Egypt: The Dawn of an Islamist Future?

01/03/2012 22:57 GMT | Updated 01/05/2012 10:12 BST

Hosni Mubarak's toppling a year ago amidst massive popular protests raised hope of a democratic transition and a new future for Egypt. Western media and political leaders quickly jumped on the bandwagon of the so-called Arab Spring. But hopes of a rapid transition were soon quashed as it became clear that the country's military leadership remained firmly entrenched in power.

Over the past year, we have witnessed how the Egyptian revolution has stalled. From exuberant optimism in February 2011, through a violent summer and autumn with continuous clashes between activists and the military, to a still uncertain second winter. Hosni Mubarak and his sons may be gone, but Field Marshall Husayn al-Tantawi is still there. He represents the collective leadership of Egypt's military caste which has always been running things behind the scenes. As the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), he has taken on Mubarak's role as the new strongman of Egypt.

There have also been significant developments towards democracy, such as the parliamentary elections that were successfully held between November 2011 and January 2012. Yet despite this landmark achievement, real power remains with SCAF and Field Marshall al-Tantawi - at least until the country's next presidential elections which are scheduled to take place in the summer.

Interestingly, the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest and best organised political grouping, has announced that it will not field a candidate for that election. This despite winning an impressive 235 seats out of a total 508 as the Freedom and Justice Party in the parliamentary elections. Instead, Muhammad Badie, the Brotherhood leader, has said that the candidate they will support must have an "Islamic background" - whatever that means. Similarly, Hizb al-Nur, a political party made up of various salafist and Islamist currents which surprised many observers by winning 121 seats, has also announced that it will not field a presidential candidate.

Given their complete political dominance, why have the Muslim Brothers and the Nur Party chosen to sit back and decided not to go for the presidency? Some analysts have argued that the Brotherhood's decision not to run for president should be seen in light of its struggle against SCAF. If it were to appear too assertive there might be a backlash from the military and its newfound political power might be lost as a result. According to this view, not fielding a presidential candidate but at the same time insisting on an 'Islamic' one should be seen as a bargaining chip with which the Brothers are trying to placate SCAF fears of a complete Islamist takeover. At the same time, the decision is also designed to reassure Western observers that Egypt is not heading towards a theocracy.

However, I would argue that the decision is more to do with internal concerns within the Muslim Brotherhood movement. If a member of the movement became president, it would mean conferring legitimacy on the political system, and more importantly, accepting responsibility for decisions made during their presidency. As a highly ideological movement with a black and white worldview to match, getting bogged down in the murky business of international relations is something that would significantly damage its domestic support. It could even lead to a split in the movement between hardliners and moderates - something that has already happened once before in its long history.

That this is a more plausible explanation can be seen in the recent history of neighbouring Jordan, where a fraternal Muslim Brotherhood movement has been involved in the political process for a number of years. King Abdallah II of Jordan chose to appease the Muslim Brothers and on numerous occasions offered them significant government posts - including foreign minister. However, these offers were always turned down for fear of being tainted by temporal politics. Instead, its natural place has been as a vociferous opposition party that criticises corruption, abuse of power and falling moral standards in society from a position of aloofness.

There is no doubt that this is its source of strength also in Egypt. As such it would be a huge risk to jeopardise its current popularity and support, which have been hard won over the course of many decades suffering political oppression, for a chance at the presidency. Because they cannot be sure that SCAF would actually allow a Muslim Brotherhood president to take office, their best bet is to sit back and see what happens. Chances are that if the democratic process is allowed to continue, they would dominate politics anyway from their position of strength in parliament and their country-wide network of activists and supporters.