Presidential campaigns are often ugly, divisive affairs with bitter rivals slinging accusations and recriminations, sometimes veering into the territory of outright dishonesty. But as the fight over Egypt’s presidency heats up between the Muslim Brotherhood’s nominee and Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, the country’s largest Islamist organization stands accused of more than just dishonesty or incompetence — the Brotherhood is being bombarded with accusations of killing protesters and instilling chaos during the 25 January Revolution. And some see that as an unnerving harbinger of what could be to come.
The Brotherhood’s nominee, Mohamed Morsy, and Mubarak’s long-serving civil aviation minister and last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, are set to compete in the runoff scheduled for 16 and 17 June.
Although Shafiq is not officially backed by Egypt’s military rulers, he is widely viewed as the facade of the generals and the deeply entrenched and highly influential Egyptian security apparatus. Meanwhile, the retired air force general’s campaign draws heavily on the old networks of Mubarak’s disbanded National Democratic Party.
In recent days, both candidates have exchanged a glut of accusations. While Morsy has constantly emphasized Shafiq’s ties with Mubarak’s “corrupt” regime and his animosity to the revolution, Shafiq accuses the Brotherhood of seeking to take Egypt backward by establishing a religious state.
But Shafiq’s attacks haven’t stopped there.
In a television interview last week, Shafiq accused the Muslim Brotherhood of being implicated in the killing of protesters in the notorious “Battle of the Camel” that took place during the 18-day uprising that culminated in Mubarak’s ouster. Eleven people died when pro-Mubarak thugs, some of them riding on horses and camels, attacked Tahrir Square with rocks, Molotov cocktails and bladed weapons.
Since the revolution, the Brotherhood has always taken pride in the role played by their members in defending the square during the Battle of the Camel. Many revolutionary figures and politicians had given Brotherhood youth credit for being a central part of the battle, which marked the last nail in the coffin of Mubarak’s rule. Meanwhile, Shafiq was prime minister during the battle and is currently under investigation for his role in it.
Two low-profile lawyers had reportedly filed a complaint with the general prosecutor against the Brotherhood accusing them of having burned police stations and opened prisons during the revolution. Media outlets, long criticized as mouthpieces of the old regime, have been reiterating these allegations. However, most observers have stated over the past year that they believe the Interior Ministry was responsible for the release of prisoners as a tactic to stir up trouble during the protests.
The allegations, which are reminiscent of smear campaigns routinely launched by the state-media and security apparatus, raise questions of whether the Brothers are faced with mere negative campaigning that only seeks to improve Shafiq’s chances and will eventually cease with the conclusion of the poll or if a potential crackdown on Egypt’s largest political organization looms on the horizon.
For the Brothers, it is more than a mere campaigning tactic.
“If we perceive it only as a part of negative campaigning, we will be missing the larger picture,” Amr Darrag, a leader of the Freedom and Justice Party, told Egypt Independent. Darrag believes the discourse emanating from Shafiq’s campaign and its sympathizers is a reproduction of the old regime and signals that, if Shafiq wins, retaliation against the Brotherhood and revolutionary forces will be in store.
“For the old regime, it is a matter of survival,” said Darrag. “The [retaliation] will not be restricted to the Brothers.”
Darrag says the old regime’s stalwarts might be immersed in faking legal evidence against the Brothers. “Cases might be made up the same way they were in the past,” he said in reference to Mubarak’s time.
Under the ousted president, the Muslim Brotherhood was officially banned but tolerated. While the group was allowed to run for student unions, professional syndicates’ boards and Parliament, it was barred from forming a political party. Mubarak’s police orchestrated periodic waves of arrests that targeted the group’s leadership.
Upon their historic grab of 88 of the People’s Assembly’s 444 seats in 2005, the Brotherhood had to live with a ruthless stint of the regime’s oppressive policies. More than 30 of the group’s leaders were rounded up and referred to a military tribunal in late 2006 on charges of conspiring to oust the regime. A smear campaign was waged against them by state media, which accused them of fomenting violence, training militias and conspiring to oust the regime.
If Shafiq were to launch a similar crackdown, the Brotherhood will not be intimidated, according to Darrag, a member of the FJP’s High Board.
“We are used to that, and we survived with that for long and never stopped working,” said Darrag. “We will try to protect ourselves with legal tools.”
But a renewal of Mubarak-style persecution may not conceivable, even if Shafiq wins.
“[A crackdown on the Brotherhood] is very hard to imagine, because things have changed and the balance of power would not allow for harsh measures,” said Abdullah al-Sinnawy, a columnist.
Since the Mubarak’s fall in February 2011, the Brothers’ status has changed significantly. Today, they have an officially recognized political party that holds more than 40 percent of seats in Parliament. Throughout the past 15 months, the Brotherhood stood as the most crucial civilian political player.
For Sinnawy, the ongoing verbal war might be an attempt by the old establishment to “pressure the Brothers and to set a ceiling for their ambitions to control all crucial positions in the state.”
In recent months, the Brothers have antagonized secular and revolutionary forces by seeking to tighten their grip over Parliament and the would-be Constituent Assembly tasked with writing the constitution, and eying the presidency, all after reneging on promises to the contrary. Meanwhile, Brotherhood-military relations have been strained for several months due to the generals’ reluctance to allow the FJP to form a cabinet.
Unlike Sinnawy, Sameh al-Barqy, a former youth leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, does not rule out the possibility that Mubarak’s repressive policies could be renewed if Shafiq becomes president.
“There is nothing to prevent that,” said Barqy. To prove his point, he goes back to the year 1954 when the Free Officers’ regime cracked down on the Brothers after a nearly two-year honeymoon. “Nobody imagined that anything could happen to the Muslim Brotherhood given the remarkable weight they had on the street,” said Barqy.
Barqy, the co-founder of the would-be Egyptian Current Party, which is mostly composed of young, reformist ex-Brothers, argues that the “deep state,” which, according to his definition, consists of the military, the security apparatus and remnants of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, might find the Brotherhood easy prey.
“What makes it easier for [the deep state] to [attack the Brothers] is the fact that the Brothers have already distanced themselves from all forces,” he said. “Before the revolution, all forces used to condemn what was being done to the Brothers. But now there will be less solidarity.”
“The Brothers just watched when other forces were being attacked,” he said, pointing to several occasions over the past year when the Brotherhood leadership declined to side with non-Islamist protesters who were violently attacked by the police and the armed forces. To add insult to injury, the group’s media accused some revolutionary forces of seeking to spread chaos and undermine the state.
For some pundits, a crackdown on Islamists might be the recipe for a civil war along Algerian lines. A bloody Islamist insurgency tried to undermine military rule in Algeria throughout the 1990s after a military coup annulled legislative elections that were expected to bring the first democratically elected Islamist government to power.
Barqy ruled out that the Brothers would follow in the footsteps of their Algerian counterparts. “The Brothers will not be dragged to the use of violence. I am sure about that,” he said.
“All existing generations that constitute the body of the Muslim Brotherhood were raised to resent violence,” he added.