Published: 11:00 GMT Daylight Time - Thursday 19 April 2012
Islamists thwarted in attempts to extend political dominance in Egypt
Country/Region: Middle East and North Africa, Egypt
Attempts by Islamists to tighten their grip on power in Egypt have been thwarted in rare encouraging political developments for the country’s Christians.
Two front-runners for the presidency, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Khairat al-Shater and the Salafi leader Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, were among ten candidates disqualified from standing by the Higher Presidential Election Commission on Saturday 14 April.
This followed a court’s suspension on 10 April of a body appointed by the Islamist-dominated parliament to write the country’s new constitution; the move was triggered by the withdrawal of Christians and secularists, who complained that the panel was not representative and lacked diversity. The court put an injunction on parliament’s decision to give its own members – the majority of whom are Islamists – half the seats on the 100-member panel, pending a ruling on its legality.
The elimination of al-Shater, because of a disputed past conviction, and Ismail, because his late mother supposedly held US nationality, reduces the chances of an Islamist candidate becoming president.
The remaining runners include former Muslim Brotherhood leader Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, who was expelled from the group after announcing his presidency bid, and former Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, who is now considered the favourite.
The Muslim Brotherhood has nominated its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) President Mohamed Mursi to run in place of al-Shater, but the party is still reportedly discussing whether he will definitely stand; Mursi is a much less popular figure than al-Shater.
Many Christians, concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists are trying to turn the country into an Islamic state, were relieved that al-Shater and Ismail were disqualified, and prefer Abul Fotouh and Moussa, who are considered more moderate. But in Abul Fotouh’s case, this may be merely a front; at a recent conference, he said, “Islam must be upheld and Sharia must be applied.”
The final list of candidates will be announced on 26 April, with voting scheduled to begin on 23 May.
“Sign of hope”
The court’s order to suspend the constitution-writing panel was welcomed by a church spokesman as “an attempt to hold in check the excessive power of Islamist parties. It is also a sign of hope for justice in our country.”
The body had been appointed by parliament, of which the FJP and Salafists hold more than 70 per cent of the seats. It chose 50 members from parliament, 39 of whom are Islamists, and 50 from other sectors of society, with Islamists among them also. There were just six Christians, six women and a handful of liberals.
The new constitution will delineate the powers of the president and parliament, and define the role of religion and minority rights in Egyptian society. The current document says that the state religion is Islam and sharia is the main source of legislation. Some ultra-conservative Muslims have called for the article to be changed to read that sharia is the only source of legislation.
The Muslim Brotherhood is suffering a public backlash over its decision to field a presidential candidate after previously promising that it would not seek this office. Commentators have suggested that the U-turn is indicative of the group’s growing ambition in light of its success in the parliamentary elections.
Despite being the largest party in the new parliament, the FJP does not have an overall majority, and is having to share power across the various government functions with the military generals. Occupying the presidency and controlling the constitution-writing process would give the group political dominance.
A poll conducted earlier this month by Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, however, revealed diminishing support for the Brotherhood: nearly half of those who had voted for them in the parliamentary elections said that they would not do so in a new poll.
The disqualification of the leading Islamist presidential candidates and suspension of the Islamist-dominated constitutional panel are encouraging moves for Egypt’s Christians and secularists who feared they were being swept away by a rising tide of Islamisation.
But while the new president is as yet unelected and the new constitution remains unwritten, the jury is out as to how significant these setbacks will prove to be for the Islamists’ political agenda.
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