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Egypt's Brotherhood takes centre stage

A massive banner displayed in a Cairo district proclaims the phrase "Islam is the Solution" above a small image of the Quran set between two crisscrossed medieval swords.

Last Modified: 13 Nov 2005 22:58 GMT
The Brotherhood's slogan proclaims 'Islam is the solution'

A massive banner displayed in a Cairo district proclaims the phrase "Islam is the Solution" above a small image of the Quran set between two crisscrossed medieval swords.

The banner, hoisted across a main square in the upper middle class Roxy district only a few metres away from the Quba presidential palace, is testament to the growing confidence of the outlawed, but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood organisation.

As 5310 contenders prepare to contest 444 seats in Egypt's parliamentary elections on 9 November, the case of the Brotherhood and its 150 candidates has overshadowed the nation's legislative elections.

For the first time in its 77-year history, the group is openly propagating its agenda, actively promoting its candidates and putting up its slogans, logos and banners just about everywhere.

Noticeably absent was police intervention which over the past decades applied a tough uncompromising strategy with the "illegal" but powerful outfit.

"[Throughout our history] we were repressed, tortured in horrific ways, imprisoned and hanged. [Ours] is an experience that is stained with blood," Mohammed Habib, deputy supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, told Aljazeera.net.

Habib says the climate has so changed that his group is fielding 150 candidates and expects to win at least 50 seats in parliament.

In the 2000 elections, the Brotherhood fielded 75 candidates and won 17 seats.

Show of strength

For more than a week now, Muslim Brotherhood candidates have been organising public rallies across Cairo and filling the streets with massive election marches in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and south Egypt's Minya.

With the exception of candidates in Alexandria's Al-Raml constituency - whose campaign rally on Monday was attacked by a "thug" allegedly hired by the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) candidate - the group's election activities have generally been peaceful.

Aware of the growing need for public access to the media, the group set up websites and two online radio stations.

There have been large protests
calling for reforms in Egypt

This is in sharp contrast to the 2000 and 1995 parliamentary elections when even alluding to the Brotherhood was taboo.

Approximately 6000 of its members, including candidates, were detained ahead of the 2000 poll and 20 group leaders were referred to military courts.

The situation was far worse in 1995 when the Islamist organisation suffered a major security crackdown against its members.

More than 100 Brotherhood members were put on three separate military trials, with dozens receiving jail terms ranging between three and five years.

The Brotherhood has come a long way in the past 50 years.

Under late president Gamal Abd al-Nasser, tens of thousands of its members were detained between 1954 and 1964 and six including the group's leader, Sayid Qutb, were executed for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.

But the Brotherhood's recent rehabilitation in Egyptian politics extends beyond boisterous electioneering.

And pundits say it will not likely end with this month's polls.

Favourite destination

In the run up to the first multi-candidate presidential elections in September, the outfit's headquarters was an important destination for the main contenders running against President Hosni Mubarak, namely Al-Wafd party's Noaman Gomaa and Ayman Nour of Al-Ghad party.

The Brotherhood is expecting to
win at least 50 seats at the polls

When Nour clinched second position, Al-Wafd, the NDP and many observers attributed the surprise result to the Brotherhood electoral bank.

Similarly, when the press syndicate chairmanship elections were held in September, three of its top candidates - Galal Aref, Osama El-Ghazali Harb and Mustafa Bakri - openly sought the Brotherhood's support.

The group's massive Ramadan iftar (the meal that breaks the daily fast) at a five star hotel attended by approximately 1500 from all shades of the political spectrum, public figures, intellectuals and media representatives further emphasised the paradox.

As one journalist at the iftar put it, Egypt's political forces were indeed in the "outlawed group's hospitality".

Recognition of the Brotherhood's influence took a surprising turn when prominent members of the Copt community in Alexandria sought the group's intervention to restore calm in the coastal city following recent sectarian violence.

Gaining legitimacy

But more significant were the unprecedented statements last week by the NDP's Kamal El-Shazli, State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, who said: "Muslim Brotherhood is a political force that cannot be ignored and enjoys a street presence that should be respected."

But, in statements made to the London-based Al Hayat newspaper, El-Shazli warned that the Brotherhood would not be recognised as a political party.

Mubarak's reforms this year gave
the Brotherhood momentum

The state-run media has in the meanwhile stopped referring to the Brotherhood as an outlawed group.

Furthermore, in his column in the official Al-Ahram newspaper on Friday, prominent journalist Salama Ahmed Salama openly urged the authorities to integrate the Brotherhood in the political process and grant them legal status. 

It is the first time a state-owned newspaper published a view openly supporting the group's right for legitimacy.

"This is definitely the Brotherhood's moment," Diaa Rashwan, a political expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told Aljazeera.net.

"For the first time since 1954, the Brotherhood is undoubtedly betting on getting recognition; de facto or de jure, it doesn't matter for them," he said.

Rashwan believes Mubarak's decision to amend article 76 of the constitution to allow for multi-candidate presidential elections helped in the Brotherhood's emergence.

"Regardless of the way it was done, the constitutional amendment did open the door to interactions that didn't exist before."

Changing political climate

The constitutional amendment created a "different" political climate and helped an opposition grouping such as the Brotherhood to thrive, Rafik Habib, a Coptic Evangelical social scientist and prominent intellectual, said.

"Any organised force with a popular base, like the Brotherhood, will ultimately benefit from the changing political climate despite the security siege imposed on the group over the past 13 years," Habib told Aljazaeera.net.

But opinion about the organisation's future is divided.

"I think the political establishment is applying this new strategy with the Brotherhood to test their real power and popular base," said Rashwan.

He explained that the government was seeking to assess the Brotherhood's influence in the Egyptian political sphere by monitoring how many parliamentary seats they win.

"Once the Brotherhood wins a number of seats through its independent candidates, it will no longer be able to claim police harassment or government repression," he said. 

Government loses control?

Rafik Habib, however, believes the government may be unable to reverse the Brotherhood's gains in both popularity and legitimacy with the electorate after the elections.

"If the Brotherhood's role will continue to be rejected by the authorities here or the US or even Egypt's elite, democratic transformation will not happen"

Rafik Habib,
Social scientist

"The political momentum pushing the Brotherhood will be too much for the government to handle, and they will likely lose control," he said.

 

But Washington, an influential player in Egyptian domestic politics, is unlikely to accept a future political role for the Brotherhood beyond their influence in parliament.

 

According to Amr Hamazawy, a senior Egyptian associate at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment, the US would likely be unwilling to recognise the Brotherhood and its Islamist platform despite elections gains.

 

This would be a mistake, Habib warns. He believes Egypt's democratic reforms hinge upon recognising the Brotherhood as an organised political force.

 

"If the Brotherhood's role will continue to be rejected by the authorities here or the US or even Egypt's elite, democratic transformation will not happen."

Source:
Aljazeera
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