Muslim Brotherhood front-runner Mohamed Saad al-Katatni.
Muslim Brotherhood front-runner Mohamed Saad al-Katatni. Photo by Reuters
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Despite the Muslim Brotherhood's promises not to enter a candidate in the upcoming Egyptian presidential elections in May, the organization's leadership meets next week in order to discuss the possibility. While there is no certainty that it will enter the race, if it does the Shura Council is expected to choose between two front-runners, Mohammed Morsi - leader of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party - and Mohamed Saad al-Katatni, Egypt's Parliament Speaker. The man thought to be the Brotherhood's leading candidate - movement deputy chairman Khairat el-Shater - previously announced that he would not run.

One of the Brotherhood representatives in parliament, Mohamed Emad el-Din, said that the movement - which yesterday opted to defer its decision by a week until next Tuesday - might support a candidate outside its own ranks, even though its young members are pressing the Brotherhood to stay out of the presidential elections as promised.

The discussions in the Shura Council will be conducted against the backdrop of unprecedented tension between the movement and Egypt's ruling Supreme Military Council. The "honeymoon" between the organizations, as it was termed by an Egyptian commentator, seems to be at an end. The military council this week accused the Islamist movement of trying to undermine the government and of smearing the council, following a statement by the Brotherhood that the council was attempting to encroach upon the gains of the January 2011 revolution.

The power struggle between the ruling council and the Brotherhood is expressed in two places where significant storms are raging: the parliament and the presidential election, scheduled for May 23-24. The parliament is agitated in the wake of the formation of a new committee charged with writing a national constitution; it was set to meet today for the first time.

The constitutional committee is to determine the president's authority and his relations with the legislature and the administrative branch of government. Secular opposition, members of the liberal parties, the left and young people have accused the Brotherhood and the extreme Islamist Salafi party Al-Nour of gaining control of the committee and appointing their members, in order to prevent the creation of a consensual constitution. There are 100 members on the committee; according to the Al-Ahram newspaper, at least 65 percent are Islamists.

The second fight is taking place around the list of candidates for the presidency. In less than two months, Egyptians will choose their next president in the country's first democratic elections - the most significant figure in Egypt according to present laws. The historical importance of the event may explain the large number of candidates - 200 - some of whom are serious and familiar political faces, while many others are raw material for dozens of satirical reviews, and about whom there are doubts whether they will really run for the position.

At the beginning of the week, one of three leading candidates, Mansour Hassan, announced he was leaving the race. A former information minister in the days of Anwar Sadat, Hassan was set to become Sadat's deputy but was prevented from doing so by the 1981 assassination; he was kept far from the center of power when Hosni Mubarak was president. In recent weeks his name has often been mentioned as an outstanding candidate supported by all circles - until he was negatively dubbed the "accommodation" candidate. There were many rumors that Hassan would be accepted by the Supreme Military Council on the one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other, as part of a political deal meant to preserve the power of these two organizations. But on Sunday he left the race and put an end to these conspiracy theories.

The Egyptian elections constitute a critical phase for the country after Mubarak. In effect they will end the interim stage, according to Prof. Yoram Meital, head of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University. That is, authority will be transferred from the ruling military council to an elected body.

"We are entering [a period of] unprecedented power struggle over who controls the reins of government," Meital says. He adds that Egypt has several centers of power, and that one of its muddier centers is the institution of the presidency: "The first [center of power] is the parliament, which is controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. The second is the military council, which has managed government business during the interim period and is to transfer its authority to the elected leadership on July 1. My estimation is that the military council will continue to be involved, but behind the scenes.

"The third center is supposed to be the presidency," Meital continues. "We don't know who will be chosen, and when the results are known all the cards in the political arena will be reshuffled. The fourth center of power I call 'Tahrir Square.' There are no more demonstrations, but there is rage and disappointment on the part of important sectors who initiated the January 2011 revolution and feel they've been left behind without political representation. The fifth center is the [acting] government. Now the interim government is led by [Prime Minister] Kamal el-Ganzouri and the question arises: who will form the next one?"

According to Meital, this question is at the heart of the constitutional issue. "How will the president's authority be defined in relation to the parliament and the government? Who will assemble the government? The majority in Egypt supports a reduction in presidential authority and an increase in that held by the parliament and government offices. On the other hand, against the background of the Islamists' achievements in the [parliamentary] elections, the impression is that secular forces along with the military council are not interested in weakening the presidency. This question is not only about the nature of the presidency but about the future of the regime."

In addition to the Muslim Brotherhood candidates (if there are any ), leading candidates include Amr Moussa, former Egyptian foreign minister and Arab League chief; and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former senior member of the Brotherhood who decided to run independently and was then removed from the organization's ranks. New and surprising candidates are likely to be added to the race in coming months. Candidates require the signatures of 30,000 citizens, or 30 members of parliament, to run.

Amr Moussa garnered broad support when he entered the race and was considered the leading candidate until a few months ago, but has lost ground since - in part because of his past as a senior member of the Mubarak regime. Aboul Fotouh may prove to be the biggest surprise of these elections. He has been considered the political rival of Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie since his days in the movement. Badie is following Aboul Fotouh's meteoric rise with great concern, especially the support he has won among young members of the Brotherhood, as well as young secular people who see him as an option free of ties to the previous regime. Aboul Fotouh is successfully marketing a liberal Islamic message. This may be the fact that caused Badie to consider the possibility of running a movement candidate for the presidency at the same time as he removed Aboul Fotouh from the ranks.

The Salafi movement, which registered the most surprising victory in the elections for parliament, will also offer a candidate: Hazem Abu Ismail. Perhaps a bit surprisingly, Abu Ismail has taken a positive approach to Israel and the Jews in his media interviews. He has said he would refrain from taxing gambling because it is forbidden by the Islamic religion, and that Israel has already done so out of Jewish religious considerations.

Abu Ismail is not the only one to mention Israel in a positive light during the elections. Another candidate, Sabar Hafaz, an Egyptian businessman, claims he has a plan to solve all of Egypt's problems. It is based on building strong ties with, paradoxically, Israel, by establishing joint economic projects. Hafaz says that Egypt can this way attract many investors when they realize that war between the countries is no longer relevant.

More and more names pop up all the time. The hot one these days is Omar Suleiman, once Mubarak's head of intelligence. A large rally for him was to be held today in Cairo. Former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik is also thought to be a prominent candidate, as are Hossam Khairallah, former head of intelligence services, and Hisham Al-Bastawisi, former deputy chief of the court of appeals.

What leading candidates Moussa and Aboul Fotouh have in common, according to former Israeli ambassador to Egypt Yitzhak Levanon, is their near-open hostility toward Israel. "There is no candidate that may be seen as a potential partner with whom 'to do business,'" he says. "And there is not one prominent, popular personality who can sweep voters off their feet. Amr Moussa does not have the support of either the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafis. Ahmed Shafik, the former prime minister, works very hard and is quite capable. But it's not clear whether he has a chance."

Levanon warns that if a member of the Muslim Brotherhood runs for the presidency, its complete control of Egypt is a possibility. "The election of one of their people to the presidency means a connection between the legislature and the administrative government," Levanon says. "All democracies require the separation of powers. It will be worrying if these two bodies are joined."