In a tight race for Egypt’s presidency, the Muslim Brotherhood is reaping an immediate benefit from public fury over the mixed verdict against former leader Hosni Mubarak and his aides. The outrage appears to have chipped away at some of the widespread skepticism among Egyptians who believe the Islamic group is as domineering as the old rulers.
Now some grudgingly are backing the Brotherhood’s candidate Mohammed Mursi as the only way to defeat the other hopeful in next month’s run-off, Mubarak’s last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, who many fear would preserve a Mubarak-style autocratic regime.
After taking a more overtly Islamist stance in campaigning for the first round of elections, held last month, the Brotherhood has shifted gears to present itself as the voice of the “revolution” - playing off the fears of Shafiq.
“We no longer present Mursi as the candidate of the Islamic current but as the candidate of the revolution,” said Murad Mohammed Ali, spokesman for the Mursi campaign. “Thousands, ten of thousands (from former competition) are working with us on the ground to say don’t vote Shafiq.”
But the Brotherhood is also under pressure from the leftist and secular “revolutionary” leaders of last year’s uprising against Mubarak. While some have backed Mursi, others have called for a boycott of the June 16-17 run-off, saying the choice between a Mubarak stalwart and the Brotherhood is no real choice at all.
The third- and forth-place finishers from the election’s first round are taking another approach, demanding the enactment of the “isolation law,” which would ban former regime figures like Shafiq from running. That would likely force the election process to begin again from scratch.
The two - leftist Hamdeen Sabahi and moderate Islamist Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh - also demand the Brotherhood accept the formation of a “presidential council” that would be give them a concrete role in governing alongside Mursi for a temporary period. The Brotherhood is reluctant to accept the proposal.
Together, Sabahi and Abolfotoh won 40 percent of the vote in the first round, a significant bloc that showed many voters want an alternative to both the Brotherhood and the former regime. Mursi and Shafiq each got around a quarter of the vote.
Sabahi and Abolfotoh made a late-night appearance among thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square Monday, their first together in an attempt to form a united front challenging both Mursi and Shafiq.
“We are the sons of the revolution and we will continue the revolution,” Sabahi said, holding Abolfotoh’s hand in the air. “We will not accept continuing this game of election elections unless the law of isolation is passed.”
“In the name of all the Tahrir Squares in Egypt, we announce that the people ... insist on forming a presidential council,” Sabahi said to crowds chanting, “down with military rule.”
Earlier in the day, the two met with Mursi. In a joint statement, all three backed the isolation law and called for mass protests in Tahrir on Tuesday to demand its enactment. But the Brotherhood appears willing to go ahead with the election even if the law is not brought into effect, a sign it does not want to sabotage its chance of competing in the race. The isolation law was passed by the Brotherhood-led parliament, but has been put on hold as the Supreme Constitutional Court reviews it.
The first-round results were particularly a blow to Mursi. In parliamentary elections late last year, the Brotherhood won more than 10 million votes - gaining it nearly half of the legislature’s seats. In contrast, Mursi got 5.7 million votes.
Many see that drop in part as a backlash against its attempts to dominate policy making during the transition period, which fueled the group’s reputation as power-hungry and anti-revolutionary. Particularly, the group caused an uproar by insisting on Islamist domination of a panel tasked with drafting a new constitution. The panel was disbanded after liberals and leftists walked out, and negotiations to form a new one have been deadlocked. Now, advisers to the ruling military are suggesting the generals - rather than the Brotherhood-led parliament - form a new panel.
Now the Brotherhood has energized its powerful electoral machine in a bid to shed that image, approaching those who have been at odds with it to argue that it shares their goals, such as purging state institutions from Mubarak cronies or upholding a more equal social policy.
Its activists have reached out to local anti-Brotherhood groups to try to persuade them to back Mursi. They have even approached local campaign workers of Sabahi and Abolfotoh, asking them to campaign for Mursi.
They are also trying to tap into the anger over Saturday’s verdicts from the 10-month trial of Mubarak. The ousted leader and his ex-security chief Habib el-Adly were both convicted and sentenced to life in prison for failing to stop the killings of some 900 protesters during last year’s uprising. But six top police commanders were acquitted. And Mubarak and his two sons were acquitted of separate corruption charges.
The verdicts caused an uproar, sending thousands in the streets in Cairo and other cities, who saw them as failing to deliver justice. The crowds remained in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for a third day on Monday. The Brotherhood has backed the rally, unlike most other protests the past year.
Late Sunday, Mursi met with the relatives of some of the “martyrs” - protesters killed during last year’s uprising - and pledged that the Brotherhood would ensure new trials against Mubarak and new investigations into their loved ones’ deaths.
Ramadan Ahmed, the father of one martyr, said he will put aside his disappointment over the Brotherhood’s performance in the past months and will vote for Mursi.
“This is a critical moment and we must agree,” he said. “Later, we can hold the Brotherhood accountable (for their mistakes). Mursi is a good Muslim man. He is not Hosni Mubarak and is definitely better for us than Shafiq.”
Salah Radwan, a 36-year old protester who was only recently a staunch critic of the Brotherhood and supported Abolfotoh in the first round, has now been arguing in Tahrir in favor of backing Mursi. Aware of his strong speeches against the group in his downtown Cairo neighborhood of Abdeen, the Brotherhood approached Radwan before the Mubarak verdict and asked him to work on its side.
Radwan said he accepted grudgingly, reasoning the Brotherhood would balance out the military and elements from the old regime. He said he hopes that Brotherhood fears of eventually losing voter support at the ballot box would keep them in check.
“It was despite myself,” he said, of backing Mursi. “He would be better than another Mubarak.”
Radwan and others are also looking at the protests in the square as a way to pressure the Brotherhood into further concessions, such as the presidential council proposal.
The Brotherhood has so far balked at the presidential council idea, saying further discussions were needed.
Ali, Mursi’s campaign manager, challenged the “legality” of such a council and said the group instead offered to form a coalition government and create posts for vice presidents. He also raised concerns that the ruling military could delay handing over power to a council.
“We are walking a tightrope here,” he said.
Gigi Ibrahim, a member of the Revolutionary Socialists, a group that came under heat from other pro-revolutionary groups for quickly backing Mursi after the results, said the Brotherhood needs to make concessions to keep support - particularly if Shafiq wins and the movement must return to protests.
“The street will be their only option,” she said.