Egypt elections: Muslim Brotherhood in a fight for survival

The Muslim Brotherhood has a lot to lose if the group's candidate fails to win Egypt's presidential elections runoff. Turnout appears light on the second day of voting.

The Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt is fighting for political survival against the country's military rulers, resisting the military's attempts to dissolve the parliament and urging voters to back the Brotherhood's man for president on this second day of voting.

Relatively few Egyptians appear to be turning out to cast ballots as the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsi, faces former military man Ahmed Shafiq in a race that has high stakes for the Brotherhood. If Mr. Shafiq wins, many in the once-banned organization fear a return to the days of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, when Brotherhood members were often arrested in their homes and detained for years.

The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) said in a statement Saturday evening that the military has no right to order the dissolution of parliament, and such a decision can only come through a national referendum. The statement is a challenge to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military generals ruling Egypt, who said a Thursday court ruling means the parliament is null. The generals have sent soldiers to the assembly building who are refusing to allow members of parliament to enter.

“The constant threat to dissolve a parliament elected by the will of 30 million Egyptians confirms the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ desire for a total power grab against the popular will,” said the FJP in a statement that called the ruling a “blatant attack on the great Egyptian revolution.”

The SCAF’s decision is based on a ruling by Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court Thursday that the law governing the parliamentary elections, which ended in January, erred when it allowed parties to contest the seats reserved for independents.

Coming after months of threats of parliament dissolution by the SCAF-appointed government to the Brotherhood, and from a court full of Mubarak-appointed justices, the ruling is seen by many in Egypt as politicized. It has increased the power of the military, and hurt the Brotherhood, whose party held about half the seats in parliament and had used that position to secure a solid hold on a committee elected to write Egypt’s new constitution. The military has now indicated it will appoint a new constitutional committee.

With both of these footholds gone, the Brotherhood is hoping for an electoral victory by Dr. Morsi. 

Brotherhood could face court freeze

Underlining their sense of urgency is a court case scheduled for Tuesday that seeks to freeze the Brotherhood’s activities, because it is not registered under the law as nongovernmental organizations in Egypt are required to do. Omar Ashour, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center who is currently in Egypt, says Brotherhood members are feeling boxed in and are fearful of a future under Shafiq.

“Basically [SCAF] is taking away every single avenue for which the Brotherhood can become influential in the political process,” he says,
pointing to parliament, the coming court case, and a possible presidential election defeat. “They are quite afraid.”

The Brotherhood is an 84-year-old organization that seeks a greater role for Islam in society. For decades it has proselytized, operated social services, and encouraged its members to lead more godly lives. 

The organization was banned under former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who executed leaders and jailed many members. Under Mubarak, the organization was banned but tolerated, and its members competed in elections as independents though they were also sometimes rounded up and imprisoned. The organization formed a political wing, the FJP, after Mubarak's ouster last year.

“I think the Brotherhood had to do this, because there are too many legal loopholes in the decision” to dissolve the parliament, says Dr. Ashour. “The judicial branch cannot dismantle the legislative branch unless you have a referendum. This is what happened in the 1987 parliament when it was dissolved [in 1990]. Even under the dictatorship of Mubarak they still had a popular referendum to approve it.”

Brothers urge on voters

Even as the group challenges the parliament's dissolution, it is also urging Egyptians to vote for Morsi. Yet many Egyptians appear to be staying home. According to anecdotal reports from Cairo and around Egypt, turnout was light Sunday, with few of the long lines that were seen during the first round of parliamentary and presidential elections. The low turnout was likely partly a reflection of the fact that many Egyptians like neither candidate; more than half the electorate did not vote for either during the first round.

But according to some non-voters, it is also shows the lack of trust in the system after Thursday’s court ruling. “Why participate in a system if the outcome is preordained?” asked Salma Ahmed, who didn’t bother to cast a ballot because she thinks the military will ensure a Shafiq victory, and she doesn’t like Morsi. “I feel like I did under Mubarak’s time.”

Young Brotherhood member Mostafa Saadawy cast his vote for Morsi today, but said he fears fraud. “They want to send a message to Egyptians that there is no hope, it is not useful to vote, so stay at home,” he said of the court ruling. The message from the military, he says, is this: “’You will vote or not, but we will rule.’ This was the same message of Mubarak.”

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