After years of being banned from politics and persecuted by former President Hosni Mubarak, the official launch of the group’s Freedom and Justice Party was a historic moment.
Leaders portrayed the party as inclusive, saying Christians and women can join. In accordance with Egyptian law, the party is officially civil, not religious, and is independent from the group. Leaders also repeated an earlier pledge not to run a candidate in presidential elections.
But the plans to contest 50 percent of parliamentary seats will be worrying to the secular and liberal-leaning young activists who were a strong force in the revolution. They fear that the Brotherhood, Egypt’s best-organized group, will dominate the parliament and impose its Islamist ideas on the population. Leaders had earlier said the group would only contest about 30 percent of the seats.
The decision to go for a larger bloc in parliament is likely partially a result of pressure from rank-and-file members, who are not content to settle for a small percentage of the pie when the race is wide open, says independent analyst Ibrahim El Houdaiby, a former Brotherhood member.
The disbanding of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party has left the Brotherhood with an advantage over the rest of the opposition, which lacks the grassroots organization and discipline of the Brotherhood.
But Mr. Houdaiby also traces the decision to the increasing divide between the Brotherhood and the liberal secular groups since a constitutional referendum in February, when the two campaigned on opposite sides. As the gap widens between the two sides, the Brotherhood may feel it needs to win more seats in order to influence parliament because it will not be able to create coalitions with such groups, says Houdaiby. “If you think you're on your own, on the other side of the game, then you need to have more seats,” he says.
The Brotherhood surprised many by winning about 20 percent of parliamentary seats in 2005 elections. Last year, Mubarak’s regime ensured that scenario did not repeat itself, and the elections were seen as the most fraudulent in recent history. Only one Brotherhood member won a seat.
Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, calls the decision to seek so many seats a mistake that will be perceived as overbearing by many Egyptians. The Brotherhood has overestimated its own popularity and underestimated the force of newly-empowered sectors of the population that only discovered politics during the revolution, he says.
The Islamist group’s organization has helped it do well in past votes, where turnout was low. If turnout is much higher in September, the group’s organization will matter less, says Dr. Rashwan. “The problem with their analysis is to underestimate the force of the revolution. They have huge numbers, and high majority of them do not have Islamist feelings,” he says. “And now also for average Egyptians, they have their fears and their doubts about the behavior of the Salafis,” the extremely conservative Islamists who have also taken advantage of Mubarak’s absence to enter the political scene. All of these factors combined, says Rashwan, will mean the Brotherhood will not sweep elections in September.
The Brotherhood says the Freedom and Justice Party will be independent from the religious organization, leaders said, though it appointed senior figures in the Brotherhood to lead the party. And it has banned Brotherhood members from joining other parties. “People are feeling that it is first a political wing of the Muslim Brothers, not an independent political party,” says Rashwan.