his place on the ballot when Shater was ruled ineligible because of a Mubarak-era conviction that banned him from political activity.

But the question of Morsi’s loyalties still riles many, including the lawyer whose legal complaint led to the election commission striking Shater from the ballot.

“I won’t accept a puppet president controlled by a religious group,” Abdelsatar al Balshi said. “They’ll be ordered around by the supreme guide they swore allegiance to.”

Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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