Muslim Brotherhood Shows Its Muscle

Muslim Brotherhood Shows Its Muscle
Adam Morrow

Confirming its longstanding reputation as Egypt’s strongest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood performed even better than expected in the latest round of parliamentary elections.

By the end of the second round of voting, the officially banned but tolerated group had secured some 18 percent of the seats in parliament, to the surprise and disappointment of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), headed by longtime incumbent President Hosni Mubarak.

“It was a massive surprise for everyone,” said Tamer, a resident of a voting district in the teeming, low-income Imbaba borough, where two Brotherhood candidates savaged their opponents from the NDP and other independent, secular parties..

“Hundreds of Brotherhood members and their supporters gathered in the streets, singing, and chanting, ’There is no God but Allah,’ and ’Islam is the answer’,” Tamer told IPS.

According to official results released Nov. 27, the Muslim Brotherhood, or Ikhwan Muslimeen in Arabic, won 29 seats in the recently ended second round of parliamentary voting, after capturing 47 seats in a first round earlier this month. This brings the group’s parliamentary presence so far to a total of 76 seats in the popular assembly, up from a mere 15 previously.

A third and final round of voting is scheduled to begin Dec. 1, in which the Brotherhood is expected to win yet more seats.

The Nov. 28 edition of independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that the NDP picked up 83 seats in the second round, bringing its total so far to 190 in the 444 elected seats. The neo-liberal Wafd Party — traditionally touted as Egypt’s second strongest political party after the NDP — won only two seats in the second round, brining its total number to four.

The ruling party is set to maintain its considerable majority, ensuring continued control of the People’s Assembly. Nevertheless, observers are quick to point out that the considerably higher proportion of seats held by Brotherhood-affiliated representatives will fundamentally change the dynamics of the lawmaking process.

“The Brotherhood still won’t have a parliamentary majority, so it won’t necessarily be able to oppose legislation initiated by the executive branch,” Josh Stacher, a Cairo-based researcher specialising in Egyptian domestic politics told IPS. “But the majority NDP bloc will now be more easily challenged; it will be forced to explain itself a lot more.”

The Muslim Brotherhood was officially banned in the mid-1950s, after some of its members were accused of trying to assassinate then interior minister Gamal Abdel Nasser, who went on to become president shortly afterwards. In the 1970s the group officially renounced violence, and its activities have been confined to the political arena ever since.

Like Islamist parties in other majority Muslim countries in the region, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has built considerable grassroots support by providing much needed social services in impoverished areas. Such activities have earned it a reputation for competence and honesty, often in contrast to a ruling party popularly perceived as self-serving and corrupt.

“The Brotherhood was extremely popular in Imbaba, even before the election, because it stands against corruption and its people are honest and respectable,” said Tamer.

He went on to note that the Islamist group’s reputation had been given a healthy boost by the government’s failure to provide basic services in low-income areas, such as Imbaba.

“After 24 years of waiting for changes, like clean streets and workable sewage systems, people lost faith in the ruling party,” he said. “The Brotherhood will deal with all these pressing issues, which are high on its agenda.”

The Muslim Brotherhood continues to be denied a party licence, however, which has forced it to field its candidates as independents. Its members have also routinely been arrested by the authorities for allegedly subversive activities, such as congregating in large numbers without approval of the state.

In an indication of the ruling party’s fear of a rising proportion of Islamist influence in parliament, numerous instances of irregularities were reported during the most recent round of voting. Independent election monitors noted that government security forces in many cases attempted to prevent Brotherhood supporters from reaching polling stations.

The Bush administration, which has aggressively promoted a campaign of ’democratisation’ in the region, has typically distanced itself from the Brotherhood, and tacitly backed Cairo’s refusal to recognise the group. The Brotherhood is a vocal critic of U.S. policy in the region.

In light of its unexpected parliamentary successes, however, Washington may have to reappraise its relationship with the group.

To many Egyptians the Muslim Brotherhood is not as radical as it is portrayed in the western media to be. “They’re not extremists, they’re moderates,” said Tamer. “It’s not true that, once in power, they’ll force all women to wear veils, or close all the churches. This is just anti-Brotherhood propaganda.”

According to Stacher, once in parliament with a sizable minority, Brotherhood demands will initially remain modest. “At first, the Brotherhood will continue to simply challenge the NDP agenda of liberal economics and gradual political opening,” he said.

The group’s demands could become more strident after it finds its parliamentary feet, he added, “but this is going to take some time.”

The results represent a considerable setback for the NDP’s next generation of leaders, headed by Mubarak’s son, Gamal. NDP ’new guard’ candidates offered a platform of liberal economics, gradualist political reform, reinvigoration of the party with a younger leadership, and a foreign policy marked by closeness to Washington.

Such pragmatic directives have failed to satisfy many Egyptians. (END/2005)