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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Muslim Brotherhood make gains in Egypt

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) made further gains in the second of three rounds in Egypt's parliamentary election, despite increasingly desperate measures by the authorities to limit the advances of the technically banned Islamist group. The MB's gains have been in contrast to the dismal performance of the recognised opposition parties. The self-styled modernising wing of the National Democratic Party (NDP) of the president, Hosni Mubarak, has also failed to make as strong an impact as it had hoped. The MB is now likely to campaign for reforms that would enable it to establish a political party.

The tally after two rounds stands at 195 seats for the NDP, out of 302 decided (voting is to be rerun for six seats), 76 for the MB, eight for opposition parties and 23 for independents with no party or group affiliation. So far the MB has only put up candidates for 110 seats, meaning that its success rate has been 69% in the seats that it has contested. It has 50 candidates primed to contest the final round, which involves 136 seats. A repeat of the performance in the first two rounds would leave the MB with more than 100 seats, or roughly 25% of the parliament.

Dirty tactics

The MB was given unprecedented licence to campaign for the current elections--previously it has been forced to adopt a low profile, and many of its better-known figures have tended to be arrested before polling day. However, once the scale of the MB advance became clear after the first-round votes were counted, the authorities and the NDP party bosses appear to have reverted to the heavy-handed approach of the past. Even the state-run press has reported rampant vote-buying and intimidation of voters, and the MB claims that hundreds of its supporters were arrested during the second round. In many areas where the MB was expected to do well, police closed voting stations. In one notorious case, in the Delta town of Demanhour, the state-appointed legal monitor testified that the result had been blatantly falsified to award the seat to a prominent NDP figure after the count had shown an overwhelming victory for the MB candidate. The obvious abuses prompted a team of EU parliamentary observers to abandon their mission.

With the pattern of the election well established in the first two rounds, the final phase, which will end with run-offs on December 7th is unlikely to change the overall picture. The liberal opposition, whether this be from within the NDP or from parties such as the New Wafd or Al Ghad, has emerged as the big losers. This has been because of the powerful popular appeal of the MB (allied to good organisation) and owing to the tenacity with which the machine politicians of the NDP old guard have fought their corner.

Brothers in search of a policy

The MB has offered little in the way of policy prescription, relying instead on widespread disaffection with the government and on the identification of majority of Egyptians with Islamic principles to advance its cause at the ballot box. As a banned organisation the MB also faces practical constraints on drawing up a policy programme. The MB's spiritual guide, Mohammed Mehdi Akef, said that the group was determined to form a political party, following its success in the election. However, he said that before this could happen, the law on political parties would have to be repealed. He ruled out seeking to secure a licence to form a political party under the current system, which entails applying to a committee attached to the upper house of parliament.

Mr Mubarak made a significant concession to campaigners for political reform at the start of 2005 when he pushed through an amendment to the constitution so as to allow for Egypt's first freely contested presidential election. However, changing the law to enable to MB to form a political party would require a much larger shift. It would also open up the possibility of the MB putting forward a candidate for the next presidential election, which is scheduled to take place in 2011.

Making a dramatic concession to the MB would be out of character for the Mubarak regime. A more likely approach would be to make selective minor concessions while probing for possibilities to foment splits in the group's ranks. The MB is also likely to face further harassment from the security services. However, the government will have to consider carefully the risk of a serious popular backlash should it opt to carry out a major crackdown on the Islamist group.

SOURCE: ViewsWire Middle East
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