David E. Miller
An unlikely coalition with Egypt's oldest liberal party and a decision to expel a senior member planning to run for president have left observers wondering just what the Muslim Brotherhood's goals are as it positions itself ahead of what are expected to be Egypt's first ever free and fair elections.
The Freedom and Justice Party, the recently established political arm of the Brotherhood, announced on Monday that it would run a joint candidate list with a coalition of 13 liberal parties headed by Al-Wafd, a small but historically significant nationalist party. A day earlier, the Brotherhood expelled Moneim Abu Al-Fatouh after he declared his intention to run for president as an independent.
The Brotherhoods' aims haven't been spelled out in public - indeed, its members are showing signs of deep disagreement about the movement's political future in post-Mubarak Egypt - but many analysts said its tactics suggest it is wary about assuming too much power too quickly.
"The Muslim Brotherhood has said in the past that it doesn't want to rule," Elijah Zarwan, an Egypt analyst with International Crisis Group, told The Media Line."They don't want the president aligned with any political group, and they will stick to their guns on that."
The Brotherhood has emerged as the major player on the Egyptian political scene since President Husni Mubarak was forced out of office and an interim military regime has promised to put the country on the road to democracy. That has some in the U.S. and Israel worried that the Brotherhood wants to reorient Egyptian foreign policy away from the West while turning it into a more Islamic society at home.
The Brotherhood's successful backing of a "yes" vote in a referendum on constitutional amendment was seen as an early test of its strength. Like the rest of Egypt, the Brotherhood is now gearing up for parliamentary elections slated for September and presidential election slated for later in the autumn.
Founded in 1928 but banned in the 1950s for its use of political violence, the Brotherhood had united once before with the Wafd, created in 1919 as the first political expression of Egypt's nascent nationalism. In the parliamentary elections of 1984 the two parties ran a joint list, winning the Wafd 50 seats and the Brotherhood only nine.
This year, the relative strength of the two parties is almost certain to be reversed, but analysts said the Islamic group was keen to avoid showing off its electoral muscle.
"This deal is beneficial to both sides," Gamal Abd Al-Gawad, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, told The Media Line. "The Muslim Brotherhood needs to connect itself to a well-established secular party to alleviate fears that they intend to create an Islamic state with Sharia law. The Wafd wants more seats in the parliament."
Indeed, the deal, whose terms aren't publicly available, may be more of a cover for the Brotherhood than a long-lasting coalition. Inside the Wafd, it was still being debated. Political commentator Issandr Al-Amrani said the two parties' world views were too different for the coalition to last.
"Personally, I would prefer it if no one tried to engineer pacts that are all too likely to unravel," Al-Amrani wrote in a column in the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm on Tuesday. "I think the whole thing is a sham, and am getting tired of such time-wasting at such a crucial moment in Egyptian politics," he added in his blog Arabist.net.
But Zarwan of the International Crisis Group said that although the parties diverged politically, they still shared commonalities in Egypt's post-revolutionary climate.
"They all believe in an end to corruption, establishing a democracy and enacting social justice," Zarwan said. "This is today's political orthodoxy, which all parties can unite behind on a very broad level."
The Egyptian political scene is currently divided on the question of whether to hold parliamentary elections in September, as voted on in the March referendum, or to postpone them until after a new constitution is drafted, specifying the exact electoral mechanism.
The Brotherhood, widely considered the most significant political party in Egypt, fervently supports the September elections while smaller and newer opposition groups, fearing an Islamic takeover, have demanded a new constitution as a condition for elections.
The Brotherhood has said it plans to contest only half the seats up in parliament, which would mean it is ceding any prospects of a legislative majority. Al-Fatouh's presidential aspirations run against The Brotherhood's announcement that it would not challenge the presidency in the upcoming elections.
Al-Gawad of Al-Ahram said the Brotherhood feared a popular backlash if it took power too soon.
"This notion is scary to Egypt's Coptic community, to the army and to other political parties. The Muslim Brotherhood is a strong organization, but not strong enough to control on their own; they can't antagonize everyone else at once or they will turn against them," he said.
Zarwan said the Brotherhood's decision not to field a presidential candidate reflected its long-term strategic outlook.
"The Brotherhood by nature is slow, prudent and sober," he said. "It believes in the long-term reforming of society from the bottom up."
Meanwhile, a group of young Brotherhood members translated their frustration with the group's older generation by announcing the formation of a new party on Tuesday, called the Egyptian Current Party (Hizb Al-Tayyar Al-Masry). Members of the new party, many of whom took part in the popular uprising that dethroned Mubarak, bemoaned their exclusion from decision-making positions in the movement.
The new party is meant to give a bigger role to non-members of the Brotherhood. Its founders argue that the Freedom and Justice Party isn't as independent as it claims to be.
Current is the second breakaway party to leave the Brotherhood, after Ibrahim Al-Zaafarani, a former member of the Shura Council, resigned from the group and announced the formation of the Renaissance Party in March.
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