Context is important in a political process that seems increasingly flawed and lacking in independence. Egypt’s military controls large parts of the economy, despite its promise to withdraw. It influences the state media. A large part of the judiciary and key institutions in the transition process, including the electoral commission, are suspected of being unduly influenced by the generals.
The reality is that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is a dominant, unspoken presence not only in Egypt’s presidential elections, but in its new political system. All parties are forced to negotiate the generals’ continuing presence — and, increasingly, they are judged by how they do that.
And it is the Muslim Brotherhood — and its Freedom and Justice Party — that has struggled most in this respect. With al-Shater disqualified, its “spare candidate,” as Mohammed Morsi has been disparagingly called, has shown himself lacking in charisma and appeal. There is also growing suspicion of the party’s desire to monopolize power, having previously said it would not field a candidate. And the message of Morsi, a Brotherhood functionary, has seemed more tailored to reassure the movement’s membership than appeal to a wider audience, perhaps explaining its failure to attract more support from outside its ranks to its protest on Friday.
Perhaps even more toxic, however, is the widespread charge — also leveled by some younger Brotherhood activists — that by avoiding a confrontation with the generals, even in the midst of violent clashes late last year, it has at best let SCAF off the hook, at worst somehow collaborated with it. However, the desire among the Islamist parties to avoid conflict with the generals runs deep.
I met Egyptian parliament Deputy Speaker Ashraf Thabet, a leading figure in the Salafist al-Nour party, climbing the stairs of his Alexandria office with a bag bulging with cans of juice.
Smart in a gray suit and pale lilac tie, Thabet is cautious about apportioning blame.
“We are still trying to understand what happened, who was responsible,” he said. “We’re watching. There is a crisis, but I hope it will pass so that the elections will take place.”
It is the greatest fear of many, both in the Brotherhood and other parties, that a crisis such as this — a manufactured one, perhaps — could lead to wider political conflict and the postponement of the elections.
Adding to the recent woes of the Muslim Brotherhood is the fact that Thabet’s al-Nour party, along with others, has thrown its weight not behind Morsi, but behind Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who split with the party, while still backing its broad aims.
Thabet spelled out the criteria for this decision: “efficiency,” Abul Fotouh’s views on Islam, and, crucially, his level of support among voters.
“The new president must be strong,” he said.
With an implicit swipe at Morsi, he added: “He must be for Egypt and not beholden to any particular party or faction.”
There are other issues. The lack of a new constitution has undermined the legitimacy of a transitional process in which the eventual balances of power and responsibility are still unclear.