Why Khairat al-Shater is running

Too clever by half?

I have no particularly privileged insight into the inner decision-making of the Muslim Brotherhood, other than meeting with its leaders, including Khairat al-Shater, on a regular basis and seeing rank-and-file and former members quite often too. As someone who has followed the group for almost a decade now, I don't think the answer to why they decided to run Shater now lies mostly within the organization and its logic. It has to do with the political environment and developments in Egypt's transition in the last few months, and especially the fact that this ill-thought out transition (for which the Brothers deserve a good part of the blame) is coming apart as it reaches its end with the presidential election and the drafting of the new constitution. I talk about that in my latest column for The National.

Shater's candidacy is something that has been envisaged for six months at least — since the beginning of the end of the entente cordiale between the MB and SCAF. The decision to go for it was probably made by the top leadership (the "gang of six" led by Shater) in recent weeks, but not sold to the broader leadership in the Shura Council until Saturday — and then barely so if the reports that the Shura Council approved the decision by a margin of only two votes is true. I would argue that this decision was made because of several overlapping concerns, which we might conceptualize as four concentric circles of variables.

The first circle has to do with issues internal to the Brotherhood — and most of all its cohesiveness. As I argued last year when the Brotherhood announced that it would not field a presidential candidate, it made sense in the early days for the MB to position itself as a kingmaker. The stance reassured other political players, the military, regional players such as Gulf states and the West. But internally, it created a situation whereby ambitious members or fellow travelers who wanted to run for the presidency, and had appeal inside the Brotherhood, were placed at odds with the leadership. This was most obvious with Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who had a pre-existing spat with Shater in any case, but also applied to outsiders close to the MB who launched their own campaign, such as Muhammed Selim al-Awa and Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. While Aboul Fotouh appealed to the most progressive Brothers who wanted to build concensus with other political forces, al-Awa had intellectual credentials and Abu Ismail had ultra-conservative, populist appeal. The problem was that neither Aboul Fotouh nor Abu Ismail was really a proxy (or "sleeper") candidate for the group that would answer to the leadership, and while al-Awa might have accepted this, he simply does not seem that electable and carries too much ugly baggage for Christians. In other words, there was no Islamist candidate the leadership felt comfortable with, and if it was to run one of its own, it might as well be Shater.

The second circle has to do with the the MB's deteriorating relationship with SCAF. In the absence of a consensual candidate (perhaps a possibility last year) and with the dynamics of their relationship increasingly tense, the Brothers had to choose a candidate who could be certain of the full backing of the group in its ongoing fight with the SCAF and be a credible interlocutor in that fight. Here it is the contradictions and utter chaos of the transition that are a major factor. In recent weeks, the MB has had to contend with the possibility that its electoral success and effective control of parliament will be annulled if the Supreme Constitutional Court rules that the electoral law is unconstitutional. And that the constituent assembly could be dissolved as a result (or on other grounds, like the inclusion of MPs), meaning that the next president would almost certainly have nearly the same powers as Hosni Mubarak, at the expense of parliament. The same logic is central in explaining the MB's haste in appointing the constituent assembly: even though it is ridiculous to rush through with the drafting of the new constitution (can you really imagine a constitutional referendum being held in a few weeks?), the Brothers are afraid that an unfriendly new president (remember the poll leader is still Amr Moussa) would minimize the gains it made in parliament and retain full control of government policy. In this fight for control of institutions, which we see reflected in the demand for the appointment of a MB-led cabinet to replace the disastrous Ganzouri government, what the MB is aiming at is what I could call "full-spectrum legitimacy." It cannot afford to rely on parliament alone.

The third circle is the MB's relationship with other political forces. The debate over "constitution first vs. elections first", the comparisons made between the NDP and FJP after the elections, the unruly parliament — all this contributed to what can only be described as mounting contempt by MB leaders for the rest of the political spectrum. That contempt was in full display in the way the FJP allied with Nour to impose its choices for the constituent assembly without even a discussion in parliament, which confirmed all the fears of the opposition and really did mirror the style of the NDP (leaving the content of the constitution aside — we're not sure what the MB wants apart a strong role for Sharia and a parliamentary system.) The MB received in return in a real slap in the face when not only almost all parties left the assembly, but so did al-Azhar, the church, and other establishment institutions. Having been unable (or failed) to build a democratic consensus with other political forces (a shared failure), which it always suspected would eventually ally with SCAF against them or simply brought very little to the table, the MB decided to go it alone. This is its biggest mistake since the revolution, because electoral legitimacy alone is not enough at a moment of decisive change. The risk here is the delegitimization of the next constitution as a major narrative in Egyptian politics for years to come.

Related is the MB's fears that the rest of the region, and the West, has little interest in seeing them become the dominant force in Egypt's politics — this is the fourth circle of considerations. The US is still putting all of its eggs in the military's basket, as the recent waiver for aid to Egypt and the backroom deal over the NGO affair showed. Gulf states like the UAE are in full-blown anti-MB hysteria, reflecting a wider unease in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and even Qatar about a MB-led Egypt. A president it does not control would use such tensions in foreign relations to domestic ends, enlisting outside help in containing the MB's ambitions to fundamentally transform the Egyptian state. Having Shater as president removes much of the ambiguity that would have been used to marginalize the MB's voice in foreign policy and set limits to what it can do domestically under another president.

In short, the MB went ahead with this decision because it sees itself as on the brink of actually wielding power for the first time in its history, does not want to miss this moment, feels that aside from the Salafists no one else on the political scene has much to offer and that at least some secularists (who are not necessarily liberals or democrats) would betray it to SCAF if necessary. It was not an easy decision because, as formidable as the MB's grassroots might be, it is starting late, and faces a divided Islamist field and a strong non-Islamist candidate in Amr Moussa. But if Shater wins, the MB will get to set the terms of negotiations with the military alone. That the tremendous risks involved seem worth it probably speak to candidate Shater's view of himself as the providential man — the "Renaissance Engineer" as his campaign has it — Egypt needs.

P.S. There is tremendous division in the Egyptian commentariat on whether al-Shater is running with SCAF or against it. I lean towards the latter, because the MB's discourse on SCAF has been so scathing in recent weeks. But another, more worrying possibility lurks: that al-Shater is running with one side of SCAF that is open to negotiating with the MB against another side that abhors the idea. The rumors of an Omar Suleiman campaign — the ultimate anti-MB candidate — as impetus for Shater's candidacy ignore an important aspect: half of SCAF hates Suleiman and probably was behind the assassination attempt against him on February 6, 2011.

Good reads on this issue:

Noha Hennawy: What lies behind the Brotherhood’s nomination of Shater | Egypt Independent

Amira Howeidy: Meet the Brotherhood’s enforcer: Khairat El-Shater - Politics - Egypt - Ahram Online