Egypt shrugs off Islamist votes but won’t lift ban

Egypt shrugs off Islamist votes but won’t lift ban
By Stephen Brown

Egypt’s government views the Islamist opposition’s election gains without concern, but has no intention of lifting a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood becoming a legal political party, a presidential aide said on Tuesday.

“What is wrong with strengthening the opposition? You lose nothing,” President Hosni Mubarak’s adviser Osama el-Baz said during a visit to Stockholm. “But let them abide by the rules.”

Nevertheless, Egyptian authorities this week arrested hundreds of members of the Brotherhood, which, by running candidates as independents has increased its tally of seats in parliament fivefold in parliamentary elections still under way.

Despite the prohibition on it forming a political party, the Brotherhood has won 76 of the 444 elected assembly seats so far, underlining its standing as Egypt’s strongest opposition force.

The group, which says it wants to bring legislation in line with Islamic laws and work for political freedoms in the Arab world’s most populous country, said candidates had been arrested and police had harassed voters and sealed off polling stations.

Baz said the National Democratic Party government did not want to rig the election, which the judiciary was supervising.

“However, we are not allowing the establishment of a political party on the basis of religious orientation. They cannot create a party called the Muslim Brotherhood. That is banned by the constitution,” he said.

In a lecture at the Swedish Institute of Foreign Affairs, Baz said the ban was partly justified by the fact that Egypt has “at least nine million Christians”, though he also acknowledged the Brotherhood had stressed it did not want to exclude them.

Founded in 1928, the Brotherhood has built up support via the mosques and with charity work. Its election gains contrast with a poor showing for secular opposition parties.

Asked why the Islamists had done so well, Baz told Reuters: “Partly it is that Egyptians have a soft spot for religion, which has existed in Egypt since the time of the pharaohs.”

“We don’t want to mix religion with politics,” said Baz, a former aide to Anwar Sadat, the president assassinated by Islamists in 1981. “Religions are usually absolute but politics is relative.” In Egypt, politics has proved fairly absolute in the case of Mubarak, who has ruled since 1981 under emergency laws. Many in Egypt presume his son Gamal will eventually succeed his father.