Egypt’s presidential race: An unexpected lineup

Apr 9, 2012, 8:02 PM

Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) – The race for Egypt’s first president after ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak was not supposed to look like this.

A year ago, anyone from the old regime seemed too tainted to ever hope for power. Though rising to political prominence, the Muslim Brotherhood promised it wouldn’t run for the presidency, wary of seeming too dominant.

Now, the two main contenders to rule Egypt are the Brotherhood’s top strongman and the most feared and powerful figure of Hosni Mubarak’s inner circle _ marking how far the nation has changed from the heady days of revolution in the name of liberal democracy.

In many ways, the two likely main front-runners in the May 23-24 election are mirror images of each other. Both the Brotherhood’s Khairat el-Shater and Mubarak’s longtime intelligence master Omar Suleiman have long been shadowy figures who ran their organizations from behind the scenes. A retired army general, Suleiman ran Egypt’s primary national security agency in Mubarak’s authoritarian regime, while el-Shater managed indoctrination, discipline and finance for the secretive Brotherhood.

The revolutionary groups that orchestrated last year’s 18 days of protests leading to the end of Mubarak’s 29-year rule dread both, fearing either one would lead to a similar dictatorial rule.

“Two makers of the repression machine are competing,” wrote Ahmed el-Sawy, a columnist in the Al-Shorouk daily.

“The general (Suleiman) is trying to bring back the Mubarak regime as it was,” he wrote. “The religious businessman (el-Shater) is trying to reproduce a regime in the Mubarak spirit, with its same biases, international pledges and calculations, but in different cloaks, wearing religious garbs.”

Divided and demoralized, the revolutionaries who called for radical reform lost the most in the turmoil that has roiled Egypt since Mubarak’s Feb. 11, 2011 ouster. Many Egyptians blame them for the unrest that ensued, including increased crime, an unraveling economy and disruptions from continued protests and strikes. The military generals who took power after Mubarak have repressed and sidelined the groups, depicting them as troublemakers while failing to conduct any reforms or take action to restore security or the economy.

“The presidential election is shaping up like we are going back to square one,” said Abdel-Rahman Ayyash, a 22-year-old former Brotherhood member. “But I don’t believe people are ready to go back there.”

The emergence of Suleiman and el-Shater as candidates is the end result of months of jostling between the two main post-Mubarak powers, the military and the Brotherhood.

El-Shater’s candidacy speaks to the change of fortunes for a group that lurked in the nation’s political background since it was outlawed in 1954, emerging in post-Mubarak Egypt as the single most powerful political force.

Ironically, it was Suleiman who initiated the process of bringing the Brotherhood in from nearly six decades in the political wilderness. After the Jan. 25 uprising began, Mubarak appointed Suleiman as his vice president, and Suleiman invited representatives of the then-outlawed group to a dialogue as part of a last-gasp attempt to end the uprising.

With Mubarak’s fall, Suleiman faded out of public sight. He seemed too tainted by his regime connections to ever hope for public office, though it is believed he retained much of his influence. El-Shater, who spent 12 of the past 20 years in detention under Mubarak’s anti-Brotherhood crackdowns, was freed from his latest stint in prison.

The Brotherhood then abandoned liberal pro-democracy groups, which after Mubarak’s ouster began to call on the ruling generals to step down as well. The Brotherhood sided with the military to ensure parliamentary elections it was likely to win. Indeed, the group went on to win nearly half the legislature and a firm foundation for political power.

But when the Brotherhood announced it would run el-Shater in the presidential race, Suleiman stepped forward, apparently counting on winning the vote of those fearing Islamist rule. It is believed he has military backing for his candidacy.

In comments to the media Monday, each man sought to cast themselves as the saviors of a revolution that is unraveling.

El-Shater called Suleiman’s run “an offense to the revolution.”

He took on the mantle of the uprising’s calls for reform. “I don’t want to pit (Egyptians) against one another as if we are in a war or conflict with one another,” he told reporters. “We are all living in the country _ the Brotherhood, the political parties and the army and police. All these parties must have a specific role in building Egypt’s renaissance. I say no to the culture of antagonism.”

Suleiman, in a newspaper interview, sought to distance himself from the Mubarak regime, casting himself as a champion of the revolution he tried so hard to undermine as vice president.

“The clock cannot be turned back and the revolution laid down a new reality that cannot be ignored,” Suleiman said. “And no one, no matter who he is, will be able to reinvent a regime that fell, folded and was rejected and revolted against.”

At 75, Suleiman, dubbed by the media as “Mubarak’s black box” because of his reputation as the regime’s holder of secrets, has a great deal in common with Mubarak. Both men are sworn enemies of Islamists at home and in the region, are friends of the United States and Israel and proponents of military action against facilities of Iran’s disputed nuclear program. As a career army officer, Suleiman served alongside many of the nearly two dozen generals who sit on the now ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Pro-democracy activists frustrated by his presidential run are flooding social networks with images of Suleiman with leaders of Israel, which most Egyptians still see as the top enemy despite the 1979 peace treaty.

U.S. diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks as well as declassified CIA files have identified Suleiman as the point man in U.S.-Egyptian cooperation on counterterrorism. He is believed to have played a direct role in the U.S. rendition program, in which suspected terrorists were sent to Egypt and other countries for interrogation, sometimes involving torture.

“As the head of the intelligence, Omar Suleiman has never been investigated for either ordering or failing to prevent Egypt’s involvement in renditions,” said Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based Human Rights Watch researcher.

Activists fear he could bring a new crackdown.

“If he wins and starts slaughtering the opposition and revolutionaries, the response will be very different. The revolution has adopted a peaceful path so far,” said Ahmed Maher, a founding member of the April 6 movement, in a thinly concealed threat of a violent reaction.

The race could still see some surprises. There remains talk that el-Shater could be disqualified from running because of his past convictions, despite the pardon that followed his release from prison.

Worries over both el-Shater and Suleiman could push voters toward one of the more middle-ground candidates in the race, such as former foreign minister Amr Moussa or Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a moderate Islamist who was thrown out of the Brotherhood. Their presence could also make it likely that a runoff, scheduled for June 16-17, will be held if no single candidate gets at least half the vote in the initial round.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Egypt’s presidential race: An unexpected lineup