On Sunday, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt announced that it would nominate Khairat el-Shater as its nominee for the presidential elections in May. This comes after earlier promises that they would not nominate anyone. El-Shater, an engineer, professor, and wealthy businessman who was imprisoned by the military under Mubarak for “terrorism and money laundering” has only just been nominated, but already has caused much worry among the unofficial barometers of opinion reflected by media and the internet. Though he resigned as Deputy Chairman of the MB so as to technically respect the pledge that the MB would not field an official candidate, his run signals a more active role for the Brotherhood.
The most obvious interpretation of these events is that the Brotherhood has been emboldened by its massive success in the parliamentary elections and its strong presence on the 100-person constitutional drafting committee. On the other hand, it has been suggested that in fact by jumping on this opportunity, the MB is revealing that it is worried that its long monopoly on political opposition can only quickly be leveraged into strong political power. Indeed, the MB owes its prominence to a large organizational network that existed (and was allowed to continue, if not flourish) for decades under Mubarak as the only viable opposition. New parties have not had the chance to organize and campaign until almost immediately prior to the elections, and they may erode the Brotherhood’s grip as they present a viable and competent alternative.
Indeed, there are signs of division within the MB about this news. Kamal el Helbawy, a prominent spokesman for the MB in Europe, resigned in protest of the Brotherhood’s reneging of its pledge, and pundits suggest that the nomination of a candidate could split the Islamist vote.
All this speculation will be vindicated or refuted over the next few months, but the more interesting questions and ramifications this event raises will not be answered immediately, but over the next few years, if not decades. Now I’ve earlier written, that I believe that the Islamists will be forced to moderate when they govern the nation, and that practical considerations will force them to focus on the business of solving the nation’s serious economic and political problems rather than dabble in strict social Islamism. I think this belief holds true, and in that sense, the nomination (and even victory) of Khairat el-Shater is not the tragedy for secularism, in the long run, that many seem to see it as. I am much more concerned with the constitutional convention, as the consequences of a strong Islamist presence in the architecture of the government are much more difficult to undo than relatively more easily overturned laws.
But again, as long as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) still maintains its iron grip on the country, it is not likely that the MB or any other party will be able to make significant real changes. Until SCAF is pushed out, these questions are somewhat moot, and almost all who supported the revolution agree that this needs to be done, whether politically or by another revolution. In that time, the non-MB opposition will have time to organize and build support, and el-Shater will likely find himself incapable of carrying out the MB’s platform.
Finally, it is important to realize that Islamism as a political ideology will not be going away any time soon, and that it is not necessary for democracy that it do so. Democracy means pluralism, and at this time, much of Middle Eastern political opinion is at least weakly informed by religion. Given a state that protects the rights of minorities and provides as strong of a basis for secularism as possible, there is nothing inherently wrong with parties taking their cue from Islam (more than, say, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in Germany); but of course, such a state is a long and likely difficult road away. The failure to distinguish between rational desire for a state and fear mongering only strengthens the Islamists who do want to enflame conflict to push for a religious state. In this fragile blooming of democracy that we hope tends towards liberalism and openness, this is a failure we cannot afford.