With its own candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail, disqualified by the election commission, Egypt’s Salafist political party, al-Nour, has endorsed former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh for the presidency. While being called a “moderate” by many news outlets, Fotouh’s radical past and a questionable interpretation of Islam’s dedication to equality and tolerance presents a problem for both the West and Egypt’s more liberal and secular voters.
The endorsement came on the heels of a bloody confrontation between hundreds of supporters of Ismail who were staging a sit-in in front of the defense ministry and unknown assailants on Saturday night. The official statement on the riot said that 91 protestors were injured with no fatalities. But an independent group of doctors who treated protestors at the scene say that 4 protestors were killed and more than 70 were injured.
The protests were just one in a series of demonstrations against military rule in recent weeks that have reignited passions on the streets of Cairo and given rise to an Islamist power play in parliament. The speaker of the lower house, Saad el-Katatni, announced that parliament was suspending its sessions until May 6, protesting the refusal of the military government to replace the cabinet of Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri. Within hours of that announcement, the military apparently caved in to the demands of the Islamist majority and agreed to replace cabinet ministers with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and representatives of other parties in parliament.
The endorsement of Fotouh, a so-called “moderate” Islamist, will likely further split the Salfists who have been at sea since the unexpected disqualification of Abu Ismail, a popular TV cleric whose bombastic sermons against Israel and the West were popular among the extremists who make up the Nour party. While the backing of Nour will no doubt give a boost to Fotouh’s candidacy, the move has also disillusioned many in the party who want a president who will immediately impose Sharia law and transform Egypt into a fundamentalist Islamic state.
Objections by liberals and secularists to the unilateral decision of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) to prorogue parliament went unheeded despite nearly 80 lawmakers signing a letter to el-Katatni calling on the speaker to rescind the order to suspend the lower house, or the People’s Assembly. The letter contained the complaint that the decision had not been put to a vote by the full chamber. Members who objected remained in their seats, refusing to leave even after the session was adjourned.
But the protest was a sideshow to the real drama – a tense confrontation between the FJP and its allies, and the military. Both sides appear to be testing the limits of their power in post-Mubarak Egypt. The military is seeking to reduce the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, fearing that the FJP would take away many of the perks and power of the soldiers under a new, Brotherhood-written constitution. The FJP, with the backing of the revolutionary street, has been flexing its muscles in parliament by trying to undercut military rule and shoulder its way into the government. The ruling military council led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi has often found itself at odds with the Islamists, but is so politically unpopular that any pushback is immediately met with large protests in Tahrir Square. The army has the guns, but the Brotherhood has the backing of the people. Tantawi has not forgotten what happened to Mubarak, hence, he has taken a cautious approach in handling parliament.
The Islamists have been calling on the military government to fire the cabinet for weeks. They have threatened to stage a no-confidence vote in the el-Ganzouri government despite threats from the military that such a vote was illegal, that only the military council had the power to remove ministers. This latest ploy by the FJP to suspend parliament for a week has apparently moved Tantawi to give in to some of the demands and bring Islamists and others into the government. But an unidentified spokesman for the military said on Sunday night that any changes to the cabinet would be “limited.” This will likely not sit well with the FJP
In suspending parliament, el-Katatni said, “It is my responsibility as speaker of the People’s Assembly to safeguard the chamber’s dignity and that of its members. There must be a solution to this crisis.” On April 24, parliament rejected the military’s economic and political program, which is akin to a “no confidence” vote in many parliamentary democracies. But neither side apparently wants to test the other in what would be a dangerous showdown between the two competing power centers in Egypt.