Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood seizes increased freedom ahead of polls

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood seizes increased freedom ahead of polls 
Islamist party shows political savvy as it campaigns to win support of poor
By Agence France Presse (AFP)

Election countdown

CAIRO: Under a pragmatically all-encompassing religious slogan – “Islam is the solution” – Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has demonstrated consummate political savvy during the parliamentary campaign.

With an unprecedented level of freedom since it has been allowed to use its real name, the banned Islamist movement has criss-crossed the country’s most destitute areas, organized mass rallies and sharpened its public relations tools.

“When they go to a village, first they study it carefully and then they apply very distinct and locally driven platforms, not one-size-fits-all slogans,” Cairo-based political analyst Josh Stacher said.

Muslim Brothers went and catered to the poorest’s basic concerns in areas where candidates from President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and other opposition groups rarely tread, he said.

“We are not like the other opposition groups, we work on the ground,” said Issam al-Aryan, a top Brotherhood official who was jailed for five months this year.

At a weekend campaign rally in the Cairo suburb of Hilwan, officials addressed their constituents in a huge tent where 1,500 chairs had been neatly lined up.

A well-organized security service wearing Brotherhood scarves watched over as the crowd chanted: “Egyptian, give your vote to Islam.”

More at home than ever in parliamentary polls where votes are lost and won over localized problems, the Brotherhood candidate promised better sewage, schools and hospitals, refraining from dwelling on national policy issues.

Despite an increased margin of freedom, the ideology of the Brotherhood – created in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna – remains unclear. The chapter on corruption in the movement’s program advocates “a reform of the mind in order to attain higher moral values.”

“They present themselves as an alternative to the regime … They neither accept it nor reject it, they are very pragmatic and just look at the rules of the political game of the moment,” Stacher said.

The movement’s leaders have said that they decided to field only a third of the maximum 444 candidates in order “not to provoke” the regime.

“The Brotherhood is playing its cards well and the regime fails to realize that every step it takes without making this country a real pluralist democracy will push more people into the arms of the Brothers,” said Mohammad Kamel, a candidate from the liberal Wafd Party in the Nile Delta region.

With 15 MPs in Parliament as independents and a solid network of social welfare, the Islamist movement is already the most formidable opposition force to the all-powerful NDP.

Some observers have argued that the regime could seek to crush the myth of the Brotherhood’s strength by tampering with the results to leave them with a relatively low score despite a free campaign.

But Stacher argued the regime might prefer to see the Brotherhood make gains rather than the legal opposition. “No matter how you integrate an illegal entity, you can always shut the door on it.”

Backed by the United States, Mubarak has so far refused to legalize the movement.

But Salama Ahmad Salama, an editorialist for the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, said the 2005 polls had put the question on the table again.

“We need to learn how to integrate the Islamic current in political life,” he said.

“The Muslim Brotherhood needs to revise its political discourse and make it more compatible with democracy.”

The movement’s pragmatism would suggest that it may well water down its discourse if required.

In a recent article, Columbia University political scientist Mona al-Ghobashy wrote: “Setting out to win Egyptian hearts and minds for an austere Islamic state and society, Hassan al-Banna’s society of Muslim brothers was instead irrevocably transformed into a flexible political party.” – AFP