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April 08, 2012, Sunday

Is Khairat al-Shater Egypt’s Erdoğan?

In a surprise move, Khairat al-Shater, known as one of the leading theorists and main financial supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been nominated for the Egyptian presidency by the movement.

Egyptian society doesn’t know very much about him however, as he has preferred to run the organization from behind the scenes. It begs the question whether the air of mystery that surrounds him will make him charismatic or powerful enough to lead the country.

Meanwhile, away from the discussions over his personal background and affiliation with the movement, some circles within the Muslim Brotherhood cannot refrain from drawing comparisons between him and other prominent politicians such as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Needless to say, there are many differences between the two leaders.

The state of relations at the core of the political movements they represent is the first main difference. The fact is that Erdoğan abandoned his traditional viewpoints and cut his political ties with the National View (Milli Görüş). That rupture ended in the formation of a completely new political party as Erdoğan no longer stood with his master Necmettin Erbakan -- a former prime minister and one of the paramount representatives of political Islam in Turkey on the political scene since the early 1970s until his death last year. In contrast to Erdoğan, Shater is representing the traditionalist group within the Muslim Brotherhood and stands against the majority of people, who are demanding change within the party.

Although they both took part in politics in the past, Erdoğan became well known when he served as the mayor of İstanbul. He almost entirely changed the appearance of the city. As for Shater, he has not had the experience of serving in political office. His efforts to keep the movement alive against the oppression of Hosni Mubarak are underappreciated and not really common knowledge.

Erdoğan is the dominant figure within his party and for the foreseeable future he appears to have no challengers to his leadership. In elections, the majority of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) voters don’t just vote for the party but for Erdoğan’s personality and charisma. In Shater’s case, it is extremely difficult for him to gain votes from different groups other than the Muslim Brotherhood by running a campaign based on his personality. Moreover, it will not be an easy task to reinforce his authority as a robust leader within the movement with the continued internal squabbles between different factions.

Erdoğan is a very good orator; he uses his body language well. He comes across as if he were an ordinary man, a man of the people. He has the support of a wide range of people, from the most pious to the most liberal. But it is hard to say the same for Shater. Moreover, there is no real way for Shater to gain the support of the movement's opponents considering the sharp polarization of the Egyptian political landscape.

One experience they have in common is that they were both imprisoned for political reasons. However, as thousands of people were imprisoned during Mubarak’s years in power, Shater’s sentence can hardly be seen as unusual. On the other hand, Erdoğan’s imprisonment sparked outrage and anger in Turkey because he was jailed for reciting a poem. This was a factor in his favor as it increased the sympathy of many towards him.

The way Shater was nominated has sparked criticism. Firstly, criticism amongst the public in general as his nomination goes against the group’s previous persistent stance of not contesting the presidency. Secondly, criticism from within the movement, as most of the members perceive the nomination as irreconcilable with the core principles of the Muslim Brotherhood. According to the opponents of the movement, the Muslim Brotherhood has broken its promises and deceived the public. Erdoğan, however, took the wishes of the people into consideration when setting up the AK Party and responded to their demands. As a result, he became successful in a relatively short period of time.

By expressing that he had left Erbakan’s traditional viewpoint with the words, “I took off my National View Movement shirt,” meaning he no longer belonged to the National View Movement (Milli Görüş Hareketi), Erdoğan gained the support of the masses, including people who had never voted for Erbakan in their lives. However, Shater doesn’t have the luxury of being able to say, “I have taken off my Ikhwan shirt.”

Although not perfect, there is an ongoing democratic process in Turkey. This process has provided all political parties and political leaders, including Erdoğan, with valuable experience. Shater has no such advantage.

Erdoğan made use of the advantage that other political parties, which were rather weakened by poor economic performance when they were in power in the late 1990s and early 2000s, couldn't offer an attractive alternative. The coalition government formed by the three big parties brought Turkey to the brink of a default when the financial crisis hit Turkey hard in 2001. This created a golden opportunity for Erdoğan when it came to the 2002 elections. As for Shater, there is neither a party nor a political leader that he can be compared to inside Egypt.

Following Erdoğan's success, supporters of the fragmented and weak center-right political parties transferred their support to the new ruling AK Party, which emerged as the sole representative of the center-right and right politics. The Turkish system became similar to the two-party one in the US; the AK Party representing the center-right and the Republican People's Party (CHP) on the left. As for the parties of Turkish and Kurdish nationalists, they can't make their presence seriously felt. It seems very unlikely that Shater will be able to take the other parties along with him by bringing the movement to the center ground.

As the Egyptian presidential elections draw closer, possibly one of the most historically important moments for the country, it is almost impossible to say if there is a leader among the existing candidates who will embrace everybody and also mobilize the public to vote for him with his charisma and experience. If Shater, who is the most powerful candidate out of the hundreds of candidates from Abdel Moneim Fotoh to Amr Moussa, Selim al Awa to Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, wins the election, the task waiting for him will be far from easy. He will have to deal with many issues, including a shrinking economy, a difficult foreign policy, an unfinished revolution and social unrest.

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