April 6, 2012

TSG Intel Brief: Egypt’s Complex Political Calculus Heats Up as Election Approaches

• The constant and rapidly changing political events in Egypt might possibly be masking a hint of future stability and continued military influence.

• Despite public antagonism, acceptance by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of the presidential candidate put forth by the Muslim Brotherhood may reflect either its hopes of dividing the Islamist vote or simply the fact that there is less disagreement between the two parties on how to rule after May than public discourse might suggest.

     As of early April 2012, events on the Egyptian political scene have taken several convoluted turns, leaving policy makers and interested observers alike confused as to their relative impact not only on the upcoming presidential elections, but also on the nature of what will emerge as a new Egypt. It is possible, however, that the clamor of the scene is masking other, far more deliberate decisions. Much has been made, for example, of the recent decision by the ascendent Muslim Brotherhood - through its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party - to reverse earlier pledges and to field its own candidate in the May 23-24 nationwide presidential election. Similarly, a great deal of attention has been drawn to the rapid rise of their candidate, Khairat al-Shater, to the status of presumptive favorite in the contest. Although there has been some interest in how al-Shater, who had been convicted and jailed both in 1992 and 2008 for money laundering, was approved by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), far less attention has been paid to why he received such approval.

The two entities have been locked in a very public debate over the right to form the cabinet; while the Muslim Brotherhood insists that its majority in the incoming parliament should give it that right, SCAF argues that it retains the power as stipulated in the outgoing constitution. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood has stated in recent days that the decision to field al-Shater was less a power grab and more a necessary move to prevent the military from undermining the true spirit of the January 25, 2011, revolution that overthrew Mubarak. While this might be true, it certainly begs the question as to why the military would suddenly approve al-Shater's candidacy and, in effect, possibly ensure that its most serious rival would win, thus weakening SCAF's 52-year grip on power.


SCAF's Machiavellian Calculus

One explanation is that SCAF, far more experienced in political machinations than its just-recently-legal opponent, has made a strategic calculation that leads it to believe it can divide the Islamic vote between al-Shater, former Muslim Brotherhood official Abdel Abu al-Fotouh (who was forced to resign from his position in the Brotherhood to run for presidency because, at the time, the organization had yet to reverse itself on that issue), and the Salafist Hazem Abu Ismail (whose candidacy has been called into question by allegations that his mother may have become a U.S. citizen shortly before her death). This would, if the SCAF calculus is correct, enable a more SCAF-friendly candidate to win. (That candidate would likely have been Omar Sulayman, the former intelligence chief, but his candidacy ended when it became clear he would be unable to fulfill the necessary conditions required by the new electoral process.) Indeed, the 56-52 split vote by the 100-member Muslim Brotherhood Shura ? which usually works to ensure unanimous final votes ? to approve the decision to field a presidential candidate might be viewed as evidence that not only are the Islamists in general divided, but possibly that the Brotherhood itself is as well.

Another possible answer to the question of why SCAF would approve a Muslim Brotherhood candidate might be found in the fact that the two most influential political entities in Egypt are not as antagonistic as some might suspect, at least as it relates to several important issues - not the least of which involve how to actually run the country and revive its severely damaged economy. A hint of this can be seen in this week's visit to the United States by a high-ranking delegation of Muslim Brotherhood officials, who met with congressmen and other government officials in an effort on both sides to ascertain their counterpart's intentions and abilities. The fact that such a meeting would take place is something that would have been viewed as highly improbable just months ago given the politically-charged atmosphere of an election year in the United States, as well as the lingering fears (real or inflated) regarding the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic power.


Adapting to Egypt's Unfolding Future

The U.S. Congress has been an open supporter of SCAF, so it remains somewhat curious as to why the meeting occurred at this particular time, and that it appeared to have gone well judging by the generally favorable press coverage. Additionally, the relatively positive statements from U.S. Secretary of State Clinton concerning the decision by the Brotherhood to run a candidate, which one would have thought might have alarmed U.S officials for the aforementioned concerns, further suggest that SCAF need not be alarmed given that its single largest supporter - the U.S. government - is apparently not. The recent US$1.2 billion in assistance, which was timed for approval while SCAF still runs the country, will also help whoever is in charge of the government after the May elections, another sign that SCAF is less concerned over the prospect that the new leader might come from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood.

All of this is to suggest that perhaps wiser heads are prevailing in the lead-up to the May elections, as whoever wins will face immediate and daunting challenges. Long-accustomed to having its way, SCAF might view dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood as a way of maintaining a viable measure of influence and power; at the same time, the Brotherhood, lacking experience in exercising political power at this level, might consider dealing with the military as an effective strategy for ensuring some level of much-needed cooperation and assistance as it assumes the reins.




• The political scene will continue to gyrate wildly, with candidates entering and leaving the race among the clamor.



• If SCAF is indeed behind the Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate, al-Shater, he will likely win the election. If SCAF is merely interested in dividing its opposition, the election will almost certainly be close, with the emergence of an as-yet unknown compromise candidate a probable scenario.


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