A demonstration in Cairo demanding that non-politicians draft the new constitution. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood may seek the presidency., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Updated March 27, 2012, 8:08 p.m. ET
Egypt's Brotherhood Eyes Presidency
Islamist Group's Political Thrust Risks Confrontation With Military Leaders
By MATT BRADLEY
Wall Street Journal
CAIRO—Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood said Monday it was considering three of its leaders as possible presidential candidates, escalating a war of wills with the ruling military that threatens to upset Egypt's fragile transition to civilian rule.
The Brotherhood's move to possibly back one of its own as the country's new leader in elections set to begin in May is part of the group's sudden thrust to expand its power within Egypt's nascent democracy at the expense of a ruling military regime that until recently was seen as its ally.
Demonstrators in Cairo called Tuesday for non-politicians to draft Egypt's constitution.
Many political observers have thought that scenario would lead to a confrontation with a military leadership that has styled itself as the midwife of Egypt's emerging democracy and guarantor of its economy and national security. But few expected a public showdown to be this public and dangerous.
"If things are not defused within the coming few days…then we have a serious confrontation," said Khaled Fahmy, a history professor at the American University in Cairo and a political analyst. "If the military leadership pre-empts this by dismissing Parliament, then we will have a civil war."
Mr. Fahmy cited the example of Egypt's North African neighbor Algeria, where the military canceled a parliamentary vote that was swept by Islamist parties in the early 1990s, sparking a decadelong bloody civil war.
In a statement read on television Sunday, Egypt's acting head of state, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, made a veiled reference to the years after the 1952 anticolonial revolution when the military banned the Brotherhood and arrested thousands of its members. Field Marshal Tantawi reminded the public "to be aware of history's lessons, to avoid past mistakes we do not want to see repeated."
When they ousted President Hosni Mubarak a year ago, Egypt's young revolutionaries hoped they had put an end to decades of dictatorship and begun a new era of reforms. Now those goals seem elusive, as the opposition movement splinters and the country's ruling generals cling to power.
Field Marshal Tantawi's comments were a riposte to an angry statement by the Brotherhood late last week, in which the Islamist group accused the military leadership of incompetence and willfully trying to undermine civilian control.
But Field Marshal Tantawi's response was "quite possibly the worst thing that you can say to the Brotherhood. You're essentially threatening to wipe them out," Shadi Hamid, an expert on the Brotherhood and director of Research at the Brookings Doha Center. "For some it may seem like history but for every Brotherhood member it's something that is real and present in their minds."
Then on Monday, the Islamist group raised the stakes further, calling on its vast membership to swarm Tahrir Square on Friday to demand that the military-appointed cabinet of ministers be replaced by appointees from the Islamist-majority Parliament.
At the heart of the gathering dispute in Egypt is an existential crisis for a military regime that is protective of its expansive political and economic privileges. The military has significant control over the economy, overseeing more than a third of Egypt's industrial production, according to some estimates.
For the Brotherhood, the military's lame-duck status three months before it promised to hand over power to an elected president offers a narrow opportunity for comeuppance after 60 years of suppression at the hands of successive, military-backed regimes, Mr. Hamid said.
U.S. officials said they were monitoring the evolving dynamics in Cairo. "The Muslim Brotherhood, like any political organization, is maneuvering for position," a U.S. official said. "The military is a proud institution and has redlines, but also wants to solidify its role in a new Egypt."
The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party said Tuesday it would decide next week whether to back the group's deputy leader and chief financier Khairat Al Shater, the FJP's Chairman Mohamed Morsi, or Speaker of Parliament Saad Al Katatni in presidential elections scheduled to begin on May 23.
The delayed decision may point to reluctance among group members to escalate its confrontation with the military. If the Brotherhood fields a candidate from within its ranks, it would mark a reversal from its previous pledges to check its own substantial power and stand down from the presidency.
The group's leadership said this week that it felt compelled to field a presidential candidate because several army-backed "old regime" figures were already in the race. The Brotherhood is particularly concerned by rumors that former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman is preparing a presidential bid.
If the parliamentary elections are any judge, a Brotherhood candidate could easily be a top contender. Amr Moussa, the former secretary-general of the Arab League and a foreign minister under the ousted regime of ex-President Hosni Mubarak, is now the front-runner.
But the Brotherhood's ascendant political stance worries many Egyptians. This week, the Brotherhood enraged activists and liberals by stocking a panel charged with drafting the new constitution with Islamist politicians and intellectuals.
At least 15 liberal political figures who were elected to the 100-member constitutional committee last week have since resigned in protest. At a news conference on Tuesday, several secular-minded political parties said they would start writing their own, parallel constitution as an act of protest.
The plan for a "parallel constitution" only reinforces how the rising acrimony between the Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, has almost completely drowned out the secular-minded politicians and activists who first instigated Egypt's revolution last year.
Liberal Egyptians spent the past year excoriating Islamist politicians for cooperating with an interim military regime they saw as perpetuating Mr. Mubarak's autocratic rule.
Now, with the Muslim Brotherhood and their even more conservative Salafi Islamist counterparts set to dominate the country's political future, many liberal Egyptians are quietly looking to it to intervene.
"This is one of the moments where you're hoping that even your enemy might help you out," said one liberal-minded blogger. "We're willing to get whatever help that could happen, but we wouldn't admit as much publicly."
—Amina Ismail and Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article.
Write to Matt Bradley at email@example.com