Disqualified Islamists: Egypt's Search for a Leader Plunges into Chaos

By and Volkhard Windfuhr

Despite their victory in parliamentary elections, Egypt's Islamists have been weakened in the race to elect a successor to former President Hosni Mubarak, after their two most promising candidates were disqualified. Meanwhile ordinary Egyptians, whoácare more about making a living than about religion, are looking for a strong leader for the country.

The image of a smiling man with a gray beard hangs on every street corner. He could be mistaken for a member of a folk music group. But the man on the posters is actually Hazem Abu Ismail, and his message is plain: "Al-Islam huwa al-Hall" -- Islam is the solution.

Until recently Abu Ismail, a television imam, was the ultra-conservative Salafists' candidate for one of the most powerful offices in the Arab world, the Egyptian presidency.

But now his candidacy is finished. Even if Islam has an answer to many things, one question remains unanswered: How on earth could the mother of the deeply religious Abu Ismail, now long dead, have applied for a green card, or permission to live and work in the United States? And why did she even obtain US citizenship afterwards, a circumstance that now excludes her son from running in the presidential election at the end of May?

Under the country's election law, both parents of a candidate must be Egyptian. And although the Salafists respect God's law above all and have had little use for earthly elections until now, Abu Ismail's supporters took to the streets and raged against foreign "falsifications" and "conspiracies." Abu Ismail himself even threatened to trigger an "Islamic revolution."

But despite the fact that tens of thousands demonstrated on Tahrir Square for the first time in months on Friday, this revolution hasn't materialized yet. In fact, many Egyptians seem relieved that a politician is out of the running who believes that girls in puberty are old enough for marriage, that a woman should not come into physical contact with a man at work, and that Sharia law should completely replace current civil law.

Feeling of Relief

Some who voted for the Islamists in the parliamentary elections during the winter and helped them achieve victory are secretly breathing a sigh of relief. "Stoning for adultery? That isn't consistent with Egypt at all," says Egypt's best-known playwright, Lenin al-Ramli. "I believe that the Islamists have already passed the height of their popularity." Of course, writers are allowed to exaggerate.

Egypt's Supreme Presidential Election Commission disqualified 10 of the 23 candidates, including three of the most promising ones. They include, in addition to Abu Ismail, the millionaire and leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood Khairat el-Shater, as well as Omar Suleiman, Hosni Mubarak's former intelligence chief who was also vice president for a short time.

El-Shater's downfall was that he had a previous criminal conviction. Under Mubarak, he was imprisoned as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and, most recently, had been sentenced to seven years in prison for alleged money laundering. The election commission decided that this still disqualifies him today. El-Shater's attempt to contest the decision failed.

In Suleiman's case, the problem was that he lacked just 31 notarized statements of endorsements from a single province, from a total of 30,000 endorsements required to enter the race. He had become ensnared in an election law noose that the former regime had once constructed itself. It's no wonder that conspiracy theories are blossoming in Cairo. "Suleiman's candidacy was probably a tactical move by the military from the start," says Ahmed Osama, a well-connected liberal and human rights activist. "They wanted to make people at home and abroad believe that the Egyptians needed a strong man."

At any rate, the Egyptian presidential elections have declined in entertainment value since last week. With the forced exit of the strongest and most polarizing figures, the contest has turned into an ordinary drama.

'Unfounded Fears'

One of the potential beneficiaries lives in an urban villa on Tehran Square, surrounded by suitors and assistants. He can't conceal a certain satisfaction over the course of events. "I'm sleeping a little more now," says Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and secretary-general of the Arab League.

Now that the three prominent candidates have been eliminated, the 75-year-old stands a good chance of reaching the runoff election in June, when he will presumably face Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a moderate, 60-year-old Islamist who left the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood after deciding to run for president. Aboul Futouh also enjoys the sympathy of some members of the Tahrir Square generation.

His country doesn't need demagogues and ideologues, says Moussa, but a "statesman who was granted the opportunity to gather experience" -- in other words, Moussa himself. He doesn't fear an Islamic revolution of the sort Abu Ismail has threatened to unleash. "Islam has always been an important component in Egypt, and that won't change, in principle. The rest are details."

Would those details include corporal punishment and a ban on alcohol like in Saudi Arabia? Some 100 members of parliament have just advocated passing new laws that would give authorities the power to cut off the hands and feet of convicted thieves in the future. "These are unfounded fears," says Moussa. "The majority of Egyptians don't want to jeopardize the achievements of the revolution."

Desire for a Strong Man

For the candidates, being viewed by the public as a strong man will be a key factor in their success. The fact that a figure like Suleiman, who disappeared from public view after Mubarak was overthrown, was able to come practically from nowhere to become one of the top candidates also shows how insecure voters are, a little more than a year after the revolution.

Besides, the Egyptians will be electing someone whose responsibilities are not even clear yet, because the country still lacks a new constitution. This prompted the ruling military council to demand that the constitution be completed before the elections. But this will be difficult, since the constitutional convention no longer exists. The body, established by the parliament, was recently disbanded after the Islamists had awarded themselves the majority in the convention.

In addition to coming under growing pressure in recent weeks from the old elites and the military, the Muslim Brotherhood has seen its aura as a party of social rebels gradually disappearing. Cairo's poor were undoubtedly offended by the disqualified candidate El-Shater's offhanded remark that his companies were worth "only 25 million Egyptian pounds" (about €3.1 million or $4.1 million).

What is more important, however, is that while the Muslim Brothers have the largest number of seats in parliament, they have no significant posts in the government and the administration. The ordinary people care very little about the differences between the legislative and the executive. This confronts the Muslim Brotherhood with the dilemma of being held responsible for unemployment, uncertainty and inflation, even though it has no power to do anything about these problems -- not yet, at least.

Inspired by the Turkish Example

This explains the Brotherhood's hasty decision to send its own candidate, El-Shater, into the race, even though it had consistently promised that it would not seek the presidency. The Muslim Brothers are determined to secure power while they still can.

For all its banner-waving and raging against "the enemies of the Islamic project," the Brotherhood has accepted the disqualification of its candidate in order to avoid a falling out with the military council. It fears an investigation of the parliamentary election for fraud, as the secular camp is demanding. Two ambassadors from Arab countries in Cairo, who preferred not to be identified, estimate that if there were new elections, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists would probably fall short of the 50 percent mark.

Now the Brotherhood has only its alternate candidate, Mohammed Morsy, the somewhat bland chairman of their Freedom and Justice Party. But because Egyptians tend to vote for individuals rather than parties, the renegade Aboul Fotouh is expected to capture a large share of the Islamic vote. A doctor and former student leader, he has been popular ever since he once picked a quarrel with then-President Anwar Sadat in a televised debate.

Aboul Fotouh believes that democratic principles are compatible with Islam and leans toward the example set by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turks have enjoyed an impressive economic boom under Erdogan, whereas the economic situation in Egypt one year after the revolution is unpromising.

'Egypt Needs a New Pharaoh'

In Imbaba, a poor district of Cairo, 43-year-old Aiman Kutb is casting Egyptian gods and kings like Anubis and Akhenaten in synthetic resin in his workshop, a shack in a narrow, unpaved alley. Outside, the muezzin leads the call to afternoon prayer. Kutb has had to let his 60 assistants go since the Chinese began supplying cheaper Nile gods and pyramids. "It already wasn't easy under Mubarak," says Kutb, "but the revolution was the last straw. When there are no tourists, nobody works here anymore."

The people in his neighborhood voted "for Islam," that is, for the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists, in the parliamentary elections. "Now they're in parliament," says Kutb. "And what have they done? Nothing." The Islamists debate over dress codes and prayer rules, he says, while someone like him in Imbaba doesn't know how he's going to pay for his mother's medical bills.

It also isn't good for his business when a Salafist leader demands that Egyptians obey the Islamic ban on images and render the faces of the pharaoh mummies unrecognizable with wax -- or, preferably, destroy all the monuments.

No, says Kutb, he'll probably vote for Amr Moussa, because he has foreign experience and will bring tourists back to Egypt -- customers for his resin gods. "Egypt needs a new pharaoh," he says. "Not someone who's hungry and will only rob the people. A rich one. I don't care if he's pious or a thief. All I care about is that he does something for us."

He is surrounded by the molds for funerary reliefs, small obelisks and temple cats. His workshop is filled with the pungent odor of solvent. This man's message is simple, but as old as the hieroglyphs on the reliefs. As Bertolt Brecht once famously put it: Food comes first, then morality.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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