The Brotherhood’s last battle?

Amira Howeidy, Saturday 27 Nov 2010

Mass arrests and dramatic scenes of police clashes have put the Muslim Brotherhood in the limelight of this year’s People’s Assembly elections. But has it been good for them?

The Muslim Brotherhood might have made the right decision by contesting Sunday’s general elections after all, despite calls by some opposition forces to boycott the vote in light of a lack of guarantees of their integrity. The “outlawed” group has been the spice and the action of the electoral process since it took off more than two weeks ago, luring the local and international media on the trails of the Brotherhood’s 130 registered candidates, rather than the ruling National Democratic Party’s 800 candidates or the opposition parties’ 300 plus runners for that matter.

In the words of Islamic movements expert Hossam Tamam, the Muslim Brotherhood are “definitely the most sensational element in the elections”.

Indeed, the group, which secured 88 seats (20 per cent) in the outgoing parliament and is striving against all odds to mark a similar victory this time around, is making a spectacular statement of each obstacle, hurdle and incidence of harassment they’ve faced in every phase of the electoral process.

The outcome has been noteworthy and telling.

On Monday, 22 November, the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm ran ran a typical headline on the “War of words between the Brotherhood and the NDP.” And to get its share of attention, the opposition Wafd Party, which has been largely ignored by the media, published an entire page of “coverage” in the same paper, but as a “paid advertorial”.

In addition to the Muslim Brotherhood’s active media machine, which made available to the press — by video, mobile texting, email announcements and a website that’s updated by the second —information and footage on how dozens of the Brotherhood’s members attempting to register were denied, in fact “crossed out” by the Higher Elections Committee, the Brotherhood is disseminating every possible evidence of what they call blatant “election rigging”.

Prior to a series of amendments in 2007, the Egyptian Constitution stipulated that elections were to be held under judicial supervision. This changed, and as a result next Sunday’s vote will be the first legislative elections conducted in the absence of judicial protection, which never in the past fully covered every ballot box (because of the shortage of judges) but was favoured by independent and opposition candidates nonetheless. The 2005 elections were also held over three days to cover Egypt’s entire 222 constituencies, now altered to one day only in the constitutional amendments. Critics say both amendments compromise the fairness and transparency of the elections, and opposition parties who have repeatedly demanded better guarantees were ignored by the authorities, but chose to participate in the elections anyway.

Repeated statements by NDP member and Minister of State for Shura Council Affairs Mufid Shehab on how the Brotherhood will not come even close to their 2005 victory this time around (they constituted 20 per cent of the 2005-2010 parliament) triggered speculation on possible direct and indirect rigging of the Sunday vote. Because the coming parliament will nominate any candidate for the 2011 presidential elections, which President Hosni Mubarak has yet to announce if he will contest, observers say that Egypt’s 2010-2015 lower house of parliament is particularly sensitive.

But the Muslim Brotherhood says it is determined to “fight the electoral battle till the last breath,” in the words of Brotherhood figure Saber Aboul Fotouh. In a press conference packed with media representatives on Monday, the Brotherhood listed “the violations” of the security apparatus and authorities against the group’s candidates and supporters. Speaking to Ahram Online, Brotherhood leader Essam El-Erian said that in addition to their 130 registered candidates, the group has “a number” of “substitutes” but refused to disclose their how many and who.

On Friday, 19 November —three days before the press conference —an election rally and march by Brotherhood candidates in El-Raml district in Alexandria was attacked by security forces that fired rubber bullets and tear gas canisters at the rally, but that also reached pedestrians and some of the balconies of apartments overlooking the scene. Images of injured and bleeding Brotherhood members circulated widely on the Internet, in addition to several videos of the clashes. According to the group’s lawyer, Abdelmenem Abdel-Maqsoud, approximately 1,400 Muslim Brotherhood members were detained in the past week alone, including women. While many were released, 702 were referred to prosecutors. The security apparatus said the Brotherhood continues to violate elections regulations by resorting to religions slogans, in reference to their “Islam is the solution” motto. This motto dates back to 1987 and is a favourite until this day.

The group responded in defiance, saying it will continue campaigning under the slogan since no court has judged its slogans illegal or unconstitutional. They also cited several incidents when NDP candidates campaigned in churches and mosques in violation of Higher Elections Committee regulations.

On Tuesday, Saad El-Katanty, spokesman for the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc who is running in the constituency of Bandar El-Minya, accused supporters of his rival in the ruling NDP of attempting to “assassinate” him when his car was attacked by sword-wielding assailants and his driver injured. Photos of his damaged car immediately circulated online and appeared in Wednesday’s independent press. Meanwhile, four Brotherhood MPs who were not allowed to register as candidates began a sit-in on Monday in the People’s Assembly in protest. All four contested the decision and were granted court rulings in their favour, which the Higher Elections Committee has ignored.

With all the attention the Brotherhood is getting, it’s not clear if the media focus is indeed entirely in its favour. According to political science professor at Cairo University Nadia Mustafa, the Muslim Brotherhood is gaining public sympathy but “within the limits of their own constituency and their sympathisers”. Most of the coverage seems to have associated the group with violence, she told Ahram Online.

On Tuesday, the evening talk show Masr Enaharda (Egypt Today), which is broadcast on Channel 2 of state controlled television, hosted guests who devoted most of their airtime warning the public against the group, and in their words the “chaos” it seeks to create. On Monday, Interior Minister Habib El-Adli issued a statement saying the security apparatus would respond “firmly” to any attempt to violate election laws by provoking confrontational situations —a clear reference to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Brotherhood expert Tamam explains that the group is being “driven by the heat of the moment” and the euphoria of their victory in the 2005 elections. Hence their determination to fight until the end, in the “spirit of martyrdom”. These elections are possibly their last chance to advance their political stature, he said.

The question is, added Tamam: Has being at the centre of the electoral battle been a good thing for the Muslim Brotherhood? “I think the authorities, not the Brotherhood, scored a point,” he told Ahram Online. The Brotherhood is giving the vote a sense of political seriousness, “which does not exist because the elections are held in the absence of serious guarantees. It’s as if a real election is going on, when there isn’t.”

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