CAIRO – Last week, the Muslim Brotherhood's leading light, Khairat al-Shater, looked like a confident front-runner in Egypt's presidential race. On the night of April 12, more than 5,000 men -- and another 1,000 or so women, in their own section -- packed into a huge canvas-walled enclosure in the working-class district of Shubra al-Kheima, a Brotherhood stronghold, to hear what their candidate would do upon capturing the Egyptian presidency.
The rally, one of Shater's first since announcing his candidacy, managed to be both tightly organized and raucous -- Muslim Brotherhood cadres of all ages drowned out the noise from the neighboring multi-lane roadway. Supporters brought dozens of rolled white flags declaring a coming "Egyptian renaissance," which they joyfully unfurled on cue. Meanwhile, senior officials at the head table drank from coffee mugs emblazoned with Shater's rather imposing headshot.
Shater's last name means "clever" in Arabic -- a fitting moniker for the self-made millionaire -- and one handmade sign carried by a young woman declared, "Egypt needs someone clever!"
A tall broad-chested man who spent years in prison under the Mubarak regime, Shater commanded the room without even rising from his seat. He barely talked religion, instead focusing on rebuilding the economy, the country, and Egyptian pride. "My brothers, we need to feel like we're at the beginning of a true renaissance," he said. "We want to build our country. We're coming out of a period of looting."
As befits a frontrunner, Shater generally avoided attacking his political rivals. However, he made one notable exception: He repeatedly called out Omar Suleiman, Egypt's longtime intelligence chief and Hosni Mubarak consigliere, who had recently thrown his hat in the political race.
"Omar Suleiman and Hosni Mubarak's intelligence men are trying to drag us backwards," he half-shouted. They want to "steal the revolution and forge the elections."
Just over 48 hours later, Suleiman was out of the race. But so was Shater -- and the landscape of Egypt's post-revolutionary transition had morphed yet again. On April 14, Egypt's electoral commission disqualified the two strongest Islamist candidates and Suleiman, the most potent symbol of the old regime. Suleiman was eliminated due to mistakes in his gathering of signatures to qualify as a candidate; Shater is out because he had recently served a jail sentence for membership in the Brotherhood and money laundering to finance the organization (he was released after the revolution); Salafist Hazem Abu Ismail was disqualified due to evidence that his late mother had taken U.S. citizenship several years ago.
The commission rejected the appeals of the three candidates on the night of April 17, paving the way for the announcement of a final candidate list on April 26. A relatively short campaign season will then follow before the election of May 23 and May 24, with a run-off election that will carry over through mid-June.
With just over a month to go before the vote, Egypt's first post-Mubarak presidential election has progressed very much like the post-Mubarak year that preceded it. There is a feeling of mass confusion and polarization -- as well as the nagging fear that nobody is really at the wheel of the Egyptian state.
Suleiman's actual appeal as a candidate always remained uncertain. He carried a tremendous amount of political baggage, from his warm public relationships with successive generations of Israeli officials to his tight association with Mubarak. But his candidacy also carried with it the societal assumption that he would be backed by the quiet but very real support of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Also, some Egyptians may have voted for Suleiman because of his obsessive opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, seeing him as a necessary authoritarian bulwark against the Islamist takeover that secularists fear is already well underway.