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Mubaraks stand on back foot
CAIRO - A strong showing by the Muslim Brotherhood in parliamentary elections has caught Egypt’s rulers off guard and could shake up politics in the biggest Arab country, analysts say
Friday, November 25,2005 00:00
by (Reuters)

Mubaraks stand on back foot
CAIRO  - A strong showing by the Muslim Brotherhood in parliamentary elections has caught Egypt’s rulers off guard and could shake up politics in the biggest Arab country, analysts say.

The Brotherhood has won 47 of parliament’s 444 elected seats with more than half of the places still to be decided in voting which lasts into December. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has won about 120 seats.

While independent monitors say the NDP has widely resorted to bribery and coercion to get out the vote, the Brotherhood has shown the depth of its support by mobilizing thousands of activists and winning seats despite a crackdown.

Analysts say the results are significant even if the Islamists pose no challenge to power for now.

"The message is that you need much more than simple forms of bribery. You need ideology, faith. You need politics and obviously the NDP don’t have much of that," said political analyst Mohamed el-Sayed Said.

The Brotherhood has tripled its strength in parliament. However, the chamber’s powers are limited next to those of President Hosni Mubarak, who has governed Egypt under emergency laws since 1981.

The Brotherhood is contesting only a third of the seats so as not to provoke the authorities, which frequently clamp down on the group on the grounds it is officially outlawed.

Islamist candidates run as independents to sidestep the ban.

The Islamists made strong gains in the first two days of voting, making the most of leeway from the authorities. But police this week arrested more than 450 of their activists. Gangs and police blocked Islamists from voting in some places.

The front page of the state’s al-Ahram newspaper reported the Islamists’ progress early in the elections, but did not mention its wins this week, which outnumbered those of the NDP.

"The government reckoned (the Brotherhood) had some strength, but not this amount," said Abdel Halim Kandil, an Arab nationalist opposition figure.

Leading Brotherhood member Essam el-Erian said between one fifth and a quarter of support for his group at the ballot box came from people casting a protest vote against the government, but the rest came from genuine supporters.

"HEALTHY FOR DEMOCRACY"

Analysts say the Brotherhood’s wins are a slap in the face for the NDP and Gamal Mubarak -- the president’s son who has led efforts to restructure the party and steered campaigning for both presidential and legislative elections this year.

The NDP would have to rethink its policies and approach, sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim said.

"They thought that through their technocratic planning they had this election well sewn up," he said. "The absent element from their equation is what the Muslim Brothers have and what Ayman Nour used to have -- the pulse of the street," he said.

Nour, leader of the secular opposition Ghad party, lost his seat to the NDP on the first day of voting. One of Egypt’s most prominent opposition figures, his supporters say the authorities used foul play to oust him from parliament.

The government says it does not interfere in elections.

Secular opposition parties, weakened by decades of authoritarian rule, have so far won only a handful of seats.

But the Brotherhood, founded in 1928, has proved more resilient to limited freedoms, partly because of its use of mosques to reach the public and build support and its provision of basic services and charity, observers say.

While the Islamists’ success has worried Christians and secularists, Ibrahim said it should galvanize politics. "This is going to be healthy for democracy in the long run," he said.

"It’s going to energize the political community at large because the other parties will have to get their acts together. The government would be well advised to give them freedom of movement and action so they can develop their muscles," he said.

Others see the Brotherhood’s success as a worrying sign of the weakness of politics in Egypt. It showed that "the country is now almost totally Islamised," said political analyst Said.

"The whole country is in big trouble. There’s not much politics. There’s no rational discourse. People act on the assumption the Muslim Brotherhood are the most religious."


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