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An Islamist President in Egypt?

The rise of Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.

Sep 12, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 48 • By AMR BARGISI
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With the former president of Egypt on his back in a courtroom cage pleading for his life, we may be starting to get a clearer idea of who Egyptians will choose to succeed Hosni Mubarak in the upcoming November elections. Friday, July 29, tens of thousands of Islamists filled Tahrir Square, repossessing it from the secular activists who are commonly credited with spearheading the revolution that toppled Mubarak in February. What the Islamists wanted was recognition for their past role and appreciation of their growing political power. Muslim Brotherhood members mixed with Salafists, a more conservative variety of Islamist, as well as others sympathetic to their vision of an Egypt in line with God’s law. They prayed, protested, and chanted, and there was only one name on everyone’s lips—Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. Meet the man who may well follow Mubarak as Egypt’s first Islamist president.

Ismail Photo

Hazem Salah Abu Ismail

This 50-year-old lawyer is no stranger to large crowds and acclaim.  He’s a TV star whose weekly broadcasts on various religious channels over the last few years have covered a wide range of issues, from Islamic history and jurisprudence to politics and economics. Abu Ismail promotes Islamic finance, wants more sharia in the Egyptian constitution, and thinks the peace treaty with Israel should be trashed—all are controversial positions.

Abu Ismail announced his candidacy at the end of May, and if his success has taken some observers by surprise, it’s worth remembering that the Islamists’ show of strength at Tahrir also left bystanders and participants breathless. How did it come to pass that what seemed like a secular and democratic revolution could turn Islamist all of a sudden? The fact is, if Egypt is going to become a real democracy, then Islamists are going to play a major role, perhaps even the predominant role, at least for the present.

Some observers suspect that in spite of their cozy accommodation after the fall of Mubarak, the Egyptian military and Islamists are due for a falling out. After all, the argument goes, should the Islamists become too hungry for power, the military will crush them, just as Gamal Abdel Nasser put down the Muslim Brother-hood half a century ago.

Don’t count on it.

It’s true that Nasser turned against the Muslim Brotherhood after his erstwhile colleagues helped get rid of the monarchy, but this is not 1954. Nasser knew that sharing power would have limited his ability to implement his political project. The military today does not have a political project. On the contrary, the army wants to refrain from the business of government, in order to protect its financial interests. Among other things, that means the army cannot afford the luxury of going to war with Israel and thereby sacrificing U.S. aid money. The military will continue to control foreign policy, particularly when it comes to bilateral relations with Washington and Jerusalem, while leaving domestic decisions to someone else, like the president. The army’s commitment to democracy consists entirely in the fact that it does not matter to them who fills that post, so long as its own interests are left alone. 

Up until Abu Ismail’s candidacy, the prospect of an Islamist president seemed far-fetched, not least because the Muslim Brotherhood announced it was not going to run a candidate. But Abu Ismail is not a member of the Brotherhood, and this may be one of his most powerful political assets. 

He is a Salafist, Islamists typically distinguished by their long robes and beards, and less cagey than the Brotherhood about expressing their political views. And yet Abu Ismail is a Salafist with a Muslim Brotherhood exterior. He wears the long beard, but instead of a robe he dons a suit, like any member of the country’s professional classes, who are much more likely to line up with the Brotherhood than the Salafists. He doesn’t shout, but speaks calmly, soothingly and makes his case rationally, even when he’s verbally attacked on TV by hostile interviewers. Abu Ismail’s ability to bridge the gap between the Salafists and the Brotherhood is a real challenge to the latter, especially now that they’re not sure what sort of role they want to play in the political process.

The Brotherhood’s long-term goal is to rule Egypt, but the leadership realized that right now this is neither likely nor desirable. The Brothers concluded that since the next government in Egypt will be facing myriad troubles and will likely prove extremely unpopular, it is better for the present to keep a low profile and emerge later as those who rescued the country from their infidel, and incompetent, leaders. Accordingly, the Brotherhood restricted its parliamentary bid to 33 percent of the seats, which it later increased to 49 percent after pressure from its rank-and-file. But it was the fact that the Brotherhood decided against running its own presidential ticket that really opened it up for Abu Ismail.

When Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, one of the Brotherhood’s longtime leading members, announced he was running for Egypt’s top post, the organization severed its ties with him. Because the Brotherhood’s membership is highly unlikely to go against the leadership’s directions by voting for a renegade like Aboul Fotouh, Abu Ismail stands to pick up much of that support, whether he’s officially endorsed by the Brotherhood or not. 

Since Abu Ismail already has the Salafist vote locked up, the big question is whether or not he’ll appeal to the average Egyptian. Going on his past performance, he stands to do quite well. In 2005 he campaigned for a seat in parliament representing Cairo’s middle-class Dokki district, which is not typically regarded as an Islamist stronghold. Nonetheless, it seems that Abu Ismail won that race—at least until the election committee retracted its announcement of his victory in favor of a candidate from Mubarak’s National Democratic party, a turnaround that suggested Abu Ismail was defrauded by the former ruling party. 

Among elites, Abu Ismail will not fare as well. Even if he styles himself a champion of civil liberties—he’s made a career defending Islamist activists—he can count on very little support from Egypt’s liberal and secular classes. His father, Sheikh Salah Abu Ismail, was perhaps the most famous Islamist MP in recent history, best remembered for his feud with Farag Foda, a liberal journalist famous for his attacks on the Islamist movement. It was Abu Ismail’s father who first accused his adversary of heresy, a charge that stuck to Foda and would eventually lead to his assassination by Islamist militants in 1992. 

If the prospect of an Islamist president seems a shocking turn for a revolution that began with such high hopes, Abu Ismail’s candidacy is perhaps a blessing in disguise. Whoever rules Egypt next is in for a difficult time. It is preferable for the Islamist project to be discredited sooner rather than later. A much worse scenario would be the Egyptian masses petitioning the Muslim Brother-hood to come to the rescue after the failure of a secular regime. 

It’s true that there’s always the fear that an Islamist government would mean “one man, one vote, one time.” At present, Egypt’s best defense against such a takeover is still the military. As it did six months ago, this powerful institution would find itself without a choice but to intervene in the country’s politics, if for no other reason than to protect its own considerable business interests.

Amr Bargisi is a senior partner at the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth.

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