• December 20, 2005
  • 8 minutes read

Egypt’s secular reformers losing out

Egypt’s secular reformers losing out

Egypt’s secular reformers losing out
New parliament highlights religious group’s major gains

 When the election for a new parliament began Nov. 9, Egypt’s secular opposition and democracy advocates in Washington hoped the results would produce a more open system in which political debate could flower.

Instead, Egypt’s new parliament, which convenes today, proves the old adage: Be careful what you wish for. Most liberal, secular reformers lost their seats, while a banned Islamist party became the most important opposition bloc in the 454-seat body.

Running as independents because of the official ban on their movement, Muslim Brotherhood candidates won 88 seats, or 20 percent — a sixfold increase over their seats in the outgoing assembly.

Within the ruling National Democratic Party of President Hosni Mubarak, pro-U.S. reformists lost ground to the party’s old guard. The secular opposition secured just nine seats.

Last week, U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said that the results “raise serious concerns about the path of political reforms in Egypt.”

The Bush administration had hoped that the election returns would show that, after 25 years in power, Mubarak was sincere in his professed desire to reform and that U.S. efforts to enhance democracy in the Middle East were succeeding. Last February, the United States pressured Egypt to release imprisoned Tomorrow Party leader Ayman Nour, seen by many in Washington as embodying a future democratic Egypt.

But Nour lost his parliamentary seat in the first round of the three-stage elections, and he’s back in jail, awaiting a verdict on what his supporters say are trumped-up charges. Nour was defeated at the polls by a former colonel in Egypt’s feared State Security services.

Amr Hiny, a straight-talking lawmaker from the ruling party’s reformist wing, also won’t be seated today. Hiny’s re-election hopes were dashed by a candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood, running on the platform “Islam is the solution.”

Moreover, the elections were marred by reports of widespread violence and interference by police, as well as allegations of outright fraud.

Egypt’s ambassador to the United States, Nabil Fahmy, disputed the extent of the violence, saying it had occurred in only 10 to 25 of the thousands of polling stations. Fahmy said in Washington Thursday that the elections were “a vote for change rather than going Islamist” and that the most significant change was a strong showing by independent candidates.

“It was a complete defeat for the liberal political tendencies,” said Hala Mustafa, a political analyst who in recent months has become critical of the ruling party she belongs to. “Now, there are no other players in this game except the National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Many of the ruling party’s biggest advocates for change — those aligned with the president’s son, Gamal Mubarak — lost their races. The fact that the elections were tainted by violence and allegations of fraud is seen as another sign of the old guard’s continuing grip on Egyptian politics.

“We are screaming and screaming for the people to vote and to participate, and then they go to the polls, and they get killed and beaten,” said the NDP’s Hiny.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s emergence presents a new dilemma for the Bush administration: whether to continue to ignore an officially outlawed organization that has demonstrated deep popular support or to initiate contacts that are likely to draw protests from the Egyptian government.

U.S. officials in Cairo appear to be making tentative moves toward accommodation.

“The ambassador (Francis Ricciardone) has made it clear that individual contacts with members of parliament are OK, but no formal contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood,” said John Berry, the U.S. Embassy spokesman in Cairo. “We are in touch with people who hold offices, but we don’t have a relationship with or talk officially to the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The Brotherhood’s deputy leader, Mohammed Habib, said that its members would welcome dialogue with U.S. lawmakers, but contacts with officials of the U.S. administration would require approval from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.

The limited rapprochement comes on the heels of a monthlong charm offensive in which the Brotherhood tried to soften its image. Leading Brotherhood officials wrote articles in the Western press stressing the group’s commitment to nonviolence and democracy. Its candidates welcomed foreign journalists to their campaign events and launched two English-language Web sites. The group’s supreme leader, Mahdi Akef, said the Muslim Brotherhood would not fight Israel if it came to power.

Brotherhood officials also say that the group will use its new legislative clout to push for popular political reforms, rather than a religiously conservative social agenda.

“We are with the Islam that preserves the rights of all people — Copts, women, minorities,” said Hamdy Hassan, a Muslim Brotherhood lawmaker from Alexandria who was re-elected to a second term.

Not satisfied that Hassan had painted an adequately tolerant picture, an adviser shouted over his shoulder, “And Jews, too.”

“We will focus on the issues that restrict the political and civil rights of the Egyptian people,” Hassan added after the interruption.

Others are skeptical.

“The problem with the Brotherhood is the large amount of mistrust based upon the severe contradiction between their written policies and the pinkish picture they tried to paint for themselves in this election,” said Yussuf Sidholm, editor in chief of Al Watani, a Coptic weekly newspaper. Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population and frequently complain of being treated as second-class citizens.

“One day, if they reach power, they may go back to their original agenda and policies,” he said. “They will ruin our tourist industry. They say they will not accept non-veiled tourists coming and getting out of their clothes on our beaches. They have their own version of what women do in society, and that mostly entails staying at home.”

Yet even critics of the Muslim Brotherhood such as Sidholm and the NDP’s Hiny say that including its members in Egyptian politics will help demystify the organization.

“Let us watch and see what this Islamic movement will do in society,” said Hiny. “The people will ask: ’Did you bring me a job for my son or not?’ … They were criticizing us from outside, but now they are on the field, so let the people see. They have an illusion that these people will do miracles, but that is not true.”

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