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The Calculus of Egypt's Presidential Race

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Headlined to H3 4/23/12

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Secondly, the military has desperately sought blanket immunity from prosecution or accountability for anything it has done in the past, especially with regards to financial corruption. But no one actually knows what the immunity would entail, though it is suspected that massive wealth and corruption could be uncovered once senior military leaders retire or disappear from the scene. Finally, the military wants to obtain a special status in the constitution that allows it to control its budget without civilian oversight, and enjoy veto power in strategic policy areas, including foreign relations and decisions of war and peace.

SCAF calculated shortly after the fall of the regime that the easiest way to achieve its main objectives was by reaching a tacit understanding on these matters with the MB, the largest organized political group. When SCAF inserted these provisions in the so-called supra-constitutional document last November, the MB along with most political opposition groups rejected this document in a massive showing of public protests that forced the collapse of the government and the withdrawal of the document.

Meanwhile, SCAF prevented the FJP, the MB affiliated majority party in parliament, from forming a new government after the elections, while appointing a government headed by Mubarak's former Prime Minister, Dr. Kamal El-Ganzouri. With worsening conditions of the economic and security situation in the country, the public was blaming the MB for not delivering on their promises of good governance, while the Brotherhood complained that SCAF did not allow it to form a government.

But the primary purpose of the elected parliament was to elect one hundred people to form the constitutional writing committee. Instead of holding countrywide discussions with all political parties and civil society groups on the criteria for committee membership, the FJP held bilateral talks with the Salafist Noor party reaching an agreement that appointed to the constitutional committee 50 members from parliament, which is dominated by Islamists. In the end, the total Islamists appointed to the committee comprised two-thirds (super majority) of total membership and were dominated by members or supporters of the MB. Not only liberal and leftist parties as well as revolutionary groups were incensed, but even religious entities and civil society groups including Al-Azhar, the Coptic Church, opposition parties, labor unions, and the Supreme Court, were upset and withdrew their members from the committee. Predictably, all condemned the policy of exclusion that the MB promised it would not pursue. Eventually, the High Administrative Court invalidated the committee and the parties are now back in discussions to devise new criteria after the FJP conceded its high-handed tactics and did not appeal the ruling.

Nevertheless, by late February, the FJP felt empowered and confident with its electoral gains. The speaker of the Assembly and the president of the Shura Council as well as the chairs of the major committees were all MB members. They were also in charge of appointing the constitution-writing committee. So they demanded from SCAF that they lead a coalition government. A tense meeting between both parties took place in early March. The military was upset because of the way the MB formed the constitution committee and for their adamant opposition to the special status for the military in the new constitution. During the meeting, the generals played hardball. They told the Brotherhood's leadership that not only would they be denied the opportunity to form a government, but they would also not be allowed to control any key ministries including foreign, interior, finance, and justice. They also hinted that the decision to dissolve the new elected parliament that the FJP dominated was near if they did not cooperate and withdrew their motion to dissolve the government. In short, a test of wills was in play.

For the first time since SCAF took the reigns of power, the MB decided to seriously challenge it. Within a few days, the MB released a fiery statement that attacked the military in unprecedented fashion, accusing it of thwarting the revolution and blackmailing the group, and warned the public that SCAF might rig the upcoming presidential elections. By the following day, SCAF issued its own harsh response denying all accusations and warning the MB, in a thinly veiled threat not to forget the lessons of their past and avoid repetition of their mistakes, in an oblique reference to the 1954 confrontation between the two sides.

Soon after the Shura Council of the MB, their highest decision-making body that usually meets twice a year, uncharacteristically met twice in one week to decide their next step. In response to the SCAF challenge, the Guidance Council, the MB executive body, proposed that they change course and field a presidential candidate. A contentious discussion ensued where 52 of the 65 members attending the meeting objected, fearing that violating their one-year old pledge against fielding a candidate would further erode their credibility with the public. The Supreme Guide, Dr. Muhammad Badie' adjourned the meeting and called for another within a few days. In the following meeting, 43 more members attended and all voted in favor of fielding a candidate, thus jumping the final count from 13 to 56 against 52. Their candidate was the Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat El-Shater, an engineer by education and a businessman by profession. But more important, he is a charismatic leader who was not only in charge of the so-called Renaissance Project within the group, but who also controlled the most important components within the group including organization, finance, and media.

The U.S. and the Muslim Brotherhood

Mustafa Al-Fiqi was one of the most important political thinkers of the Mubarak regime. During the intense debate in 2009 and 2010 regarding the candidacy of Gamal Mubarak to succeed his father, Al-Fiqi said that the most crucial criteria for the next president was acquiring the blessing of America and avoiding a veto by Israel. This idea was not lost on the MB. When they announced in Feb. 2011 that they would not contest the presidential elections, their justification was that they did not want to cause anxiety in secular circles or concern in Western capitals.

As Western officials flocked to Egypt throughout the year, the MB headquarters was always one of the most important places visited by these officials. When Deputy Secretary of State William Burns visited Egypt in January, he met with top MB leaders Badie' and El-Shater. During the meeting the MB leadership gauged America's red lines. Assuming power by the MB was not one of them. Burns' main concern was the fate of the peace treaty with Israel. According to a person familiar with the meeting with the U.S. official, Burns offered that "the good offices of the U.S. would help Egypt secure as much as $20 Billion" from the Arab Gulf states as well as from other international organizations such as the IMF if the MB would maintain the peace treaty with Israel. Although the MB leaders were non-committal, they indicated that their main concern was the shattered economy and the rebuilding of Egypt. In mid-February Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham met with El-Shater and other FJP leaders and essentially delivered the same message.

By the time the MB leadership decided to field a candidate after their clash with SCAF, its main concern with regard to Western reaction had already been put at ease. As El-Shater became the official candidate for the MB, he sent in late March a delegation to Washington that featured four MB officials including a member of parliament and a senior adviser. In effect, their main purpose was to determine the administration's reaction to the candidacy of El-Shater. Although the delegation members were neither senior party leaders nor officials of the Egyptian government, they were met by the highest officials in Washington. They met twice at the State Department with senior administration officials including Burns and Jeffrey Feltman, the top State Department official on the Middle East. They also met at the White House with National Security Council staff Samantha Power and Steven Simon. While they were at the White House meeting, President Obama dropped in and dazzled his Egyptian guests.

Once again the talks centered on the future of the peace treaty with Israel and Egypt's economic needs. This time the delegation promised that the MB had no plans to cancel or alter the peace treaty but that they would end the blockade and sanctions on Gaza. During the meetings the Americans repeatedly raised concerns about policies with regard to women and the Christian Copts. At one point the MB delegation responded by raising their concerns about the ill treatment of American Muslims after 9/11. The Americans immediately cut them off and told them that this issue was "none of their business."

In essence, both parties felt comfortable with each other and were satisfied with the results of their discussions as the U.S. attempted to recalibrate the nature of the relationship with its former client state. Not to be outdone, neocon Randy Scheunemann, McCain's top foreign policy advisor in 2008, and the current undeclared senior adviser to Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, met secretly with the MB delegation, essentially raising the same concerns and receiving the same assurances.

Egypt's presidential race

Between March 10 and April 8, Egypt's Judicial Committee for Presidential Elections started receiving the applications for candidates running for the presidency. To qualify, each candidate had to satisfy certain criteria including proof of age and Egyptian citizenship, not only of the candidate but also of his parents and spouse. In addition, there were three ways for any candidate to become viable: a) collecting at least 30 signatures from members of parliament, b) becoming the official candidate of a political party provided that the party has at least one seat in parliament, or c) collecting at least 30,000 notarized signatures from a minimum of 15 provinces with at least 1000 signatures from each province.

Within four weeks, 23 candidates submitted their papers, claiming to have satisfied the criteria to become an official candidate. This slate of candidates had actually represented the diverse Egyptian political electorate, ranging from the ultra conservative to the radical leftist and Mubarak regime's loyalist. The MB fielded Deputy Supreme Guide El-Shater as its official candidate with less than a week before the end of the nominating process. To qualify he submitted signatures by 277 MB members of parliament.

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Esam Al-Amin is a regular contributor for a number of websites.
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