CAIRO — Had Egypt’s post-revolutionary political winds held steady, Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate, would have been coasting to victory in this month’s election.
Instead, he’s running an underdog campaign. The group’s prodigious political machine, which turned the once-besieged opposition movement into the dominant force in parliament early this year, has to contend with an uncharismatic candidate and a shift in public opinion as many Egyptians have soured on the venerable Islamist organization.
The Brotherhood’s political stock is plunging, analysts and ordinary Egyptians say, because its political party has backtracked on promises and accomplished little since a predominantly Islamist cadre of lawmakers was sworn in in January.
In the working-class Cairo neighborhood of Abbasiya, where the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party campaigned vigorously in the weeks before the parliamentary elections, shopkeeper Abbas Helmi, 58, put down a Koran he was reciting softly to talk politics. On the eve of those elections, he said, Freedom and Justice campaigners set up stalls to sell residents subsidized meat and vegetables, drawing large crowds.
“People went and bought their meat,” Helmi recalled. “But after the vote, [the party workers] disappeared, and the people felt deceived.”
The backgrounds of the two front-runners — a former foreign minister who served under now-deposed Hosni Mubarak and a moderate Islamist who broke away from the Brotherhood — suggest that Egyptians may want a statesman who is more inclusive and less dogmatic about the role of Islam in governance than the devout politicians who control parliament.
But experts caution that it would be a mistake to dismiss Morsi’s chances outright. His rivals might be generating more enthusiasm and doing better in the polls, they say, but none has the Brotherhood’s mighty machinery or its network of allied preachers and local operatives.
“They go into full mobilization mode on Election Day,” said Shadi Hamid, an Egypt expert with the Brookings Doha Center who has studied the Muslim Brotherhood for years. “They play old-fashioned bare-knuckles politics, and they’re in it to win it.”
In addition to its robust get-out-the-vote campaign, the Brotherhood’s endurance of decades of oppression under Mubarak probably helped it to win sympathy during the parliamentary elections. But the group’s short stint in power has proved largely disappointing.
The Brotherhood-dominated parliament has passed no laws of consequence since its January inauguration. Many Egyptians have been disenchanted by the Brotherhood’s refusal to prioritize the repeal of the reviled emergency law, which has been used for decades to crack down on dissidents.
The Brotherhood’s handling of another controversial issue, the use of military trials to prosecute civilians, has angered human rights activists. Parliament recently restricted the president from referring civilians for prosecution in military court, but it stopped short of also barring the armed forces from doing so.
Despite occasional public statements criticizing the ruling military council, the Brotherhood has had a surprisingly cooperative relationship with the generals who were once instrumental in keeping the group oppressed and politically disenfranchised. The Brotherhood has often discouraged its followers from joining protests against the military, infuriating other political factions, which view the Islamist group as opportunistic.
Senior Brotherhood officials acknowledged in interviews that Morsi might lack charisma, but they disputed the notion that his campaign for the two-day election next week is floundering.
“Egypt doesn’t need a charismatic president,” said Essam el-Erian, an influential Brotherhood legislator. “It needs a president who can deal with the government and with the parliament.”
In recent weeks, some rallies for Morsi have seemed tailor-made for ultraconservative Muslim voters, whom the campaign is trying to woo. It has also enlisted radical clerics to rally voters, in an apparent attempt to excite and broaden the party’s base.
Morsi, 60, has dismissed as flawed polls that show him lagging and has pointed to large turnouts at campaign rallies nationwide as evidence that his presidential bid is not doomed.
He is branding himself a “renaissance” candidate and the only contender who would bring impeccable Islamist credentials to the presidency. A vote for him, Morsi has assured Egyptians, is a way to ensure that the spirit of the revolution that ousted Mubarak from the presidency in February 2011 endures.
“I want the revolution to stay alive after the president is elected,” Morsi said at a recent rally. “We will not allow another dictator to control Egypt.”
Morsi was not the Brotherhood’s first choice when the group reneged on its vow not to field a presidential candidate. The group says it broke the promise because it believes the military council that replaced Mubarak has mismanaged the transition to democratic rule.
The Freedom and Justice Party nominated Khairat el-Shater, the Brotherhood’s top strategist and biggest bank roller, as its candidate in March. Anticipating that Shater could be disqualified, Morsi’s name was registered as a backup.
Shater was among 10 contenders disqualified last month by the country’s presidential election commission, an unexpected move that forced the Brotherhood to thrust little-known Morsi into the spotlight. Shater was disqualified because the commission ruled that the time he served as a political prisoner during the Mubarak regime made him ineligible.
Morsi, an engineer with a doctorate from the University of Southern California, had a relatively low profile until he became the Freedom and Justice Party’s chairman when the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to register as a political party after Mubarak’s ouster.
A senior Brotherhood leader who offered his candid assessment of the Morsi campaign on the condition of anonymity said there is deep angst about the race among the movement’s old guard.
“I think they made a mistake in making too many promises and then not sticking to their word,” the veteran Brotherhood figure said. “As Islamists, they should have stuck to their word. People are now calling the Muslim Brotherhood dishonest.”
Besides reneging on its promise not to field a presidential candidate, Brotherhood leaders have raised eyebrows by warming up to Washington and suggesting that they would honor Egypt’s unpopular peace deal with Israel.
Morsi’s main competitors are former foreign minister Amr Moussa, the Arab League’s erstwhile chief whose appeal stems largely from his name recognition and his hard-line stance against Israel, and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood leader who is regarded as a moderate Islamist. Aboul Fotouh supporters have sought to disparage the Brotherhood. New billboards that have gone up around Cairo in support of Aboul Fotouh call the candidate’s former group the “Machiavellian Brotherhood.”
Abdul Ghamed Ahmad Abdel, a 69-year-old taxi driver, said the Brotherhood’s popularity has slipped in his district of Imbaba in Cairo.
“They took control of the parliament because they are deeply entrenched in the rural areas,” he said. But their lackluster performance in office is sure to hurt them, he added. “They’ve been exposed for what they are.”
Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.