Egypt presidential rivals share secretive past

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iol pic afr omar suleiman REUTERS Supporters of Omar Suleiman, Egypt's former vice president, hold placards depicting his pictures as they join supporters of the Armed Forces at a rally near the defence ministry, in 2011.

They sit at opposite ends of Egypt's political spectrum and one of them was jailed by a government in which the other was chief of intelligence. Now they both want to be president.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Khairat al-Shater and Hosni Mubarak's head spy Omar Suleiman have moved firmly into the public eye as last-minute contenders in the presidential election, redrawing the electoral map just weeks before voting.

If available opinion polls can be trusted, they will have to make up ground on Amr Moussa, the former Egyptian foreign minister and Arab League chief who enjoys wide name recognition and has been on the campaign trail for a year.

But both Shater and Suleiman are expected to do well in the election due to be held in May and June. One is the representative of an Islamist group that is the country's best organised party and the other is a former military man with establishment ties who is seen by his supporters as the best bet for an end to more than a year of turmoil.

Despite Suleiman's denials, his candidacy is widely seen as being backed by the ruling army council and sets the stage for a ballot box fight between a leading symbol of Mubarak's era and the Islamist movement banned under his rule.

Both Shater and Suleiman are viewed as mysterious figures whose distance from the public eye has been a hot topic in local media since their candidacies were confirmed. Their voices are hardly known to most Egyptians.

“Each of them belongs to the world of secret work,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, a political commentator. They are “two sides of the same coin”, added Ahmed al-Sawy, a commentator writing in Shorouk newspaper.

Suleiman, 76, barely spoke in public until he was appointed as Mubarak's deputy in his last days in office. As his intelligence chief, Mubarak had tasked him with high-profile diplomatic missions. His portfolio included Palestinian affairs. In his few days as vice president, his most memorable speech was the brief February 11 announcement that Mubarak would step down.

Shater, a 61-year-old millionaire businessman seen as the Brotherhood's financial muscle, also stayed out of the public eye. Experts on the group see him as part of a hardline wing and someone who operated in line with a tradition of secrecy that grew out of decades of oppression from successive governments.

He was jailed repeatedly, spending a total of 12 years in prison. “Some say that Shater is a mysterious man and that he doesn't like communicating with the media,” Shater told a news conference on Monday. “I must work hard to change this.”

He and Suleiman join a field divided between Mubarak-era officials, Islamists, liberals and leftists, some of whom issued a statement on Monday warning that presidential bids by “symbols of the former regime” would split society and cause crises.

The Islamists include Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an ultraconservative Salafi polling second to Moussa but who now faces disqualification because of documents showing his late mother had US citizenship - something he has denied.

The field also includes Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, seen as part of the Brotherhood's moderate reform wing until he was expelled from the group last year for his decision to run against the leadership's wishes.

The legacy of decades of mistrust between Suleiman and the Brotherhood has been on show since his candidacy was declared. Shater described Suleiman's candidacy as an “insult” to the Egyptians who had risen up against Mubarak and he could only win if the election results were rigged.

Suleiman said he had received death threats from Brotherhood members, expecting he would win support from Egyptians who have not yet been engaged in politics but are now angered at what he described as the Islamist group's attempts to assume a dominant role, a view heard from other politicians and analysts.

Among the pro-democracy activists who ignited the uprising against Mubarak, there is a sense that both candidacies are a sign of what has gone wrong in the last year.

In the case of Suleiman, they see confirmation of a plot by the ruling generals to crush any democratic transition by installing a president intimately associated with the Mubarak years - a fear analysts say is shared by the Islamists.

But Shater's candidacy is also facing criticism from reformists who see it as proof of a Brotherhood plan to exploit their organisational strength to grab as much power as possible.

One online joke depicts the two facing off under the slogan “Alien vs. Predator - Whoever wins, We lose.”

The Brotherhood, which won more seats than any other party in the legislative election, has been criticised for rowing back on promises that it would not to seek to dominate officialdom in the post-Mubarak era. The group, which was founded in 1928, had said last year it would not seek the presidency.

“It is an election that has nothing to do with the people,” said Sally Touma, a leading activist in the youth movement. “It's a power struggle between the intelligence, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The military council has stated its commitment to the democratic transition, denying accusations that it has sought to shape the post-Mubarak phase to guarantee its privileges.

Yet Touma said prominent activist groups would call for a boycott of the presidential election. “What kind of democracy can come under military rule?” she asked.

Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University, said: “Everybody is disappointed by both candidates. They don't trust the Muslim Brotherhood anymore or the military council, and the country seems to be squeezed between these anti-democratic forces.” - Reuters


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