After the first round of elections this week, the Muslim Brotherhood is on track to gain the largest bloc of seats in Egypt’s new parliament, potentially giving it considerable sway over the country's direction post-Mubarak.
The 80-year-old Islamist organization – banned under former President Hosni Mubarak – has tapped the deep networks and reputation for social justice it had built over decades of charity work to run a highly efficient campaign, reaching not only Brotherhood members but Egyptians ignored by the government and unfamiliar with the many new liberal parties forged in Tahrir Square.
Among those downtrodden Egyptians is nursery worker Hoda Mustafa, who lives in the densely populated slum of Imbaba in east Cairo, where buildings are stacked haphazardly and three-wheeled tuk-tuks ply the chaotic, potholed streets.
“It’s as if Imbaba isn’t even on the map,” said Mrs. Mustafa, laughing bitterly at the thought that the government has ever done anything for the neighborhood, where the Brotherhood recently campaigned. “But,” she added, gesturing at a Brotherhood candidate greeting men in a local coffee shop, “they will take care of Imbaba.”
The Brotherhood’s campaigning appears to be paying off. In the first round of parliamentary elections, held Nov. 28-29, its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) won strong support.The party estimates it has won 40 percent of the vote, though official results have not yet been released.
If the next two rounds of voting in the staggered election follow the same trend, as they are likely to – Mustafa and her neighbors in Imbaba are among those who will get to vote in the second round on Dec. 14-15 – the group will become the largest contingent in the new parliament.
Islamist majority in parliament
But the Brotherhood’s sway over the writing of the constitution and its ability to shape the new Egypt is not certain. The military rulers who took over from Mubarak have insisted on maintaining a firm grip on power until a new president is elected – by July, they say – and it is unclear how much authority the new parliament will have. One of the main questions now is to what extent the Brotherhood will use its newfound platform in the elected body to challenge the military’s hold on power, taking the battle from the streets to the halls of government.
“It is clear that the people voted to receive power, not to keep power in the hands of the military,” says Essam El Erian, a leader of the FJP, in an interview at party headquarters. “After the elections it is clear the legitimacy is in the parliament.”
The legitimacy that comes from the Brotherhood’s strong showing in elections will give the group new ground to challenge Egypt’s ruling military generals. It has already shown some willingness to do so: On Nov. 18, it called a mass protest, along with salafi groups, in response to the military’s move to assert control over the constitution-writing process, which was supposed to be carried out by a committee elected by the new parliament.
The Brotherhood did not support subsequent protests against military rule, in which more than 40 people were killed in clashes with security forces. It may have saved the battle for after the elections. Already, FJP leader Mohamed Morsi has announced that a parliamentary majority should name the next government, even as the military generals, who currently have authority to do so, have given no indication they will give up that power.
Islamist groups are likely to have a majority in parliament; a party formed by ultraconservative Muslims known as salafis, who are far stricter in their religious beliefs than the Brotherhood, also did well in this week’s first round. The prospect that Islamists – those who want Islam to play a greater part in political and social life – could constitute a parliamentary majority has already caused alarm among some of Egypt’s secularists, leftists, and liberals, as well as Christians, though they could potentially work together against military rule.
“It’s scary,” says liberal activist Hani Ahmed. “But do I run to the military for protection? I don’t like military rule either. I hope the Muslim Brotherhood will act responsibly so the liberal groups aren’t afraid to work with it against the military council.”
The Muslim Brotherhood was persecuted under Mubarak, whose regime feared a challenge from the group and banned it from public life, though some members were elected to parliament as independents in recent years. Many of its members were arrested and tortured during his rule. Salafis were also harshly repressed.
Pushing back against the military
Mr. Erian says he hoped there would be “coordination, not confrontation,” with the military. “The people voted not for confrontation but for stability,” he says.
But the battle lines are drawn. Ibrahim El Houdaiby, an analyst and former Brotherhood member, says the group will take on the generals. “The Brotherhood’s primary objective is to get the military out,” he says.
The Brotherhood’s strong showing makes such a scenario more likely. A more fragmented parliament, in which no group had a large bloc, might have found it more difficult to push strongly against the military council.
Mr. Houdaiby hopes that a parliament empowered by popular legitimacy won through elections will be able to push the generals back and take the power to form a national consensus government and exercise full powers. “Their will and their wish isn’t part of the game now,” he says of the military council. “They don’t have a chance. The balance of power is not in their favor.”