Egypt violence damages Islamists' election hopes

By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Cairo

Image caption,
Mohammed Mursi and Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh's campaigns have suffered

Two days of violence outside the Egyptian defence ministry last week may have dramatically altered the political balance, barely two weeks before the presidential election.

Commentators believe the clashes have weakened Islamist groups, bolstered the popularity of the army, and strengthened the hand of the candidates from the secular side of Egyptian politics, including those with links to the former regime of Hosni Mubarak.

It was the attack on the defence ministry in Cairo on Friday that infuriated many Egyptians.

The army holds a special, respected place in Egyptian society, and as far as many Egyptians were concerned it was attacked, not by a foreign enemy, but by Islamists.

That charge may not be fair - there were a number of groups in Friday's demonstration, and a only a small number were involved in the confrontation - but politically that is no longer the point.

One soldier died in the attack. Egyptian TV also showed dramatic pictures of injured soldiers. And a day after the clashes, state TV broadcast footage that appeared to show two gunmen firing at the army from the minaret of a neighbouring mosque.

On the official Facebook page of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), people wrote "May God praise the army", and "God willing, you will win this battle. The Egyptian people support you."

The sit-in outside the defence ministry was originally organised by ultraconservative Islamists, known as Salafists, in support of their disqualified presidential candidate, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail.

But the reaction has affected all Islamists, including the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood took no part in the action and quickly disbanded a separate protest they were organising in Tahrir Square when the trouble broke out at the defence ministry.

"The public doesn't differentiate between Salafists, Wahhabis or Muslim Brotherhood any more," explained blogger and political activist Mamdouh Hamza.

"They are all Islamists. They have lost support with the public, it is irreversible. Egyptians have seen their army and soldiers being attacked. It has stirred a lot of emotions."

Even as events were unfolding on Friday, state media blamed the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood for inciting violence, much as the media used to under Hosni Mubarak, even though there was no evidence to support the charge.

On the street there has been much discussion of the alleged presence outside the defence ministry of Mohammed al-Zawahiri, a brother of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, with many suggesting some sort of link with the militant network.

Image caption,
State media blamed the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood for inciting violence

This swing of public opinion comes despite the fact that it was the demonstrators themselves who were originally attacked by unidentified assailants on Wednesday. At least 20 people were killed.

The strong suspicion is that someone in power authorised or turned a blind eye to Wednesday's attack. At a news conference on Thursday, a member of the Scaf said just that it was under investigation by the public prosecutor. There have been no reports of arrests.

By contrast, the military moved quickly to condemn Friday's violence. Scores of suspects have been arrested and are now being investigated by the military prosecutor.

'Firm hand'

Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University and a member of the liberal-leaning National Association for Change, said it was important to distinguish between the widespread support for the army in Egypt, and much greater scepticism towards the Scaf.

"They distinguish between the Egyptian army and the Scaf, which was hand-picked by the old regime.

Image caption,
Hazem Abu Ismail's expulsion from the election has caused major unrest

"Nobody really believes the presidential election will take place on time and if it does, that it will be transparent."

And Mr Nafaa said there was deep suspicion about the possible role of the ruling generals in stirring up trouble on the streets.

"It is a deep and overwhelming crisis," he added. "We have to hope that if the election takes place properly and we have an elected president, there will be the beginning of the solution of the crisis."

Politically, the big beneficiary could well be Amr Moussa, the former foreign minister and head of the Arab League. His links with the old regime are no longer seen as such a disadvantage. Egyptians talk about the need for "experience" or a "firm hand".

By contrast the more moderate Islamist candidate, Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, has been a big potential loser.

A few days ago he was celebrating the endorsement of the Salafist Nour party after the disqualification of Hazem Abu Ismail.

Now, that endorsement is seen as a big disadvantage, after the involvement of Nour party members in the demonstration outside the defence ministry.

To compound it, Mr Aboul Fotouh himself visited the demonstration on Wednesday after the first attack.

As for the Salafists, they are even more badly damaged, just months after their surprisingly strong showing in the parliamentary elections.