Losses in union elections mean Brotherhood faces tough choices

Ibrahim El-Houdaiby , Tuesday 26 Mar 2013

The results of recent student and professional union elections show the pattern of support for the Brotherhood is changing

The logjam in the political scene before the revolution transformed professional and student unions into the backyards of politics. These bodies abandoned their services and professional role and became platforms to battle tyranny and exclusion. This was, for example, apparent in the substantial rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in professional unions during the 1990s (including the unions of doctors, engineers, lawyers, educators, pharmacists and others.)

The unions became platforms used to connect with society and partisan propaganda (since using normal channels was prohibited). It also manifested itself in various election alliances based on political not professional principles, and thus their social agendas were not consistent.

The response of the state (namely changing laws regulating union discourse and taking control of some unions) removed unions from their natural context, since these professionals found themselves thrust into a political conflict that does not address their professional or social concerns.

Once Mubarak was removed and the political realm liberalised (even if only partially) from the security’s exclusionary management, and more people became involved through forming dozens of political parties of different hues (Islamist, leftists, liberals), the professional and student spheres were (also partially) released from the grip of the state.

It was natural for these bodies to focus on a variety of issues, and they became interested in professional and social matters more than in the past. Neither was it unusual – in light of the severe economic and social crisis in professional circles – that the popularity of the Brotherhood dipped, especially after their political rise exposed their social and economic conservatism .

The outcome of these changes in this context was apparent in unions, and at some the ruling party failed to win any seats at all (such as the Journalists Syndicate). Even at unions that were once strongholds of the Muslim Brotherhood (such as the Doctors Syndicate), members went on strike which is inconsistent with the socially conservative nature of the Brotherhood and their political position urging for stability and postponing “idiosyncratic” demands.

It was also apparent in student union elections (which at the time of publication had taken place at 15 universities). Before the revolution, the Brotherhood won landslide victories whenever elections were not entirely rigged, but today it’s different. They were not able to sustain landslide wins except at a handful of universities (Al-Azhar, Damanhour, Damietta and Beni Suef), and a majority win at another one (South Valley University). Otherwise, they won no more than ten percent of seats in student unions at several universities (Ain Shams, Helwan, Banha, Suez and Kafr El-Sheikh); only a little more than that at other universities (Cairo and Tanta), and less than half at other universities.

There are several observations worth pondering and building on from these results. First, the defeat of the Brotherhood did not translate into victory for other parties. Independents won the majority of seats, which means the majority of parties are still unable to implant themselves in society away from politicians – even those on the left, despite the fact the timing of these elections (at a time when social protests increased after the revolution with more than 3,800 protests last year), and location (in student and worker circles) making it an unprecedented opportunity to connect with their presumed bases.

Second, a return of professional and student unions to playing their original roles, which means society – which apparently has “lost faith” in politicians and their quixotic battles – benefited from the revolution by organising their professional ranks. Thus, they are able to contest more important battles, especially the state’s relationship to society and citizen economic and social rights, in a more serious manner. The main challenge for political parties is to convince these social categories – through policies, communication and positions – that they share their agenda.

The third observation is the fast drop in Brotherhood popularity among students – their strongest supporters before the revolution – especially since recruits mostly came from student ranks who viewed the Islamist group as promoting moderate religion, strong morals, purpose for struggle, along with (organisational) efficiency.

This image has markedly changed after the Brotherhood reached power, since the sense of struggle immediately evaporated (since it is incompatible with being in power), and efficiency (naturally because of an inability to address ongoing problems) vanished. Meanwhile, religious moderation and strong morality are now doubtful (because of the group’s positions and exaggerated reactions to it from outside the group).

The final outcome was a quick decline in their performance in elections which implies a drop in the recruitment rates, which means the group that was able – despite its mistakes during the past two years – to sustain (by making its members feel they are targeted and threatened from outside the group, which requires postponing internal disputes) has failed to convince non-members of its viewpoint.

This means the leaders of the Brotherhood have only three choices. First, divorce the partisan from the group so the Brotherhood can continue its social activism without being blamed for political misdeeds, (which means sacrificing the party for the sake of the Brotherhood since the party failed to win any more ground outside its base). Second, accepting new members into the Muslim Brotherhood since it is the ruling party (like those who wanted to join the National Democratic Party), which means a complete rupture from what the group was founded on and its future (sacrificing the group for the sake of the party). Third, a decision not to sacrifice either, and thus the Brotherhood would age with its narrow base of youth.

These changes on the level of unions and student bodies do not automatically mean changing the political map, since the influence of these changes will remain limited if there are no serious attempts to empower society and unions. Winners in these elections should be promoted by political parties to contest parliamentary elections, instead of imposing leaders who are detached from social reality.

If political parties remain close in on themselves, this undermines their ability to benefit from conditions, because the party revolves around the leadership and does not expand the circle of participation in decisions and responsibilities. This widens the gap with the street, and the same applies to topics of interest while disengaging on policy and focusing on criticism and such. Parties will never evolve without empowering them not suppressing them, and joining them in their battles rather than using them as fuel in the conflict among politicians.

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