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A Look At Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Candidate

Jun 19, 2012
Originally published on June 19, 2012 5:59 pm
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In Egypt, there are dueling claims of victory. A campaign spokesman for Ahmed Shafik, the former prime minister under Hosni Mubarak, has announced his candidate the winner in Egypt's presidential election. But that comes not long after the Muslim Brotherhood declared its candidate, Mohamed Morsi, the winner. We won't know for certain who won until Thursday when the nation's election commission releases its official tally. In the meantime, we're going to dig into the biography of Mr. Morsi - again, he's the brotherhood's candidate and leader of its Freedom and Justice Party.

On the one hand, Morsi says he favors a tolerant constitutional democracy where women's rights are equal to men. But he's also called for an Islamic state with a council of Muslim scholars to advise parliament. And he has said Islamic law bars women and non-Muslims from running for president. To help us make sense of these apparent contradictions, I'm joined by Samer Shehata. He's editor of the book "Islamist Politics in the Middle East: Movements and Change."

Professor Shehata, welcome to the program.

SAMER SHEHATA: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: You've met Mohamed Morsi a half dozen times or so in recent years. What do you think that phrase, tolerant constitutional democracy, means to him?

SHEHATA: Well, clearly, the phrase is intended to assuage some fears about the Muslim Brotherhood and its agenda. I think Mr. Morsi, like many members of the Muslim Brotherhood, are democrats. They believe in democracy.

The real question is, are they liberal democrats? And that means, do they believe in full rights for all Egyptians, whether they're Muslim or Christian, women and men? He is trying to say to people that he's not going to transform the state so much that it's going to regulate aspects of their lives that they feel are private. Now, that's not necessarily going to convince many or all Egyptians, but that's certainly the intention.

BLOCK: Yeah. So when Mohamed Morsi says Islam is the solution, there's a lot of room for interpretation there of what exactly he's driving at.

SHEHATA: Well, that's exactly right. Just as there is a great deal of interpretation about what it is that Shariah should be, many Egyptians would say, well, the principles of the Shariah are justice and equality and truth and so on. However, if the Shariah means that individuals who steal should have their arms amputated, that's not going to be accepted by many.

BLOCK: Have you been hearing a consistent message through the campaign from Mohamed Morsi or has it evolved?

SHEHATA: Well, there's certainly been a shift in emphasis. I was in Egypt during the first round of the elections and attended two major campaign events with Mohamed Morsi and it was striking how the discourse was very much speaking to the base of the Muslim Brotherhood.

After the first round, his talk was more moderate. It was attempting to assuage the fears of many to get those undecided voters and I think that's natural.

BLOCK: So, for Egyptians who fear that Mohamed Morsi will turn their country into, say, Saudi Arabia or Iran, is that a justified fear or no?

SHEHATA: It's not a justified fear for two reasons. The first reason is because he will not have the power or the authority to implement those kinds of changes, even if he wanted to. The second reason is because neither of those versions of political Islam are what the Muslim Brotherhood believes in.

They believe, not in the liberal politics, but in a much more moderate version of political Islam than either Ayatollah Khomeini or Saudi Arabian-style Islam and politics.

BLOCK: There's an interesting biographical note here that Mohamed Morsi spent time in the United States, got his doctorate in engineering just down the road from where I am now at NPR West. He went to the University of Southern California. How much do you think his time in the states changed him or shaped the man he is today?

SHEHATA: That's difficult to say. I would think that there was some, certainly, effect. At the same time, he is still committed to the basic principles of the Muslim Brotherhood and the idea that Islam should play a very significant role in politics. So there has to have been, if any, a limited impact on his outlook and his political philosophy.

BLOCK: Samer Shehata, thank you so much.

SHEHATA: You're very welcome.

BLOCK: Samer Shehata is assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.