Egypt’s largest opposition movement was nearly swept from parliament after elections that appear likely to have delivered President Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) its biggest share of the legislature since 1995.
The Egypt parliamentary election on Sunday was racked by allegations of vote rigging and opposition intimidation. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the US – Egypt's largest source of military aid – was "dismayed by reports of election-day interference and intimidation by security forces."
Though full results are not yet in, with runoff elections scheduled for Dec. 5, the dismal showing for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt's weaker secular opposition parties in the first round points to a parliament with the lowest opposition representation in more than a decade.
That the regime would remove even the appearance of a democratic system by virtually eliminating the opposition from parliament signals that it is intent on securing all levers of power ahead of a possible presidential succession in the next parliament’s term. Speculation is rampant that the 82-year-old President Mubarak may seek to install his son as his successor, possibly in September 2011 presidential elections.
The biggest loser in Sunday's parliamentary election, widely seen as a dress rehearsal for next year's presidential poll, was the Brotherhood.
In 2005 elections, the movement had stirred hopes among some that Egypt's political process was opening up – and fears in the Washington and Cairo establishments – when it tripled its representation in parliament to 20 percent. Brotherhood candidates, who held 88 seats in the outgoing Parliament, failed to win any seats outright, and only 26 of their candidates advanced to the runoff that will be held this weekend.
Brotherhood threatens to boycott second round
In Sunday's election, the first round of voting, 221 of 508 seats were decided. Of those, the NDP won 95 percent, with opposition parties and independents taking a handful of seats. In the runoffs this weekend, about 75 of the remaining 287 seats will be contested between NDP candidates, since the party fielded multiple candidates in many constituencies.
Preliminary results show that the NDP took almost all of the 43 percent of seats that were decided in the first round and about 75 of the runoffs will be between NDP candidates, since the party fielded multiple candidates in many constituencies. Opposition parties and independents won a handful of seats.
While the Muslim Brotherhood was expected to lose seats, and probably lost some legitimate support over its failure to make an impact on legislation in the past five years, the extent of its loss caught many in Egypt by surprise. Some of the group's members are openly questioning their decision to engage in the political process and are calling for a boycott.
Brotherhood leaders said Tuesday they may decide to withdraw from the runoff altogether because they believe it too will be rigged.
"The result of participation is finished – there will be no seats,” says Mohamed El Biltagy, a Brotherhood parliamentarian from the Shubra Al Kheima district, who is in a runoff. “There is no value in this day if there are no judges, no monitoring. The same fraud will be perpetrated.”
That argument echoes the one made before the vote by Brotherhood members who urged boycotting the elections altogether. Mr. Biltagy, along with Brotherhood leader Essam El Erian, maintains that contesting elections is a good strategy, but indicated the group could be effective without participating, too. “Elections are only one tool we can use,” said Dr. Erian. “We cannot stop our activities.”
Levers and control
NDP officials have indicated Mubarak, who has ruled for nearly 30 years without a vice president and is rumored to be in ill health, will run for another six-year term next year, but he has also groomed his son Gamal to take power, a prospect that is highly unpopular with the public.
Election monitors and rights groups say the vote was plagued by systemic fraud and irregularities. Opposition candidate representatives and independnet election monitors were denied access to polling stations throughout Egypt, and reports, including videos, of vote-buying and ballot-box-stuffing were rampant. In many cases, police used violence or intimidation to keep voters away from the polls.
Egypt rejected charges of widespread fraud. The High Election Commission spokesman, Sameh El Kashef, said that limited instances of violence and irregularities had been dealt with and “did not affect the integrity” of the results. He said 1.4 percent of ballot boxes were thrown out because of tampering. The Commission said that turnout had been 35 percent of Egypt’s more than 41 million registered voters, while rights groups put turnout at 10 to 15 percent.
What now for the Brothers?
Ibrahim El Zafrani, former member of the Brotherhood advisory council from Alexandria, said the election results prove that the Brotherhood shouldn't have run in the first place. He joined other members in signing a petition in October calling for a boycott.
“The Brotherhood has lost some of its credibility by participating in this unfair election,” he said Tuesday. “If it had boycotted, it would be in a stronger position now.”
The Brotherhood, which for decades focused on building networks of social services and religious instruction, made political participation a focal point of its strategy in 2005, and startled many by winning 20 percent of the seats in Parliament.
For this election, the first parliamentary election since a 2007 constitutional amendment rescinded judicial supervision of elections, the regime made it clear ahead of time that the Brotherhood would not be free to make similar gains. More than 1,000 of its members were arrested in the months and weeks before the vote, and the government also cracked down on independent media.
Members like Zafrani argued the Brotherhood should not waste its resources participating in what he views as an illegitimate vote.
He said Tuesday he hopes the movement focuses on its other activities in the future.
A model in nearby Jordan?
That is essentially the course the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party in Jordan, the Islamic Action Front, took after dismal results in that country's 2007 elections. It boycotted elections this year, and may prove to be an example for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, says Shadi Hamid, research director at the Brookings Doha Center.
“I think this [election] really strengthens the hand of the pro-boycott faction within the Brotherhood. The people who looked really good yesterday and who will probably look very good for quite some time are those who are calling for a boycott, whether within the Brotherhood or outside of it,” he says. “It would be difficult for the Brotherhood to justify their decision to participate to their own members going forward.”
But many Brotherhood members say the object of contesting elections was exposing the regime’s fraud, not winning seats. “Seats were not the goal,” says Biltagy. “Active participation, getting people together for reform and change, that is the goal. Zero seats was the expected result.”
He and Erian maintained that the election has not put the Brotherhood in a weaker position. “Yes, we are out of participation but we may be stronger because we are living with the people and they know we did our best effort, and I think they can support us more and more,” says Erian.