Working with secularists is crucial not only for stability in Egypt, but also for the entire region, writes David Hearst.
The leader of the Tunisian Islamist party and the brains behind a successful transitional coalition with two secularist parties has flown to Cairo in an effort to persuade the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to share power.
Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda, makes the trip as Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, is poised to win the second round of the presidential elections this weekend in Egypt in a head-to-head contest with Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister of the Mubarak regime.
But the Tunisian Islamists are warning Morsi that it would be a huge mistake to take the lion’s share of the political spoils.
Ghannouchi said that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could prevail only with the agreement of secular political parties. He told the Guardian before flying off on his mission to Cairo: “Fifty-one percent is not enough to rule.”
The sheikh warned that the stakes were high, not just for Egypt but also for the Arab Spring: “Either we accept democracy within the form of Islam or we will end up dismissing Islam from the political process because Islam will become a cause of fragmentation, not unity.”
Fraught with difficulty
His mission in Cairo is fraught with difficulty. First, the Brotherhood, or Ikhwan in Egypt, is fiercely independent, regards itself as the mothership of other offshoots of political Islam such as Ennahda and Hamas, and does not take kindly to outside advice. A previous mission of one of the founding Brotherhood members, Sheikh Yusuf el-Qaradawi, who flew in from Doha in an attempt to mediate, ended in failure.
Second, the Muslim Brotherhood is confident of success, even though its candidate, Morsi, is its second choice and is seen as lacking in charisma. Results of the vote of Egyptian expats in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, voters traditionally tied to the candidate of the old regime, Shafiq, gave Morsi more than 70% of the vote. This is one indication that Morsi will get a comfortable victory.
Third, a Tunisian-style coalition in Egypt would mean the Ikhwan shares power with Nasserite secularist Hamdeen Sabahi and an independent, Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh. The latter was a leading light of the Ikhwan before breaking ranks by declaring that he would run for the presidency at a time when the Brotherhood said it would not put up a candidate. The Ikhwan then expelled him.
Power-sharing talks are proving difficult. To strengthen his hand, Sabahi met the old regime’s candidate, Shafiq, to signal to the Brotherhood that he could switch sides.
Tarek Kahlawi, the head of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Tunis and a leading analyst on the Ikhwan across the Arab world, said: “The Brotherhood in Egypt will be making a huge mistake if it insists on being the main face in the presidency and the head of the government. It got only 25% of the vote in the first round. If it takes both, that would show me that the brothers are prepared to take on the old regime and the army alone.”
Kahlawi said the brothers would have to swallow their pride, particularly about working with Fotouh: “Anyone who breaks ranks, who leaves the jama’a [the organisation] is regarded as an outcast. But Fotouh was exactly the candidate they needed, precisely because he was independent and had wide cross-party appeal.” Sheikh Ghannouchi said his party had also had to make fundamental compromises in stitching together a workable coalition in Tunisia.
It dropped the word “sharia” in the preamble to the new constitution and accepted instead that the new political order in Tunisia would be “founded on Islamic principles”.
He said: “We say that Islam is a force of unity, not division. Therefore, we refused to stipulate sharia in the constitution because we know this does not represent an agreement and constitutions are built upon what is agreed.”
The sheikh’s voice is an increasingly influential one in the Islamic world and in Tunis. There are rumours he might step down as head of Ennahda at its annual congress in July to become a leader of the Islamic movement in the Arab world.
A senior member of Ennahda, speaking on condition of anonymity, was blunter still about the prospect of a clean sweep by the Brotherhood in Egypt. He said the choice facing Egypt in the second round was a disaster. A win for Shafiq would be a counter-revolution and send everyone back into Tahrir Square and a win for Morsi would potentially leave the Brotherhood pitted against Israel and the United States, with Washington actively thinking about withdrawing its funds to the Egyptian army. The Brotherhood needed a buffer, particularly in foreign policy.
The Egyptian army is another concern for Tunisia. Kahlawi said the results of the first round, in which the old regime’s candidate came second with 5.5-million votes or 23.6% of the vote, were frightening.
The sheikh will not present his mission to Cairo as an altruistic one. If the Ikhwan shares power, the Tunisian model would take on another dimension and become a serious model for the Arab world. – © Guardian News & Media 2012