Polls apart

Polls apart

Election results are revealing Egypt’s growing divide between religion and politics, writes Rory McCarthy

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood continues to surprise with its strong performance at the polls in the current month-long parliamentary elections. The outlawed Islamist movement has secured at least 76 seats and stands to win still more in the next round of voting on Thursday.
In the end it is likely to hold at least a fifth of the 454-seat parliament. The rest of the secular opposition parties are set to win only a few dozen seats between them, leaving the Muslim Brotherhood by far the biggest opposition group in Egypt.

President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic party will still emerge to dominate the new parliament – after all, the Brotherhood is only contesting around a third of the seats on offer. It is indicative of the group’s ambiguous relationship with the government: their movement is banned but its candidates may run as independents; they criticise Mr Mubarak yet are wary of mounting too much of a challenge against him.
The Egyptian government is clearly uncomfortable with the results so far. Another 150 members of the Brotherhood were arrested today and officials from the movement say more than 700 of their members are now in jail. There has been violence at the polls and widespread evidence of vote rigging. Government judges stopped voting in three constituencies on Saturday because of serious irregularities.

Leaders from the Brotherhood have been trying to sound moderate in recent days. Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the movement’s Supreme Guide and a long-time political prisoner, said at the weekend that his group would not alter Egypt’s policy towards Israel or try to revise its peace treaty. “We do not recognise Israel, but we will not fight it. We will respect all the treaties,” he told the Associated Press.

He said his group’s performance reflected a growing frustration among ordinary Egyptians with their government.

“People are outraged by the performance of this government and its ruling party. Both have fed people nothing but bitterness,” he said. “These great people have no confidence in this government. They have shown that they are against tyranny and with us.”

However it is not clear what a Muslim Brotherhood political programme would look like. Its leaders talk of the need for democratic reforms, particularly constitutional changes to limit the president to just two terms in power (Mr Mubarak has ruled for 24 years) and to lift the restrictions on the formation of new political parties. Many others in Egypt’s opposition would endorse those calls.

But the group also promotes a conservative agenda: the veil for women, rule by Islamic law and a crackdown on perceived immoralities. In a country where there are already serious divides between different religious communities, and where there are many who are unhappy at the idea of combining religion and politics, that is likely to prove difficult.

The result of these elections has been to create a polarisation in Egyptian politics, between a powerful religious movement demanding change on the one hand and an ageing government party that is reluctant to reform. The National Democratic party could find itself locked in heated debates in parliament next year on the question of political, social and economic reform in Egypt.

And then there is the question of Egypt’s next leader. Mr Mubarak, now 77, is thought to want to pass on power to his son, Gamal, who leads a group within the ruling party that says it is more broadminded and pro-western. The Muslim Brotherhood is likely to demand that the new president is properly elected, not simply appointed by way of family inheritance, and that is likely to present further headaches for the regime.