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Globe Talk

Muslim Brothers in Parliament
By M. Hanif Lakdawala

The second round of Egypt’s legislative elections has consolidated the banned Muslim Brotherhood as the country’s main opposition force.

The success of the Muslim Brothers, who are running as independents because their organization remains officially banned, has been attributed by some to the increasing piety of Egyptian voters.

According to an analyst, Muslim Brotherhood won with the organization’s standard two-fold strategy: a focus on local needs and powerful organizational skills. For years, the Muslim Brotherhood has been providing jobs, drinking water and basic health care to constituents in districts like Bulaq al-Dakrour.

The second round of Egypt’s legislative elections has consolidated the banned Muslim Brotherhood as the country’s main opposition force, a trend likely to raise the pressure for some form of legal recognition.

Since it was founded in the 1920s, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s main Islamist movement, has been subject to often brutal crackdowns. Several hundred of its activists were detained ahead of voting in the Nile Delta and parts of Upper Egypt, which degenerated in some places into riots. But despite what independent monitors saw as efforts by the ruling National Democratic party to thwart them with vote-buying, intimidation and fraud, the Brotherhood are still on course to win their largest ever share of parliament.

According to results for the second stage, Brotherhood candidates – running as nominally independent because the group is officially banned – won 13 seats outright, adding to the 34 they won in first round polling.

Analysts are now predicting that the group could take close to 100 of 454 seats by the conclusion of a final round of voting on December 7, compared with just 15 in the outgoing parliament.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned since a 1954 assassination attempt on Gamal Abdul Nasser, then president. It has since renounced violence and publicly embraced democracy but retains conservative views on women and a strongly anti-US and anti-Israeli line. It has survived as the most organised opposition force in Egypt, using social work and professional syndicates to command grassroots loyalty.

Throughout his 24-years in power, Mubarak has shown no sign that he is prepared to relax a ban on the movement. But the election results show clearly that security measures alone have failed to curtail Brotherhood’s influence.

Unlike many opposition parties in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is well-funded, largely thanks to patronage from wealthy sympathizers, many of whom made fortunes when they were in exile in Saudi Arabia. So, when an earthquake devastated Cairo in 1992, the Brotherhood easily outshone the government in responding to the crisis. More recently, when the government floated the Egyptian currency and prices of basic foodstuffs shot up by 40 per cent, the Muslim Brothers passed out free loaves of bread and other day-to-day commodities in poor neighbourhoods.

The government is giving the Brotherhood unprecedented freedom to campaign. For the first time in decades, not a single Muslim Brother sits in jail. Ahmed Abdallah, a Muslim Brotherhood expert who left the organisation in the mid-1990s when he grew jaded with politics, says the government has concentrated on keeping the organization’s brightest and most experienced leaders out of parliament.

But what this new band of Muslim Brothers lacks in experience, it will make up for in numbers. All these inexperienced Brothers in parliament will buy the government time, because learning the laws of the parliament, the procedures, how to raise questions, will take at least two years. They are community leaders, but to be an effective parliamentarian is something else. Muslim Brotherhood legislators also have been among the most vocal critics of government torture- not surprising since members were frequent victims of torture. And today the organisation has made democratic reform a leading tenet of its programme.

The Muslim Brotherhood never neglected the common man’s day-to-day needs, stressing on corruption, unemployment and rising prices during floor debates. And it appears to be paying off at the polls.