• Reports
  • December 12, 2005
  • 5 minutes read

Look Who’s Getting Votes

Look Who’s Getting Votes
Egyptian fundamentalists are gaining clout through the ballot box. Is this the future of Arab democracy?

Posters on the wall herald the march of Islam, but tonight the Cairo headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood is a different kind of war room. Essam el-Erian, chief political strategist for the banned but officially tolerated fundamentalist group, performs evening prayers with a dozen other officials and then starts working the phones like James Carville, checking on the results of the final round of the parliamentary elections held last week in Egypt. The early returns are promising. Later that evening, he heads to the Brotherhood’s operations center, where banks of computers and election charts, rather than Islamic symbols, line the walls. By then, with the Brotherhood victorious in one race and ahead in others, el-Erian is beaming. “Mabrouk!” he shouts to party members monitoring returns. “Congratulations!”

After years of government repression, activists like el-Erian have a lot to cheer about. The final round of balloting gave the Brotherhood, whose candidates ran as independents, 88 seats in the 454-member parliament, making it the main opposition to President Hosni Mubarak’s secular, military-backed regime, which has ruled Egypt for 24 years. The result, a sixfold increase over the group’s 15 seats in the current national assembly, came despite clashes between Brotherhood supporters and government police who tried to prevent them from voting. The violence left 12 dead and hundreds injured. And the election raised the possibility that the Brotherhood, which ran a media-savvy campaign that appealed to its fundamentalist base as well as to Egyptians fed up with one-party rule, could eventually take power through the ballot box in the Arab world’s most populous country. “We are in a transition period in the history of Egypt,” el-Erian says. “We are the real representatives of the country.”

The Brotherhood’s emergence has set off political tremors across the Middle East–and poses a quandary for the Bush Administration’s strategy of promoting democracy and free elections in the region. Founded in 1928, the Brotherhood has never renounced its goal of re-establishing an Islamic caliphate and has long been associated with radical ideologues like Sayyid Qutb, whose writings helped inspire al-Qaeda. During a visit to Egypt last June, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ruled out meetings with the group out of respect for Egypt’s laws. And Egyptians across the political spectrum say the Brotherhood’s vague slogan “Islam of the solution” masks a militant agenda. “If the country continues to go this way, we are going to move from a military dictatorship to a theocracy,” says Hisham Kassem, chief of the liberal Al-Masry al-Youm daily newspaper.

How the Brotherhood uses its clout may be determined by younger leaders like el-Erian, who heads the party’s political department. A practicing physician, el-Erian, 51, joined the group after Israel’s defeat of the Arab states in the 1967 Six-Day War helped spur a revival of Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world. He was among thousands of activists rounded up at about the time a Muslim extremist assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. After a year in prison, el-Erian won a seat in parliament in 1987, serving three years before being jailed again in 1995.

El-Erian’s latest tussle occurred this year, when authorities sent him back to prison for six months for organizing antigovernment street protests. He was released only three weeks before the first round of parliamentary voting. Though freed too late to run for parliament, el-Erian took command of the party’s political wing and set up an operations center to coordinate activists, respond to reports of voter intimidation and conduct exit polls. Interviewed by TIME after the final results, el-Erian downplayed fears that the Brotherhood would focus on such issues as banning alcohol and veiling women according to Islamic rules, saying it would seek gradual change in line with the sentiment of the electorate. El-Erian says that in parliament, the Brotherhood’s immediate agenda will be “freedom, freedom, freedom.”

El-Erian’s geniality could make him a future presidential rival of Mubarak’s son, Gamal, 42, who has not ruled out a presidential bid in 2011. It also won’t hurt the Brotherhood’s image with the U.S. As an activist in the 1980s, el-Erian became friendly with Francis Ricciardone, then a young embassy official and currently ambassador to Egypt. So far, the old acquaintances have failed to reunite. Ricciardone suggests the U.S. ban on meetings could be waived for the Brotherhood’s M.P.s, telling TIME, “We have always had contact with elected independent members of parliament.” Now that they’re entering Egypt’s halls of power, el-Erian and the Brotherhood aren’t likely to be ignored much longer.