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Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Bid: Why the Turnaround?

April 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and other conservative Islamic political parties have advanced candidates for the upcoming presidential election. Margaret Warner and Harvard's Tarek Masoud explore the implications for the political and social life of post-revolution Egypt.


MARGARET WARNER: And for more, I am joined by Tarek Masoud, an assistant professor at Harvard. He goes to Egypt frequently for research.

And, Professor Masoud, welcome back to the program.

How big a moment is this? How big a development is this in this sort of path, Egypt’s path toward a democracy?

TAREK MASOUD, assistant professor of public policy, Harvard University: That’s a great question, Margaret.

I guess it depends on how you look at it. You remember right after Mubarak was overthrown, there was a tremendous fear on the part of liberals and secularists in Egypt and people observing Egypt from the outside, that, once Mubarak left, the void would be filled by Islamists and specifically by the Muslim Brotherhood.

And so initially the Muslim Brotherhood did things to calm those fears. They initially said that they wouldn’t run for every seat in the parliamentary election. In the end, they did. And now, after having promised not to seek the presidency, as you noted in your piece, they have reneged on that promise as well.

And so this creates a great deal of fear on the part of people, liberals and secularists, who thought that the Islamists would seek dominion. So this is potentially very problematic for them. Now, I would say one thing.

Remember, Khairat al-Shater is only one of four Islamist candidates, so it may very well be that what will happen is that the Islamist vote is divided among all four of them and that these fears are misplaced. So we don’t quite know, but that is what it might be.

MARGARET WARNER: So why the turnaround? Why the turnaround by the Brotherhood?

TAREK MASOUD: So, it’s interesting.

The Brotherhood’s official reason for this is that Egypt right now is undergoing a tremendous crisis, and the government that is currently running Egypt, which was appointed by the military junta, is unable to meet Egypt’s challenges. And so the Brotherhood are saying, in order for them to save the country, they need to have a share of executive power and able to actually be able to push through the reforms that are needed in Egypt.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, tell us more about Khairat al-Shater. I know he’s a millionaire businessman. He used to be a engineer. He spent 12 years in jail, in prison under the Mubarak regime. But who is he really and what are his views?

TAREK MASOUD: So, that’s hard to say.

I mean, Khairat al-Shater is often described as a conservative. But, in fact, pretty much everybody who is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood is conservative, religiously conservative in some way.

I guess the best way to think about Khairat al-Shater is that he is somebody who is deeply committed to the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization. He’s one of its main financiers. And he is somebody who has a great deal of heft within the Brotherhood, but maybe isn’t that well known outside of the Brotherhood.

There are other figures within the movement who are much more well-known, who appear on talk shows all the time, and whose political views are familiar to most Egyptians. Khairat al-Shater really isn’t that way. But he’s somebody who’s really a kingmaker within the organization and so they have decided to nominate him as the presidential candidate.

MARGARET WARNER: It all still seems a little puzzling.

Do you ascribe to the theory that the Brotherhood was also very concerned about how much stronger that both the Salafi parties, the ultra-conservative, ultra-fundamentalist party, and the followers of that movement are politically and felt they had to step in?

TAREK MASOUD: Well, it’s possible.

Look, the Salafi party that’s in parliament right now, the Nour party, doesn’t have a presidential candidate. And it’s reasonable actually to assume that somebody like Khairat al-Shater, who does kind of have a reputation as a conservative, could actually get some of those Salafi votes.

So I don’t see the decision to nominate Khairat al-Shater as somehow responding to the Salafi threat.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what explains — or why — the military council, I believe, has not said anything yet unless they did in the last couple of hours. But do you think the military council would let a Brotherhood man become president, when the Brotherhood and the Salafis together already control something like three-quarters of the seats in the parliament?

TAREK MASOUD: It’s not clear.

I mean, the first thing is, what does the military really want? The Egyptian military is not like, say, the Turkish military in decades past, which was very deeply committed to a kind of secular vision for society. In the Egyptian case, the military isn’t really ideologically committed to anything.

All they care about is that the senior leaders of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces are not somehow prosecuted once civilians are elected to positions of authority. And they want to make sure that the military’s economic holdings remain intact. And so the military just wants to make a deal with whoever comes to power.

And you might argue that the Muslim Brotherhood are in a better position to make that kind of deal than other organizations, other parties which aren’t quite as organized, who the military might not feel really are able to follow through on their promises. So I don’t see any real ideological reason why the military would look poorly upon them.

MARGARET WARNER: And, this is unfair to you, but fairly briefly, as we saw, the secular leaders, the liberals who helped spark the revolution are now very concerned that the Brotherhood and the Islamists are hijacking the whole process, including the constitution-writing committee.

Do they have reason to be worried that Egypt may be on a path here to becoming a less open, less tolerant, more strictly Islamist state?

TAREK MASOUD: I think that if you look at what Egyptians say when you ask them what kind of polity do you want, they will all say that they want a democratic civil state, which is — which means they don’t want too much of the mixing of religion and politics.

At the same time, they do express a tremendous desire for more Islamic law. And so these might seem to be contradictory. The way I look at it is that Egyptians don’t want the rule of the clerics, but they do some more Islam in their public life. And I think most people who observe Egypt are coming to terms with that.

MARGARET WARNER: That was a very dramatic and unfolding story.

Tarek Masoud, thanks.