Challenging Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood From the Inside

Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a religious leader, lawyer and former ember of parliament, has been promoting a radical agenda that makes members of his own party shudder.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

One cannot help but be impressed by the buildup to the election in Egypt, which for the first time in 60 years is experiencing uncertainty. Suddenly, the stability which determined who the next president of Egypt will be left the Egyptian citizen with one of two possibilities: vote for the incumbent or stay at home in protest.

No more. Now Egypt is awash with candidates, posters on walls and polls, pictures of would-be presidents filling the city plazas, and most of all, the absence of the feeling that there is only one leading and familiar candidate, freeing the voter from the burden of making a choice.

Egyptian Muslim cleric and candidate for the Egyptian presidency Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, center, is guarded by his supporters as he enters Tahrir Square for a protest against the military council.Credit: AP

Every week has its rising star. In the early days of the revolution it was Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei who grabbed headlines as a possible Mubarak replacement. After him came Amr Mussa, the former Secretary General of the Arab League, who tried to promote himself with a program to advance Egyptian technological and academic learning. A long list of names followed.

Omar Suliman, who headed Egypt's intelligence service, flip-flopped between announcing his candidacy, retracting it, and announcing it again. A process that came to an end on Wednesday, when he announced that he wouldn’t be able to overcome the difficulties he is facing and therefore he will not be throwing his hat into the race.

These difficulties are mostly related to the fact that being associated with the Mubarak regime, the supporters of the revolution that ousted Mubarak cannot support his head security of security. Suliman was also offended by Mussa’s statement that it was the Egyptian military that was pushing for Suliman’s presidential drive as a counterbalance to Khairat al-Shate, the Muslim Brotherhood's nominee. Mussa’s opponents take care to remind him that he was appointed foreign minister by Mubarak, who also pushed for his election as Secretary General of the Arab League.

Mussa prefers to present himself as an independent liberal, unsupported by the military and in opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, who “everyone knows” made a deal with army.

But the Muslim Brotherhood candidate al-Shate has his work cut out for him. He is opposed from the religious camp by Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a religious leader, senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, lawyer and former Member of Parliament, who in the past few months has been promoting a radical religious agenda, which includes the strict implementation of Islamic law, the banning of “promiscuous beach tourism,” the banning of alcohol and the rehabilitation of the religious school system.

Abu Ismail is no small challenge for the Muslim Brotherhood, who are running a public relations campaign in the United States, meeting with senior officials in the administration and with members of the American business community, and whose leaders are releasing statements assuring the world that they intend to keep to the Camp David agreements and to their supporters presenting a strong opposition to the military council.

On the other hand, they must appeal to their public and explain where exactly their religious agenda is hiding. The result is that al-Shate announced this week that he intendeds to establish an organization dedicated to the supervision of morality, not a morality police per se, rather an administration dedicated supervising the implementation of Islamic Sharia law.

But it seems that the Muslim Brotherhoods heavy ammunition against Abu Ismail lay elsewhere. “Somebody” posted rumors on the web that his mother holds a American passport and that his sister lives in the U.S.

Suddenly, the anti-American crusading religious leader is exposed as a son of an American. The hit to his prestige is significant but more so is the Egyptian law stating that an Egyptian president must be a son of two Egyptians, which means his mother’s passport bars him from running. Abu Ismail is waging a battle for his political life and the court, which is still waiting on his mother’s documentation, will have to rule on whether he can run or whether he must leave the stage clear for the Muslim Brotherhood.

But in the meanwhile, he is everyone’s hero: causing both the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberals to shudder as they sit on the sidelines, watching as a scandal that was supposed to discredit him simply making him more popular.

And if that is not enough, reports have surfaced this week about the vast sums of money his election campaign has amassed. “Where did he get 11 million Egyptian Liras to run his campaign,” Egyptians asked on Facebook. One could also wonder who is behind the campaign to smear him.

It is doubtful whether Abu Ismail will become Egypt’s next president, even if his mother is found sufficiently Egyptian. But uncertainty is a central aspect of these elections making them for the first time real elections.



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