Where are the Islamists in Egypt's upcoming parliamentary elections?

Zeinab El-Gundy , Sunday 11 Oct 2015

Nour Part leaders
Nader Bakkar and Younes Makhioun, leaders of the Salafist Nour Party, the only Islamist party running in the upcoming parliament elections as such, seen here at a party rally to support the post-Morsi constitution in December 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

Islamist parties will be largely absent on the polling cards in Egypt’s upcoming elections, with the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest Islamist group, outlawed and in disarray, and other Islamists boycotting.

But the Salafist Al-Nour Party and some individual Islamist candidates could recapture some parliamentary influence.

Ahram Online looks at the four major Islamist membership groups in Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood: Prominent absentees

The Brotherhood gained 47% of the seats in a 2011 People’s Assembly election and were Egypt's largest political organisation following the January 2011 revolution, but the Muslim Brotherhood will be absent from the upcoming parliamentary elections.

There are several legal barriers preventing them from running.

Shortly after the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood leading member, in July 2013 the government designated the group a terrorist organisation; and in April 2014 an Alexandria court banned current and former members of the Muslim Brotherhood from running in parliamentary elections.

However, the Brotherhood, persecuted by the state to varying degrees over the last decades, have never published a membership list and there is, therefore, a chance Brotherhood members will run in this election without declaring their Islamist affiliations.

In August 2014 the Supreme Administrative Court ordered the dissolution of the Freedom and Justice Party, the group’s political wing, and the liquidation of its assets.

A group of self-exiled Muslim Brotherhood members in Turkey led by former MP Gamal Heshmat subsequently founded what they call the “official Egyptian parliament".

Their status as an outlawed group has not stopped the Brotherhood contesting parliamentary elections in the past.

In 1976’s elections the Brotherhood began to involve itself in mainstream political life by publicly supporting a candidate, who subsequently won a seat in parliament.

In the 1979 elections, the Brotherhood promoted three candidates who then secured seats; and in 1984 they entered an electoral coalition with the liberal New Wafd Party that won 10 seats, seven of them secured by Brotherhood members.

In 1987 the Brotherhood contested the People's Assembly elections in a coalition called The Islamic Alliance with the Al-Aamal (labour) Socialist Party and the Al-Ahrar Liberal Democratic Party. The Islamic Alliance won 60 seats, with 36 captured by Brotherhood members.

After boycotting the 1990 elections and not contesting the 1995 parliamentary elections due to a state crackdown, the Brotherhood returned to public life in 2000 when they won 17 seats including one taken by future president Mohamed Morsi.

Despite being banned from running in the elections, the Brotherhood managed in 2005 to secure 88 seats via the individual-candidate based electoral system.

That year, their well-known slogan "Islam is the solution" brought them their largest number of MPs ever. The slogan attracted non-Islamist voters too, who saw the Brotherhood at that time as an honest alternative to Mubarak’s corrupt regime.

In 2010 the Brotherhood withdrew from the elections in protest of fraud by Hosni Mubarak’s regime. But after the 2011 revolution unseated that regime Islamist groups won the huge majority of Egypt’s parliamentary seats for the first time in modern history with Tthe Brotherhood collecting the lion’s share of these.

However, the 2011 parliament’s lower house was dissolved in June 2012 after the Supreme Court ruled that the law governing the elections was unconstitutional.

The Salafist Call’s Al-Nour Party: 2011’s dark horses

The real surprise in 2011’s parliamentary elections was the ultra-conservative Al-Nour (light) Party, which won a quarter of the seats only a few months after its founding by the largely Alexandria-based Salafist Call.

The salafists won 106 seats at the first time of asking, shedding a three-decade-long political passivism and announcing themselves not only as rivals to the Muslim Brotherhood for the Islamist vote but as a genuine political powerhouse.

In July 2013 Al-Nour controversially announced it supported popular calls for Islamist president Mohamed Morsi to be ousted, distancing itself from the Brotherhood and aligning with non-Islamist opposition forces.

Despite endorsing President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in the 2014 presidential elections after Morsi's ouster - as well as his policies since then - and insisting they are not a religious-based party, the Al-Nour Party faces pressure.

There are popular campaigns calling for voters to shun the salafist party on account of its religious roots and lawsuits aiming to have it banned from running in the elections.

Nevertheless Al-Nour are officially contesting the elections, and as the only major Islamist group doing so they may attract voters from the Islamist spectrum.

Al-Wasat Party: Boycotting the elections

Defectors from the Muslims Brotherhood unofficially founded the moderate Islamist Al-Wasat (The Centre) Party in the 1990s.

In 2011 they became a legitimate party and won 10 seats in the parliamentary elections, two percent of the house.

Al-Wasat supported Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood after their July 2013 ouster and released a statement as late as September 2015 stating that their position has not changed.

They see Morsi as a legitimately elected president and, despite asserting that the Muslim Brotherhood has no claim to political authority, are boycotting the upcoming elections in protest of Morsi’s ouster.

The party is restructuring after its leader Abu-Ela Mady was released from a two-year detention pending investigations on riot-related charges.

That said, a former member who was an MP for the party in 2011, Tarek El-Malt, is running as an individual in the Agouza and Dokki constituency in Giza.

The Gama’a Islamiyaa’s Building and Development Party: Another boycotter

The political arm of the Gama'a Islamiyaa (Islamic Group), the Building and Development Party won 13 seats in the 2011 parliament as part a coalition led by Al-Nour.

Along with their parent organisation, the Building and Development Party has supported Morsi since his ouster, joining the pro-Morsi National Alliance Supporting Legitimacy.

In Septembe, leader Khaled El-Sherif declared that the ultra-conservative Islamist party would boycott the parliamentary elections.

“The current circumstances in Egypt will lead to a fragile parliament that is merely a decoration of and an extension to Mubarak's regime, which is coming back,” said El-Sherif, in reference to the large number of former Mubarak NDP members who are running in the elections.

Non-Islamists remain concerned 

Political parties outside of Islamism have expressed worries that Islamists will again have too much power in parliament.

Such fears are expressed in campaigns like No to Religious Parties in Parliament and in statements by parties including the right-of-centre Al-Wafd and Free Egyptians.

Despite court rulings against the Muslim Brotherhood and its members, non-Islamists fear undeclared members may run as individuals.

Aside from Brotherhood members, whose identity is difficult to ascertain anyway, no legal obstacles block Islamists from running and they certainly will not lack the funding to do so.

Islamist candidates have the right to run in their constituencies and it remains hard to predict to what degree they will make up in the impending parliament.

"What happened in the 2011 parliamentary elections won't be repeated again, neither by the Brotherhood or Al-Nour," political analyst Amar Ali Hassan told Ahram Online.

Hassan believes Egyptian voters will not be so quick to forgive Islamists just two years on from mass protests against the rule of the Brotherhood’s Morsi.

"Massive public support for Islamists led to an unprecedented landslide victory in 2011’s elections but ended in huge disappointment and led to mass protests against the Brotherhood and Islamists in July of 2013," Hassan commented.

The political analyst believes the Al-Nour Party will win some seats but not on the same scale as in 2011.

In the end only the ballot box can tell the extent of the Islamist presence in the next parliament.

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