Egypt’s Islamists: Betting on the Ballot Box

Supporters of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood 'The Freedom and Justice Party' participate in a march in support of the party ahead of parliamentary elections, in Cairo 16 November 2011. (Photo: REUTERS - Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)

By: Ursula Lindsey

Published Sunday, November 27, 2011

Egypt’s major Islamist groups are pinning all their hope to gain power and popular legitimacy on impending elections, further alienating many of Egypt’s young revolutionary forces in the process.

Egypt - One evening a few weeks ago, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) invited journalists to attend one of their parliamentary campaign events in Cairo’s sprawling poor neighborhood of Imbaba.

A disciplined and cheerful crowd marched along the narrow, unpaved alleys. People leaned out their windows in the tightly packed red-brick apartment blocks. While their supporters chanted upbeat political and religious slogans, the candidates stopped at the local shops and cafes to shake hands with middle-aged men.

The march was like many others the MB has held in previous elections. But there were also some noticeable differences: the larger than usual female contingent and the yellow sashes bearing the name of the organization’s newly established Freedom and Justice Party. The lack of plainclothes security officers lurking in the background and the palpable optimism also stood out.

For months now, Islamists have made holding elections their priority. That night in Imbaba, candidate Amr Darrag told me that electoral legitimacy would give him and others the power to truly represent the people. "This will be much more powerful than the force in Tahrir Square," he said. "Rather than having a million people rally for a certain demand, if I represent one million people I can speak for them."

The MB, and other new Islamist groups who formed parties in the last 10 months, expect to do well in the parliamentary elections. In the 2005 elections, seen as less corrupt as those of 2010, they won about 20 percent of the parliament seats available, and in this election many observers predict that, combined, Islamist parties may win a majority. The MB in particular is well-organized, well-funded and has a regional network across the country that no other party can match.

Ever since Mubarak’s ouster there has been a note of confidence bordering on triumphalism amongst Islamist parties in Egypt. It was they who organized the anti-army demonstration in Tahrir on November 18 to reject so-called "supra-constitutional" principles. Some opposed these principles for granting the army exceptional privileges and for enshrining freedoms that, they said, might contradict Islamic principles.

"People are afraid of Islamists," a member of the MB told me that day. "But if Islamists win, isn't that the will of the people? We've tried all the other forms of government – Mubarak's rule, socialist, capitalist rule – why not try the Brotherhood? What's the problem?"

The following day, the army and riot police violently cleared a small sit-in from the square after a week of bloody clashes that left 44 dead and hundreds wounded, and brought tens of thousands into the streets demanding an immediate end to military rule. The Islamists’ insistence that elections are the solution to the current political crises has reportedly caused some heated internal debates, and widened the gulf of mistrust between them and their secular counterparts.

The MB and the Salafi party El Nour, while condemning the violence against protesters and joining calls for the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) to hold presidential elections in the Spring of 2012, did not take to the street to call for an immediate transfer of power for a national salvation government. In fact, last Friday the MB called on its members to join a protest for Palestine at Al-Azhar mosque rather than going to Tahrir, a move that many saw as brazenly cynical.

Secular parties and young revolutionary groups say the Islamists are putting their electoral victory ahead of solidarity with the protesters and of the need to challenge SCAF now. "Some young brothers have been with us. But the leaders, honestly, they just have their eye on getting into power," said Mohammed Ahmad, a young organizer of last Friday's protest in Tahrir. "We all want a parliament, but we need to get people's rights first."

Anti-Islamist sentiment in Tahrir is such that Mohammed El Beltagi – an MB member who played a prominent role in the January 25 uprising – was unceremoniously ejected from the square when he tried to visit.

Young Islamists have nonetheless been present in Tahrir. They explain that there’s a difference between the leadership’s official statements and the stance of younger members on the ground.

“We’ve decided to do two things at once,” said Mohammed Sayed, a member of the Salafi El Nour party. “To apply pressure on the council from the square; and to pursue the elections, to elect a parliament that will represent the people not a government like [former Prime Minister] Essam Sharaf’s, that the military council moves like a puppet. Some people are continuing to work on elections; and others are coming to the square. It’s a division of labor.”

Some decry what they consider the Islamists’ typical opportunism, their willingness to sacrifice principles to expedience. Others call this a clever strategy, further evidence that Islamists are the country’s most seasoned politicians. Ultimately, they may both be saying the same thing.

Sayed and others offered rather unconvincing explanation for their leadership’s stance. Islamists parties withheld their official endorsement because their support would be used by the media and the army to undermine the protests, they said. America, Israel, and the SCAF want to postpone the elections to prevent a government with a popular mandate, that might hold the military accountable and change Egypt’s foreign policy, from coming to power. True as it may be that an Islamist-led parliament raises fears in Washington and Tel Aviv, the US State Department and the SCAF have in fact insisted on the need to proceed with elections.

It is one of the ironies of the moment that Islamists, who ten days ago openly challenged SCAF, have been left behind and troubled by the escalating confrontation with the military. It is another irony that the MB and others, who for so many years based their legitimacy on “the street” now say that elections, flawed as they may be, are the only legitimate way to affect change.

At the Imbaba march, Abeer El-Shazly, a MB supporter, admitted many Egyptians are skeptical of elections and mistrustful of Islamists. But once the MB and others are in power, she said, their governance will speak for itself. “When the people see how we defend them and their rights, they will see how we don't sell our principles or our ideas to rule this country,” she said. “When it [Islamist rule] will be real, not a dream, they will find that we didn't run after ruling Egypt, but we are trying to improve and advance our country.”

Given everything they have to gain, it’s not surprising that Islamists are pushing to hold elections immediately. But perhaps they should consider how much legitimacy they will gain from elections held under the aegis of the discredited and mistrusted SCAF. Many secular parties have suspended their campaigns in the last week and even called for an electoral boycott, and many of the revolutionaries in Tahrir, after all the blood on the ground, consider elections beside the point. What’s clear, however, is that Islamists are betting on the ballot box rather than the square.

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