On Saturday, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) announced the nomination of Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat al-Shater for president, cementing a critical shift in its political strategy. Although the group initially tried to manage Egypt's post-Mubarak transition by cooperating with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and secularist parties, it is now pursuing outright political dominance. The MB's reversal of its oft-repeated pledge not to run a presidential candidate also suggests that it cannot be trusted if it decides there is an advantage to be won. More broadly, the Brotherhood's pursuit of a political monopoly undermines prospects for democracy in Egypt and threatens to intensify political instability -- a scenario that should deeply alarm U.S. policymakers.
Cooperative Facade Crumbles
Following President Hosni Mubarak's February 2011 ouster, the MB sought to allay secularist fears of an Islamist takeover by adopting a cooperative political approach and tempering its pursuit of power. Specifically, the Brotherhood made two promises: that it would contest fewer than half of the seats in eventual parliamentary elections, and that it would not run for the presidency. In June 2011, it emphasized its commitment to cooperation by joining the secularist Wafd Party in creating the National Democratic Alliance for Egypt, an electoral coalition that, at its height, included forty-three parties.
This cooperative approach was a facade, however. In October, the MB reportedly insisted that 40 percent of the Democratic Alliance's parliamentary candidates come from its own ranks, catalyzing the defection of thirty parties, including the Wafd. Shortly thereafter, the Brotherhood backtracked on its first promise, ultimately running for at least 77 percent of the seats in parliamentary elections that concluded this January. Then, after winning a 47 percent plurality in those elections, the MB ensured its dominance over the legislature by appointing Brotherhood-aligned chairs to fourteen of nineteen parliamentary committees.
Last month, the MB further alienated secularist parties by monopolizing the legislatively appointed Constituent Assembly, which will write Egypt's next constitution. MB political leader and parliamentary speaker Saad al-Katatni was named chairman of the assembly, and approximately 65 of the body's 100 members are affiliated with Islamist parties, including 27 Brotherhood and 12 Salafist parliamentarians. By contrast, only 16 seats were reserved for secularists, 5 for Christians, and 6 for women.
The Brotherhood's actions have catalyzed a significant political crisis. When the Constituent Assembly's first session opened on March 28, twenty-five members had already resigned in protest, and representatives from al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church resigned shortly thereafter. The MB has shown little willingness to make the body more inclusive of non-Islamists. Indeed, Brotherhood parliamentarian Subhi Saleh lashed out at the resignations, declaring that the assembly would not "fall hostage to the dictatorship of the minority."
Meanwhile, prominent lawyers filed suit against the assembly, arguing that the inclusion of parliamentarians in such a body is unconstitutional; a verdict is due April 10. If the current Constituent Assembly is not invalidated, Egypt's next constitution will lack legitimacy with a significant portion of the voting public -- a situation that will undermine attempts at establishing a culture of legal rationalism.
The Demise of the Brotherhood-SCAF Detente
The MB's cooperation with the SCAF proved only slightly more durable. The group's February 2011 promise not to run a presidential candidate was, in part, a vow not to contest the junta's executive authority, which the Brotherhood feared might invite an Algeria-like crackdown. The MB further reassured the SCAF by helping to draft proposed constitutional amendments that contained the council's program for political transition, and by endorsing those measures in a March 2011 referendum. When pro-democracy activists later stepped up their protests against the SCAF's repressive rule, the Brotherhood mostly stood aside and minimized its own criticisms of the junta.
This detente seemingly solidified following the Brotherhood's parliamentary victory, when the group appointed a former general to chair the sensitive Defense and National Security Committee. The MB also used its legislative preponderance to discourage criticism of the council, such as by investigating a secularist parliamentarian for allegedly insulting SCAF chair Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi.