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As Egypt's Election Nears, Has The Muslim Brotherhood Lost Its Mojo?

A year and a half after the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood is in many ways enjoying a historical triumph. But in Egypt, where it was born, the movement is challenged by a splintering of political Islam -- and by its own political err

A poster for Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy (gr33ndata)
A poster for Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy (gr33ndata)
Christophe Ayad

CAIRO - Two hours into the meeting, a young man stands up and abruptly breaks the boredom. "Are you planning to answer my question? Will you accept, or not, that a woman or a Copt has the right to become President?"

As the audience sits in stunned silence, the young gadfly repeats the question, before an ally adds in: "I know what you do here; you only choose the questions which suit you."

They then lift a sign parodying the Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsy, who sits on the dais, nervously fiddling with his papers. The electoral meeting was supposed to be calm. The "Smart Village" is a technological hub just outside the capital that provides headquarters for a dozen or so high-tech companies. The Muslim Brothers came here to convince this well-to-do audience, of young, plugged-in Egytians, that their economic program is serious. Mohamed Morsy, in other words, came here to speak about business, not Sharia law.

But soon after this first outburst, brawny men from the security service rush toward the two rabble-rousers, and drag them out of the hall, while they are still yelling: "You Muslim Brothers are all liars! You're like the old regime, you don't accept contradictions!" Once outside, one of the protesters also receives a swift hit on the head. Oh, Muslims Brothers, are you just a bit testy these days?

Morsy, an apparatchik as grey as his beard and as square as his glasses, hovers desperately low in the polls – below 10%. Meanwhile, his sworn enemy Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Muslim Brother kicked out of the group in 2011, tallies more than twice the support. Still, the Brotherhood – and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party – should not be underestimated, as voting is set to begin Wednesday in the first Egyptian presidential election since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime.

It wasn't long ago that the Muslim Brotherhood appeared to be in the driver's seat, having won 47% of the country's lower house of Parliament seats during the late 2011 and early 2012 legislative elections. Their triumph was accompanied by a victory at the national upper house, Majlis Al-Choura.

Eighty-four years after Hassan Al-Banna created the movement, the teacher's prediction seemed to be coming true: the Arab world and its beacon, Egypt, seem to be ready to take the plunge of a pacific Islamic revolution. Tunisia and Egypt already, Yemen soon, and why not Syria, one day… A year and a half after the beginning of the Arab Spring, which ended many of the regions autocratic powers, the Muslim Brotherhood is a blooming success, picking up the fruits of a movement it didn't even launch.

Still, it remains difficult to dream about unity among the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Arab world, because the situation varies too greatly from one country to another.

Breakaways and divorces

Much ground has been covered since 1928, and many martyrs fell under the repression. But the time has come. "The strategic error of the Muslim Brotherhood is that they thought they were at a historic moment, but they weren't actually ready. They don't understand that the "deep state," that is to say what embodies the former regime, won't let them rule." The man passing this judgment, Mohamed Habib, knows the Brotherhood very well, as he was its No. 2 until 2009. He even wanted to be its "supreme leader," until an internal fight put him aside. During autumn 2011, he broke away from the movement, sickened by their ambiguities and calculations during the revolution.

Habib describes a fossilized, pyramidal organization, led by a group devoted to Khaïrat Al-Chater, a multimillionaire businessman and the current second-in-command of the Brotherhood. He was the first choice for the presidential election, but earlier convictions prevented him from running for office. And that's why the pale-faced Mohamed Morsy found himself in his place.

The apparent weakness of the Muslim Brothers shouldn't be ascribed solely to the lack of charisma of their candidate. They also accumulated a series of tactical mistakes. Constantly vacillating between the sides of the revolutionaries and the army, the Brotherhood lost the trust of both. On the one hand, the young revolutionaries blame the Brothers for deserting Tahrir Square to protect their electoral standing. On the other hand, the army blames them for breaking an agreement promising the resignation of the Kamal Al-Ganzouri government, appointed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to lead the country after Mubarak's fall. There is now an open conflict with the military forces, particularly on the weight of the army in the economy, on which the Muslim Brotherhood have a more liberal view.

The Brotherhood is now isolated politically, suffering from competition from Salafi parties, which won one-fourth of the legislative votes. Within a year, political Islam in Egypt is overcrowded with parties and would-be leaders from all corners. Above all, the Muslim Brotherhood trapped itself by an early promise not to have a candidate for the presidential election, after Mubarak's fall. But they finally understood that Parliament is just a discussion forum without real power, and that only executive power really mattered. It was also a priority to fight against the multiplication of Islamist candidacies.

But the Brotherhood's policy is not clear: Morsy is known for his conservative opinions – notably against the right for women and Copts to run for president – whereas the Brotherhood made every effort to reassure Westerners and liberal Egyptians about its openness and moderation.

In spite of all its liabilities, and Egyptian fickleness, the Muslim Brotherhood's popularity in the countryside and poor urban areas shouldn't be underestimated. In these districts, they often were the only safety net. When the time will come to vote, the Brotherhood's ability to unite, and its underground work, may make the difference, in spite of the polls.

Read the original article in French

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