Why the U.S. May Be Secretly Cheering a Muslim Brotherhood Run For Egypt’s Presidency

Liberals and secularists are furious at the decision this week byEgypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to name Khairat al-Shater as its candidate next month’s presidential election. Even many members and leaders of the Brotherhood itself are livid at the decision, an eleventh-hour reversal of a longstanding undertaking to stay out of the race to elect a successor to President Hosni Mubarak. Curiously enough, though, the New York Times reports that U.S. official are “untroubled and even optimistic about the Brotherhood’s reversal of its pledge not to seek the presidency”.

In a vignette of just how much the political landscape has changed since the days when the U.S. pinned its hopes on a Mubarak regime that imprisoned the likes of Shater, the Times reports that the Brotherhood’s candidate is in regular contact with U.S. Ambassador Anne Paterson, and that U.S. officials have praised his moderation, intelligence and effectiveness. The 62-year-old millionaire financier seen as a pragmatist and modernizer, dedicated to reviving Egypt’s moribund economy rather than seeking confrontation with Israel or the U.S. And, of course, the Brotherhood represents an attractive alternative in comparison to the more extreme Salafists who have emerged as the wild-card in post-Mubarak politics. The Salafist Nour party ran the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party a close second, finishing with 28% of the vote (against the FJP’s 38%) in the parliamentary elections that concluded in January.

Without a Brotherhood candidate in the race, some officials fear that Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the charismatic Salafist presidential hopeful who talks of emulating Iran’s theocratic political system and of ending the peace treaty with Israel, could produce an upset — particularly if the election goes to a head-to-head run-off between the two leading vote-getters if no candidate wins an outright majority.

An Al Ahram poll conducted before Shater entered the race gave the Salafist candidate around 22% of the vote. Another, more liberal Brotherhood figure, Abdel Moneim Abdoul Futouh — who had been expelled from the movement when he threw his own hat in the ring — is polling far behind Abu Ismail with around 8%, while another moderate Islamist, Mohammad Salim al-Awa had around 4%. The leading candidate in that poll, with 33%, was a secular nationalist, Mubarak’s former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa (who remains popular for his legacy of publicly challenging Israeli and U.S. conduct in the Middle East, sometimes to the annoyance of his then-boss). More significant, though, is the fact that the poll also found that 58% of the electorate would prefer an Islamist candidate: If the field without Shater went to a runoff, as the numbers seemed to indicate, the Salafists would be in pole position. And that’s an outcome as unpalatable to the Brotherhood as it would be to Washington and to the SCAF.

 

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