CAIRO — Trying to unite divided Islamists behind him, the presidential hopeful of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has promised to give religious clerics power to review legislation to ensure it is in line with Islamic law, a group of ultraconservative Muslim clerics said Wednesday.
Brotherhood candidate Khairat el-Shater is trying to avert a split in the votes of religious conservatives in next month's presidential election. The Brotherhood is Egypt's strongest fundamentalist group, but several other Islamists are running in the vote — particularly Hazem Abu Ismail, who has strong support among Salafis, the most hard-line religious movement in Egypt.
El-Shater met Tuesday with a panel of Salafi scholars and clerics, seeking their support
The group, called the Jurisprudence Commission for Rights and Reform, said in a posting on its Facebook page that el-Shater promised that, if elected, he would form a council of clerics to review legislation to ensure it adheres to Islamic Shariah law. The commission is an umbrella group set up after last year's uprising against President Hosni Mubarak to represent Islamic factions, mostly Salafis, though the Brotherhood also has a representative in the commission.
A Brotherhood spokesman could not immediately confirm the offer.
Giving clerics say over legislation would be a dramatic shift in Egypt.
In 2007, when the Brotherhood was still a banned opposition movement, it floated a political platform that included a similar provision, demanding that parliament consult with a religious council of clerics in legislation. The proposal was met with a storm of condemnation at the time, and the Brotherhood backed off of it.
In their campaign for Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliament elections late last year, the platform of the Brotherhood's political party made no mention of the idea. Seeking to allay fears of liberal Egyptians, Brotherhood leaders have insisted throughout the campaign that implementing Shariah law in Egypt is not their immediate priority. Salafis, however, have been more assertive in demanding Shariah law.
"El-Shater wants to give Salafi clerics what they want as part of the deal that is being cooked to secure the votes of salafis," said Tharwat el-Kherbawi, a researcher who is a former member of the Brotherhood. He compared the religious council proposal to Iran's system of clerical "guardians" over the elected government.
The Brotherhood hold just under half the seats in parliament, making them the biggest bloc, followed by the Salafis, who won another 20 percent.
Last weekend, the Brotherhood announced its nomination of el-Shater to run in the May 23-24 presidential election, breaking a year-long promise not to field a candidate for the powerful post. The decision has sparked backlash from both liberals who fear of Islamic take-over and Salafis, since his entry increased the possibility of a split in Islamists' vote.
Salafis have largely expressed support for Abu Ismail. But el-Shater has launched an aggressive campaign to try to close ranks and win Salafi support. El-Shater and top clerics have been holding meetings around the clock, according to Salafi cleric Amin el-Ansari, who is close to Abu Ismail's campaign.
In one of the meetings in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, a stronghold of Salafis, Abu Ismail was asked to withdraw from the race for the sake of el-Shater. He refused, replying, "the one who created sedition is the one who should put it down," in reference to el-Shater's nomination, according to his aide Gamal Saber.