Muslim Brotherhood Influences Egypt Vote

Muslim Brotherhood Influences Egypt Vote

Muslim Brotherhood Influences Egypt Vote
CAIRO, Egypt (AP) – Egypt’s strongest opposition movement won’t even appear on the ballot when voters take a first step toward democratic reform next week. Yet the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood – the country’s largest Islamic group – is on clear display behind the scenes.

The main challengers to President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt’s first contested presidential vote have courted the Brotherhood’s support. Its statements have been closely scrutinized. And everyone is wondering who its followers will pick on election day Wednesday.

The Brotherhood itself – which has been banned for more than 50 years but traditionally endorses parliamentary candidates – is offering few clues, whether through political savvy or indecisiveness.

After weeks of speculation about whether it might urge a boycott of Wednesday’s vote or endorse a candidate, the Brotherhood in an Aug. 21 statement urged its supporters to cast ballots but declined to support a particular side. The group did hint, without mentioning names, that followers should not vote for Mubarak, who has never before faced a challenger.

Some called that a bid to keep channels open with both the government and the opposition – a sign of the pragmatism and calculation that have helped the Brotherhood survive numerous government crackdowns.

"They did not want to create a direct confrontation with the regime while also maintaining relations with the opposition," said Diaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamic groups. The Brotherhood knows it might need to strike alliances with opposition parties in future legislative elections, he said.

Others viewed the decision as a sign of internal division in the Brotherhood, indecisiveness or political opportunism.

One critic, Tharwat el-Kherbawy, a former member who split from the group in 1999, says he thinks its leaders forged a deal with Mubarak’s ruling party, to divide votes among candidates so none would get an edge, in exchange for the release of some jailed members.

Some leading Brotherhood figures have been released since the group’s statement, but group leaders firmly deny any deal.

Despite such controversies, there is no question that many view the Brotherhood’s influence as important. Mubarak’s main challengers, Ayman Nour and Noaman Gomaa, have both visited the group.

The attempts to secure Brotherhood votes "showed that while the Brotherhood is denied legal legitimacy, it enjoys the popular legitimacy," said member Ali Abdel Fattah.

Critics say the Brotherhood’s clout is exaggerated – magnified by the weakness of legal parties that have been emaciated by government restrictions or are accused of falling out of touch, failing to make their ideologies relevant in today’s world.

But it is active. On Thursday, some 400 demonstrators chanted in central Cairo for Egypt’s judges to insist on stronger powers in supervising next week’s presidential elections. Most of the protesters belonged to the National Alliance for Reform and Change, a coalition that is dominated by the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood is not allowed to contest elections but it has a history of endorsing members who it fields as independents in legislative elections. With 15 seats in parliament, Brotherhood members make up the largest opposition bloc.

Founded in 1928, the group is a main force behind the increasing "Islamization" of Egypt. Officially banned in 1954, it renounced violence in the 1970’s, but the government continues to treat it with suspicion, tightening or relaxing its grip as needed.

There are no credible figures of Brotherhood members and sympathizers, but political analysts estimate it has support from hundreds of thousands.

They offer an array of theories as to why the Brotherhood has managed to thrive in a restrictive political atmosphere: Its mix of religion and politics appeals to a wide audience, and its elaborate network of social services win it supporters. In addition, the Brotherhood’s internal discipline and political savvy in dealing with authorities serve as survival mechanisms.

Exactly how the Brotherhood’s stance will play out on election day remains unclear.

Abdel Fattah said members could vote for any of the nine candidates challenging Mubarak or strike off the names of all 10.

"The most important thing for them is to go to the polling stations to test their real power and to train their members in preparation for the parliamentary elections (later this year)," said analyst Rashwan.

Indeed for all its popularity, hardly anyone believes the group can tip the scales in a race certain to be won by Mubarak.

"It’s very unlikely for anyone to shift the balance in Egypt as long as the majority remains silent," Abdel Fattah said.