Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate an underdog in Egypt (WASHINGTON POST) By Ernesto Londoño CAIRO, EGYPT 05/17/12)
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CAIRO — Had Egypt’s post-revolutionary political winds held steady,
Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate,
would have been coasting to victory in this month’s election.
Instead, he’s running an underdog campaign. The group’s prodigious
political machine, which turned the once-besieged opposition movement
into the dominant force in parliament early this year, has to contend
with an uncharismatic candidate and a shift in public opinion as many
Egyptians have soured on the venerable Islamist organization.
The Brotherhood’s political stock is plunging, analysts and ordinary
Egyptians say, because its political party has backtracked on
promises and accomplished little since a predominantly Islamist cadre
of lawmakers was sworn in in January.
In the working-class Cairo neighborhood of Abbasiya, where the
Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party campaigned vigorously in the
weeks before the parliamentary elections, shopkeeper Abbas Helmi, 58,
put down a Koran he was reciting softly to talk politics. On the eve
of those elections, he said, Freedom and Justice campaigners set up
stalls to sell residents subsidized meat and vegetables, drawing
“People went and bought their meat,” Helmi recalled. “But after the
vote, [the party workers] disappeared, and the people felt deceived.”
The backgrounds of the two front-runners — a former foreign minister
who served under now-deposed Hosni Mubarak and a moderate Islamist
who broke away from the Brotherhood — suggest that Egyptians may want
a statesman who is more inclusive and less dogmatic about the role of
Islam in governance than the devout politicians who control
But experts caution that it would be a mistake to dismiss Morsi’s
chances outright. His rivals might be generating more enthusiasm and
doing better in the polls, they say, but none has the Brotherhood’s
mighty machinery or its network of allied preachers and local
“They go into full mobilization mode on Election Day,” said Shadi
Hamid, an Egypt expert with the Brookings Doha Center who has studied
the Muslim Brotherhood for years. “They play old-fashioned bare-
knuckles politics, and they’re in it to win it.”
In addition to its robust get-out-the-vote campaign, the
Brotherhood’s endurance of decades of oppression under Mubarak
probably helped it to win sympathy during the parliamentary
elections. But the group’s short stint in power has proved largely
The Brotherhood-dominated parliament has passed no laws of
consequence since its January inauguration. Many Egyptians have been
disenchanted by the Brotherhood’s refusal to prioritize the repeal of
the reviled emergency law, which has been used for decades to crack
down on dissidents.
The Brotherhood’s handling of another controversial issue, the use of
military trials to prosecute civilians, has angered human rights
activists. Parliament recently restricted the president from
referring civilians for prosecution in military court, but it stopped
short of also barring the armed forces from doing so.
Despite occasional public statements criticizing the ruling military
council, the Brotherhood has had a surprisingly cooperative
relationship with the generals who were once instrumental in keeping
the group oppressed and politically disenfranchised. The Brotherhood
has often discouraged its followers from joining protests against the
military, infuriating other political factions, which view the
Islamist group as opportunistic.
Senior Brotherhood officials acknowledged in interviews that Morsi
might lack charisma, but they disputed the notion that his campaign
for the two-day election next week is floundering.
“Egypt doesn’t need a charismatic president,” said Essam el-Erian, an
influential Brotherhood legislator. “It needs a president who can
deal with the government and with the parliament.”
In recent weeks, some rallies for Morsi have seemed tailor-made for
ultraconservative Muslim voters, whom the campaign is trying to woo.
It has also enlisted radical clerics to rally voters, in an apparent
attempt to excite and broaden the party’s base.
Morsi, 60, has dismissed as flawed polls that show him lagging and
has pointed to large turnouts at campaign rallies nationwide as
evidence that his presidential bid is not doomed.
He is branding himself a “renaissance” candidate and the only
contender who would bring impeccable Islamist credentials to the
presidency. A vote for him, Morsi has assured Egyptians, is a way to
ensure that the spirit of the revolution that ousted Mubarak from the
presidency in February 2011 endures.
“I want the revolution to stay alive after the president is elected,”
Morsi said at a recent rally. “We will not allow another dictator to
Morsi was not the Brotherhood’s first choice when the group reneged
on its vow not to field a presidential candidate. The group says it
broke the promise because it believes the military council that
replaced Mubarak has mismanaged the transition to democratic rule.
The Freedom and Justice Party nominated Khairat el-Shater, the
Brotherhood’s top strategist and biggest bank roller, as its
candidate in March. Anticipating that Shater could be disqualified,
Morsi’s name was registered as a backup.
Shater was among 10 contenders disqualified last month by the
country’s presidential election commission, an unexpected move that
forced the Brotherhood to thrust little-known Morsi into the
spotlight. Shater was disqualified because the commission ruled that
the time he served as a political prisoner during the Mubarak regime
made him ineligible.
Morsi, an engineer with a doctorate from the University of Southern
California, had a relatively low profile until he became the Freedom
and Justice Party’s chairman when the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood
was allowed to register as a political party after Mubarak’s ouster.
‘Not sticking to their word’
A senior Brotherhood leader who offered his candid assessment of the
Morsi campaign on the condition of anonymity said there is deep angst
about the race among the movement’s old guard.
“I think they made a mistake in making too many promises and then not
sticking to their word,” the veteran Brotherhood figure said. “As
Islamists, they should have stuck to their word. People are now
calling the Muslim Brotherhood dishonest.”
Besides reneging on its promise not to field a presidential
candidate, Brotherhood leaders have raised eyebrows by warming up to
Washington and suggesting that they would honor Egypt’s unpopular
peace deal with Israel.
Morsi’s main competitors are former foreign minister Amr Moussa, the
Arab League’s erstwhile chief whose appeal stems largely from his
name recognition and his hard-line stance against Israel, and Abdel
Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood leader who is regarded as a
moderate Islamist. Aboul Fotouh supporters have sought to disparage
the Brotherhood. New billboards that have gone up around Cairo in
support of Aboul Fotouh call the candidate’s former group
the “Machiavellian Brotherhood.”
Abdul Ghamed Ahmad Abdel, a 69-year-old taxi driver, said the
Brotherhood’s popularity has slipped in his district of Imbaba in
“They took control of the parliament because they are deeply
entrenched in the rural areas,” he said. But their lackluster
performance in office is sure to hurt them, he added. “They’ve been
exposed for what they are.” Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb
contributed to this report.(© 2010 The Washington Post Company
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