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Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt's Parliamentary Elections

Author: Sharon Otterman
December 1, 2005
This publication is now archived.

What will the Muslim Brotherhood do with its increased presence in the Egyptian parliament?

The Muslim Brotherhood, an officially banned political movement that seeks to implement Islamic law in Egypt, has surprised analysts with its strong showing in Egypt's ongoing parliamentary elections. It has already won 76 seats and is on track to control 20 percent to 25 percent of Egypt's 454-member parliament by the end of the elections December 7. The group's detractors say that the group's victory will translate into fewer freedoms for women and increased persecution for Egypt's large Christian minority. But many analysts say they expect the Brotherhood will hold off on its Islamic political agenda at first. Instead, they say the Brothers will focus initially on broad reforms to open up Egypt's political system, such as ending the nation's 24-year-old Emergency Law, which severely limits political activity in Egypt.

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How did a banned group do so well in the elections?

The Muslim Brotherhood has been formally banned in Egypt since 1954, but in reality, the Egyptian government has allowed it to operate within limits since the 1970s, keeping it in check with frequent arrests and crackdowns. A more open political atmosphere in 2005, due to both domestic and international pressure, led the government to grant the Brotherhood unprecedented freedom to campaign before this year's parliamentary vote. While the group's 150 candidates officially ran as independents, there was nothing secret about their Brotherhood affiliation. Candidates held rallies, hung posters with the Brotherhood's name, and used its slogan, "Islam is the Solution."

Did the open atmosphere continue throughout the vote?

No. Once voting started November 9, significant government repression of the group returned. More than 1,000 Brothers were arrested before the vote's second and third rounds, and police blocked Brotherhood supporters from entering the polls in some districts, according to independent organizations monitoring the election. Brotherhood leaders also accused the government of changing the final count to lead to a victory for the ruling party candidate in seven districts, a concern echoed by independent monitors. More than 100 Egyptian judges signed a statement condemning "aggression and acts of thuggery by supporters of the ruling party against the judges while...police forces stood idle."

Who will control most of the seats in the next parliament?

The National Democratic Party (NDP) of President Hosni Mubarak, which has dominated politics in Egypt since its creation in 1978. With voting in the second round completed, the NDP has so far won 197 seats, and analysts say the party is on track to control some two-thirds of the parliament. Egypt's secular and liberal opposition parties have fared extremely poorly in the voting, winning less than 10 seats in the first two rounds. The Brotherhood has already increased more than five-fold the 15 seats it held in the last parliament.

What will the legislative priorities of the Brotherhood be?

Brotherhood leaders say their top priorities in parliament will be to press for general political reform in Egypt. This would include releasing political prisoners and preventing torture; ending the emergency law; liberalizing the political parties law; and giving more power to the notoriously weak legislature. "We need a multi-party system which governs by the will of the people," said Issam al-Aryan, one of the Brotherhood's leading members, in a November 29 interview. The Brotherhood shares these goals with other Egyptian opposition parties and with many reformers within the NDP itself.

Focusing first on the issue of political freedom is a smart move for the Brothers, says Diaa Rashwan, an expert on political Islam and extremist groups at Cairo's state-funded al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "I don't think the Muslim Brotherhood will start its activities by asking for the institution of Islamic law. They are intelligent enough to start with the political reforms, as they will benefit from democracy in Egypt."

Will the Brotherhood try to strengthen the Islamic character of Egypt?

Yes. Strengthening the role of Islamic law, or sharia, is at the center of the Muslim Brotherhood's identity as an organization, both in Egypt and among the group's many offshoots throughout the Muslim world. The Brotherhood in Egypt says it is committed to implementing the rules of Islam peacefully, and only with the consensus of Egypt's citizens. It also says it will continue to respect the rights of non-Muslim minorities in the society. "All the society accepts sharia law, and accepts it to be applied in a modern manner that respects all ways of life. The matter needs more discussion, but this is very important for us," al-Aryan said.

In general, Brotherhood leaders are notoriously vague when asked for specifics on how they would legislate Islam if given the chance. In recent interviews, Brotherhood leaders have said they will not require women to wear the veil, or hijab, and have deemphasized the importance of sharia in their message. But Brotherhood members have in the past pushed for conservative interpretations of sharia on such matters as divorce and women's rights. "Their program remains deeply ambiguous," said Heba Raouf Ezzat, a political scientist and scholar on the group at Cairo University.

Will the Muslim Brotherhood seek to become a legal political party?

Most likely, analysts say. In a new development for the 77-year-old Brotherhood, some of its top political leaders are calling for the Brotherhood to be divided into two distinct organizations after the new parliament is seated, a move that could lead to its legalization. One organization would be a civil political party open to all citizens, Muslims, and Christians. This new political party would "consist of the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood" but comply with a law in Egypt that bans political parties based on religion, al-Aryan said.

The other section of the group, according to a November 30 op-ed by al-Aryan in the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat, would be a religious nongovernmental organization dedicated to the Brotherhood's core mission of religious proselytizing through preaching and social services. The religious organization would retain the Muslim Brotherhood name and a new name would be found for the political party, al-Aryan said.

When might the Brotherhood divide?

Al-Aryan and other Brotherhood leaders say that before they sue for legal status, they want to change the political parties law in Egypt, which currently gives the NDP-dominated government the right to choose which parties are legalized. "Under the current situation, the government has this power," al-Aryan said. Some analysts also say the Brotherhood remains internally divided over the wisdom of splitting the organization, and therefore needs more time to rally its forces internally.

Would the government permit the Brotherhood to become a legal party?

It's unclear given the threat that such a party would pose to the ruling NDP, and divisions within the NDP about how to best counter Brotherhood influence in Egypt. But at least one of the NDP's most prominent reformist thinkers says that it is possible. Mohammed Kamal, an NDP spokesman who sits on the influential NDP Policies Secretariat, said in a November 8 interview that "if the Brotherhood wants to establish a civil party based on conservative values or things of that sort, then I think they will have a fair chance to get a license as a political party."

Will the Brotherhood be a positive force for democracy in Egypt?

It's unclear. Many analysts say the Brotherhood's stronger role in parliament will help Egypt's political system mature and assist in the development of both the Brotherhood and the NDP. The Brotherhood will be in the limelight and forced to define its political program, while the NDP, which suffers from high levels of inefficiency and corruption, will face some much-needed competition. But many experts also urge caution when analyzing the group's commitment to democracy. "They've clearly embraced the procedures of democracy, but it's unclear that they have internalized the principles of democracy," says Steven Cook, an expert on Egyptian politics at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Despite the Brotherhood's rhetorical support for democracy, the group's detractors argue that the Brotherhood's interpretation of Islam will not permit it to support some values associated with liberal democracy, such as equal rights for women and non-Muslims. "I expect liberties will be curtailed if they are in power, and this is not something that we would accept," said Mona Zulifcar, a corporate lawyer and member of Egypt's National Council of Women. "We refuse a religious state, therefore we are the Brotherhood's most dangerous enemy in Egypt," said Rifat al-Said, secretary general of Egypt's leftist Tagammu Party, which has won just two seats so far in this election. Said says he calls for a society based on civil, not religious law. "Their win will increase extremism in Egypt," he says.

Sharon Otterman is former associate director of cfr.org and is currently completing a Fulbright fellowship in Cairo.

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