Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 November 2005
Issue No. 770
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Who's afraid of the Brotherhood?

Amira Howeidy explores what the Muslim Brotherhood's success at the polls really means

As a convoy of buses packed with supporters of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) approached the Damanhour polling station to allegedly swing the vote in favour of the NDP candidate a human chain brought the vehicles to a halt. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) lay across the road and refused to move and as a result the convoy did not reach its destination.

The scene, commented one secular intellectual, "is reminiscent of Bernardo Bertolucci's anti-fascist epic 1900 ". Like most of Egypt's left-leaning intelligentsia the intellectual in question was concerned by the MB's success in the elections, yet she spoke admiringly of the way the group had protected the ballot, comparing it to the way the peasants in Bertolucci's film resisted fascism.

Such scenes are set to haunt the political spectrum as the MB continues to score notable victories in the ongoing parliamentary elections. In Sunday's second stage of the vote the "outlawed" group added 13 seats to the 34 it won in the first stage, meaning that at this half-way point in the election process, which ends on 7 December, the MB has already secured more than 10 per cent of the parliament's seats. And in Saturday's run-offs many of the MB's 41 candidates are expected to win, increasing the number of seats controlled by the group before elections enter the third and final stage on 1 December. Observers predict the MB could win some 100 seats -- quite a considerable victory given they only fielded 137 candidates -- should the authorities' relatively tolerant attitude continue. Should that happen, it will be the first time in Egypt's history that any opposition block has occupied close to one quarter of parliament's 444 seats.

The sudden change in Egypt's political life, which for decades remained stagnant, is provoking vibrant debate, and to many secularists and left-wing intellectuals the seemingly inexorable rise of the MB is cause for worry. The latest issue of the independent Al-Fagr (Dawn) weekly newspaper carried a front page cartoon of the group's supreme guide dressed in a Nazi uniform over the caption "Faithful President Mohamed Mahdi Akef". In the same issue Salah Eissa, left-wing historian and editor of the Ministry of Culture-funded Al-Qahira newspaper, predicted the group's transformation on the back of its electoral success into a kind of Egyptian Taliban.

Egypt's eight million-strong Coptic community seems to share the concern. According to Wednesday's issue of the daily independent Al-Masry Al-Yom the Coptic Orthodox Church has already voiced its worries to the authorities over the MB's election gains. While the church has not confirmed the reports, some Coptic intellectuals have been vocal in expressing their concern: earlier in the week prominent Coptic intellectual Milad Hanna was widely quoted as saying he will "leave Egypt" if the Brotherhood come to power. Speaking to AFP on Tuesday Hanna went further: "The day the Muslim Brothers win more than 50 per cent" he said, "rich Copts will leave the country while poorer Copts will stay... maybe some of them will be converted... I hope I die before this happens."

Repeated assurances from the MB that it is committed to religious diversity and respects the rights of non-Muslims have yet to convince secularists, let alone Copts. It is a situation that may well have informed the decision by the MB's Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat El-Shater to publish a commentary in the London-based Guardian newspaper on Wednesday under the title "No need to be afraid of us". No political, religious, social or cultural group should be excluded from Egypt's political life, he wrote. The MB's goal must be to "end the monopoly of government by a single party and boost popular engagement in political activity," El-Shater wrote, further adding "We simply have no choice today but to reform."

Not everyone is afraid. Wael Khalil, a die-hard socialist activist in the anti- Mubarak Egyptian Movement for Change (Kifaya) said he voted for the MB. "I'm elated by their performance," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. "The MB is, without question, my ally [in the battle for reform]... [Government] thugs attacked voters and innocent citizens and we're pontificating about the MB's commitment to a civil state," Khalil continued. "Where did the thugs come from if not today's civil state? Is this the right time to worry about the MB?" Recalling the scenes in Damanhour Khalil argued that the group's members "didn't risk their lives to protect the ballot for the petty goal of forcing the few unveiled Egyptian women to veil should they come to power." If anything, he said, "the group's success gives us all hope that we can make a difference if we defend our rights the way they did theirs."

Meanwhile the MB is keeping a close eye on the ballot, monitoring and analysing the results. Leading MB member Essam El-Erian distinguishes between "positive" votes that went to MB candidates and the "protest" votes, like Khalil's, that seek to punish the government. According to El-Erian, of the 35 to 40 per cent of the electorate that voted for the MB "approximately 15 to 20 per cent of the votes were protest ones." In addition to its highly-organised campaign and media liaison team the MB has deployed thousands of members to conduct a survey of voters' intentions. The group's on-going polling activities, which will be completed when the elections end, suggests that the vast majority of MB supporters are from the middle classes, said El-Erian.

"We are finding out a lot about ourselves and society. This isn't just about politics and winning parliamentary seats, we want to know why people vote for us and what they expect. And we have professional statisticians doing this for us." How many MB members have been involved in the elections? "I would say 25,000, volunteers including women and children," said El-Erian. "We've all been working hard."

No wonder, wrote Al-Ahram 's Sayed Ali in his column on Wednesday, people are voting MB. "Just look at their website and look at the NDP's."

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