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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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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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