In Egypt, polls opened on 9 November for the first round of the three-stage parliamentary elections. The role of the Muslim Brotherhood could prove to be decisive. Veit Medick reports
The opposition – and above all the moderate Islamist Muslim Brotherhood- is hoping to win a substantially larger proportion of the vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
The last elections in Egypt took place not two months ago. In September, the population was called on to select a new president. Although for the first time they had the choice of several candidates, their mandate went overwhelmingly to the incumbent, President Hosni Mubarak, with a landslide 88 percent of the vote. Despite tremendous campaign efforts, the nine remaining candidates didn't stand a chance.
Fusion of opposition parties
Of course, the fragmentation of the opposition could have been the key factor helping Mubarak to prevail. Personal animosities and old, entrenched political conflicts prevented the formation of a viable opposition and undermined the credibility of the participating parties.
This, at least, has now changed significantly on the eve of the present parliamentary elections. Leading politicians in the opposition attach far more importance to these elections than to the presidential vote, which – not only in Egypt – was widely regarded as rigged.
In reaction, the majority of the oppositional groups have now merged into a coalition called the 'United Front For Change.' The hope is that, with this step, they can finally form a political counterweight to the ruling NDP party.
At present, the opposition accounts for only 40 of the 444 seats in the Egyptian parliament and therefore has at most a token status as political strikeforce. Although the various groups are not joining the race as a common party, they have agreed to nominate only one candidate per constituency, who will in each case go up against a rival from the NDP.
No one knows for sure whether or not this strategy will ultimately prove successful following the third ballot on December 7th – if only because of the heterogeneity of the groups involved.
After all, the coalition encompasses not only the prominent liberal-conservative Wafd Party, but also the Kifaya protest movement and the left-wing Tagammu Party. To what extent the coalition's supporters will be able to put pragmatism and a common oppositional will before their respective political convictions remains to be seen.
Muslim Brotherhood on the rise?
Speculation that real politics will still take place outside the coalition is being fed by the role of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
This organization refused from the first to join the coalition and decided instead to put up its own independent candidates. Although the Muslim Brotherhood is officially forbidden to form a party due to its radical past, the government nonetheless allowed the group unexpected freedoms during the campaign, even releasing the Brotherhood's imprisoned leaders.
With its slogan 'Islam is the answer,' the group hopes to increase its parliamentary seats from the current 17 to at least 50. This hope seems not wholly unfounded, since parliamentary elections are often won on local problems.
As a charity organization, the Muslim Brotherhood has become deeply integrated into Egyptian society in past decades and will thus have an easy time conveying its ideas to the public.
For the first time, the Brotherhood is now sharing in the benefits brought by the slight political liberalization that Hosni Mubarak initiated at the beginning of the year with an amendment to the constitution. While prohibited from taking part in the presidential elections, the group has now begun to openly propagate its political agenda and has organized a series of campaign appearances for its candidates.
Disapproval from America
This new development is likely to meet with little acceptance outside the country. The USA in particular has repeatedly supported President Mubarak in the past few years in his efforts to isolate the Muslim Brotherhood politically.
But a comprehensive democratization of Egypt hardly seems possible without taking into account the moderate Islamist group. Its illegal status and the government's repressive measures have never stopped the Muslim Brotherhood from playing an active role in political life.
The group's official participation in the political process now offers an opportunity to ascertain the group's true social relevance.
Furthermore, this could be the starting signal for integrating an Islamic party into the political system, one that plays by the rules of the law and the constitution – without endangering democracy. Turkey and Morocco have shown that this undertaking is not necessarily doomed to fail.
The parliamentary elections thus at least open up the chance for a stronger opposition. This is the only way that pressure on the regime can be increased and Mubarak's monopoly on power begin to be curtailed.
© Qantara.de 2005
Translation from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida