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Pedestrians in Cairo pass an election poster April 8
The world hardly blinked when Egypt held municipal elections April 7-8. According to estimates by Al Jazeera, a meager 3 percent of voters turned out. The vast majority of Egyptians apparently were resigned to the fact that the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of Egyptian President
Hosni Mubarak would sideline the opposition and sweep the 50,000 seats up for grabs with ease.
The NDP was in no mood to flirt with democracy this electoral go-round. In 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) — Egypt’s largest and best organized opposition group — sent shockwaves through the Egyptian ruling party when it won 20 percent of seats in parliament. Fearful that the MB would make more gains, further threatening the Mubarak government’s hold on power, elections were postponed for two years in 2006. In another move to shore up the government, a new measure required independent candidates to secure support from 140 members of local councils and backing from members of parliament before running.
By the time local elections rolled around again in 2008, the Egyptian security apparatus was more than ready to keep the opposition at bay. A major crackdown was launched ahead of the election, during which hundreds of MB members were thrown in jail and/or physically barred from registering their candidacies and votes. This left the MB with little choice but to boycott the election in protest.
A Prickly Relationship with Cairo
The MB has had a turbulent history with the Egyptian state. At its inception in 1928 under Hassan al-Banna, the Islamist group’s founder, the group focused on serving as an alternative government to Egypt’s then-monarchy. It therefore put the bulk of its efforts into building schools, hospitals, welfare societies and factories to build up grassroots support and ground itself as a mass social movement. The MB found common cause with Gamal Abdul Nasser, a young army colonel at the time, collaborating with him to overthrow the Egyptian monarchy in a military coup in 1952.
But the days of army-Islamist cooperation quickly came to a close as it became clear that Nasser’s regime had little need for MB support once it consolidated its hold on power. Tensions between the two ideologically opposed forces came to a head in 1954, when the MB allegedly made a dramatic assassination attempt against Nasser. A severe crackdown swiftly followed, during which thousands of Islamist activists — including influential Islamist leader Sayyid Qutb, and later al Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri — were tortured in prison. During this period, the seeds were planted for the rise of a jihadist movement that would later expand throughout — and beyond — the Islamic world.
At that point, the MB’s fate had been sealed. The secular governments of Nasser and Anwar Sadat had little to no tolerance for the group’s views on establishing an Islamic polity, and the distinction between the MB and a number of splinter jihadist groups became increasingly blurred. To ensure its long-term survival, the MB kept a safe distance from the rising jihadist movement in Egypt, and instead went down the political path. It gradually made inroads into parliament by fielding its candidates as independents, despite the government’s official ban on the group as a political movement.
"We Must Be Patient"
The Mubarak government effectively has painted the MB as it exists today into a corner. Since the MB’s electoral boost in 2005, the Egyptian elite’s paranoia over regime survival has only intensified the state’s watch over the movement. Mostly working in plainclothes, Egyptian security forces monitor the group’s activities, from the 1,000-year-old Al-Azhar University in the heart of Cairo to the slums of the Nile Delta. Egypt’s geography deprives dissident groups of any hinterlands in which to escape government surveillance. Its population is densely packed along the Nile River, facilitating the state’s ability to stay two steps ahead of opposition actions. As a result, planned demonstrations are quickly put down, candidates and voters are easily barred from polling booths and MB members regularly are rounded up in mass arrests at a moment’s notice without charges.
In every discussion with MB leaders, the group’s response to the state’s actions is the same: “We must be patient.”
But patient for what, exactly? Many point to the apparently imminent demise of Mubarak — whose failing health has kept him out of the spotlight in recent years — as a potential opening for Egypt’s political opposition. And in fact there is no guarantee the ruling NDP will not succumb to infighting, failing to hold the government together as Mubarak has. But the state is ready to keep a lid on the MB during the political transition, during which Mubarak is expected to hand the reins of power either to his son, Gamal, or to Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Despite occasional pledges to lift a state of emergency imposed in 1981 following an assassination attempt on Sadat, the state has absolutely no intention of lifting the emergency law and providing dissident groups with even a remote chance of threatening the regime. Even the MB privately has resigned itself to the fact that the leadership transition is unlikely to provide the opposition much of a political opening.
Instead, the group is proceeding cautiously in how it manages its prickly relationship with the state. MB leaders are careful to direct their criticism of the government at its actions — such as reported human rights abuses in jails — rather than at the regime itself. This is to reassure the government that the MB’s political agenda does not necessarily aim at regime change, particularly as the MB already has its hands full prying the government open enough for its members to participate in the system.
The MB also consciously steers clear of associating itself with the number of splinter jihadist groups milling about the country to avoid giving the state the justification to crush it — as Cairo has done with other Islamist groups. The MB faces a potential threat from some of these rival Islamist groups, as the government continues to make backdoor deals to get members of groups such as Tandheem al-Jihad and Gamaah al-Islamiyah to renounce violence and enter the political mainstream. These traditional Salafist groups have condemned the MB for its modernist Islamist approach, which they claim deviates from the fundamental principles of Islam. Though these groups do not yet pose a significant threat to the MB’s Islamist monopoly, Cairo would have an interest in intensifying this intra-Islamist competition to keep a check on the MB’s growth.
The MB also cannot avoid the fact that the state’s paranoia over it has been compounded by the rise of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, just a few hundred miles across the Sinai Peninsula. Hamas was created as an outgrowth of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood in 1987, and has maintained links with its parent organization. When Egyptian forces were forced to take action after Hamas last breached the Gaza border with Egypt in late January, scores of MB-led anti-government demonstrations were organized across Egypt. In the MB’s eyes, these demonstrations were intended to show that the MB stands in solidarity with the plight of the Palestinians, while the government was turning its back on suffering Gazans. In the eyes of the Mubarak government, however, this was a dangerous sign of Islamist solidarity. The threat of an Egyptian Islamist uprising energized by Hamas down the road was all too real, reinforcing the state’s belief that it could not afford to take any chances by politically empowering the MB.
It goes without saying that the Egyptian state security apparatus maintains an iron grip over the country’s opposition movement, and that the MB’s moves will be checked at every turn. In this respect, Cairo is in firm control over the fate of the Mubarak government. But there are other, deeper socio-economic factors bubbling beneath the surface that the state does not have enough control over — and this is where the reason for the MB’s extraordinary patience may be better understood.
Pre-Election Riots Hit Egypt
Though the Egyptian government did its best to keep the news from leaking, the lead-up to the April 7-8 municipal elections saw two days of deadly riots over low wages and soaring food prices. A billboard of Mubarak was torn down in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla el-Kobra as protestors clashed with police in what has been described as the worst unrest since Egypt’s 1977 riots over a rise in bread prices.
With food and energy prices rising globally due to creeping inflation, bread riots in Egypt are of particular concern considering that a good chunk of Egypt’s population of 70 million — of which about 40 percent lives below the poverty line — survive on subsidized bread. Egypt’s inflation rate jumped to 12.1 percent, food and beverage prices increased 16.8 percent and nonsubsidized bread and grain rose 27 percent in the past month, according to the Cairo-based Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. Since the MB derives most of its support from Egypt’s poor, the bread shortages — much to the government’s fears — are bolstering the group’s political leverage. Even as Mubarak was ordering the army and Interior Ministry to increase the production and distribution of bread through its own bakeries, MB members were on the streets handing out bread to the poor, seizing the opportunity to show up the regime.
In Egypt it is not uncommon to encounter lawyers, doctors or engineers working as taxi drivers to cope with falling wages and rising inflation. Unemployment is rising to critical levels, with unofficial estimates ranging between 17 percent and 25 percent (the government’s official estimates stand at roughly half that). The 20-24 age cohort is most severely impacted by this trend. With few job prospects in the market, more and more Egyptian youths are turning to religion for solace, made apparent by the increasing number of young Egyptian women choosing to don the hijab across the country over the past several years. Increasing Islamist influence in Egypt works in favor of the MB, but also it means that disaffected youth could become ensnared by jihadist ideology.
Though some attempts at privatization have been made in certain areas, Egypt’s highly centralized economy is a legacy of the Nasser era, and continues to lag in netting the foreign investment needed to breathe life into the economy. Egypt also faces a disconcerting trend of falling oil production and rising energy consumption, making it all the more imperative for the state to make up for an increasing loss in revenues.
Bleak economic prospects force many of Egypt’s best and brightest to leave the country in search of opportunities, further constraining the state’s ability to diversify and grow its market. With a need to buy popular support and keep social tensions in check, cutting back on the extensive food subsidies that burden the state budget becomes all the more dangerous for the government, spawning a vicious economic cycle for both state and society.
These economic hardships also are contributing to a less noticed, but growing issue of unmarried couples in Egypt. More and more young Egyptian men are having a hard time maintaining a stable enough income to support a wife, much less a family. In an Islamic society, the social stigma attached to unmarried women is an issue the MB has also latched onto, criticizing the regime for not providing more opportunities for Egypt’s youth. With an increasing number of young people becoming more heavily influenced by Islam and critical of the state, the MB has an attractive vote bank to use against the state. Also working in the brotherhood’s favor is the younger generation’s increasing attraction to the “blogosphere,” which young people use to organize and spread the word on planned demonstrations and to chronicle their dissent against the regime — setting the groundwork for a more intensive media crackdown down the road.
An Uncertain Future
The Egyptian opposition is not exactly an impressive bunch at first glance. The secular opposition movement Kifayah, which gained notoriety for its widespread protests in 2005, has been reduced to a small and ineffective group due to infighting, state crackdowns, frustration and a lack of direction among the group’s leaders. The MB remains the most formidable opposition group, but it is too busy avoiding arrest to seriously threaten the regime. While the iron grip of the Egyptian state is likely to endure for an extensive period, the government cannot ignore the underlying socio-economic conditions tugging with more and more force at it each year.
And the regime is taking notice.
A widespread strike was planned for April 6 in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections. Egyptian plainclothes officers pre-empted the strike by occupying the factories and forcing the workers to call off the strike. After deadly riots in Mahalla el-Kobra broke out, leading Egyptian authorities rushed to meet with workers at the main textile factory in the city and offered a bonus of 30-days pay plus promises to address the workers’ demands for better wages and health care. The government’s snap response was more indicative of the regime’s concern that the riots would spread throughout the country rather than an expectation that these economic woes could be addressed in any fundamental way. Egypt’s downward-spiraling financial position and high population density spell a future of increasing political despotism before society as whole begins to crack.
With these vulnerabilities exposed, the iron grip of the state security apparatus cannot be entirely relied upon down the road to stem this rising wave of discontent. And from the Muslim Brotherhood’s perspective, this is where patience could very well pay off.