Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 December 2005
Issue No. 771
Egypt
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Lessons learned

Amira Howeidy finds out why the Muslim Brotherhood is on target to win 100 parliamentary seats despite election fraud, violence and arrests

Click to view caption
Supreme Guide Akef; Brotherhood supporters at the polls

During the last two weeks Islam Abdel-Hamid, 28, an accountant who also runs a small business of his own, has devoted the great majority of his time to the "cause" in which he believes. As "media coordinator" for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Mina El-Basal in Alexandria, Abdel-Hamid is among the thousands of volunteers who contributed to the group's astonishing success in the parliamentary elections.

The MB has so far won 76 -- ie 24.6 per cent -- of the 308 seats contested in the first and second rounds. It is a figure few would have credited when the three-stage elections began on 9 November.

In last week's second round of elections, which included Alexandria, Abdel-Hamid volunteered to be Al-Ahram Weekly 's guide not only in Mina El-Basal but also in areas outside his his constituency like Dekheila and El-Raml.

"Want to see voters who aren't legally registered in this constituency but were brought in nonetheless to vote NDP?" he asked us. "They're going upstairs now."

Abdel-Hamid was right. Dozens of Bedouin women from Al-Ameriya, 51 kms from Alexandria, were climbing the stairs in the Mafrouza School polling station to vote. Asked who they were voting for most of the women told the Weekly they didn't know the name of the candidate and pointed to the crescent and camel -- the NDP symbols printed on their voting cards.

Asked what prompted her to vote for someone she did not know an elderly woman smiled in response.

Were they paid to vote NDP?

"Don't say anything," her companion hissed.

Minutes later we were speeding off to El-Dekheila constituency after Abdel-Hamid was notified of the security siege imposed on the area where a popular MB figure, Tawakol Masoud, was running against the leading NDP member Abdel-Meneim Ragheb Deif- Allah.

Tareek El-Bahr Street, leading to El-Dekheila -- Egypt's most populous constituency -- was blocked by a police truck. Dozens of police cars and armoured vehicles were lined up across the road leading to the polling station. Thugs had just attacked the voting station and according to witnesses the security forces didn't interfere. Masoud and his supporters were present, talking to the people in the area and to media representatives. There was no sign of Deif-Allah or his supporters.

In all the constituencies where the MB was running -- in Alexandria and elsewhere -- the group's candidates and leaders could be easily accessed, in stark contrast with the NDP.

Mobile phone on one ear and briefcase in hand, Abdel-Hamid made sure the world media witnessed the MB's experience in Alexandria's elections.

"Yes habibi, send the video to Al-Arabyia... Jazeera are already there filming...do you have a charger? Damn."

It was his second mobile that day and judging by the number of phone calls made in one hour his bill at the end of the month is going to be huge. It is not something Abdel-Hamid -- who joined the MB at the age of 10 -- worries about.

"I pay for this out of my own pocket because as a believer and as a Muslim I am doing this for a cause. Each and everyone one of us in the Muslim Brotherhood has a role and each person tries to do what they're doing to the best of their ability. This has always been Islam's message," he said.

Even after we left Alexandria Abdel-Hamid and at least three other MB members were continuously updating us by phone with developments and minute-by-minute accounts as the vote progressed.

According to Essam El-Erian, a prominent MB figure, the group's army of volunteers included 25,000 "men, women and children who, like Abdel-Hamid, are moved by ideological commitment. They knocked on the doors of registered voters urging them to vote MB, produced election songs, set up dozens of Web sites -- after their overwhelming victory in El-Minya the MB sent out mass emails urging recipients to send feedback on what they expect of their elected MPs -- and canvassed the opinions of voters to better understand why people were or were not voting for them.

And they protected the ballots.

Journalists have reason to be grateful for their efficiency. The MB's main Web site, Ikhwan Online, provides election information round the clock. According to its Editor-in- Chief Abdel-Gelil El-Sharnoubi the site is continuously updated by a team of 45 journalists who are paid nominal fees "when they would cost 20 times as much if they wrote the same content elsewhere."

The group's powerful media committee has proved itself adept at finding ways to deliver its message: SMSs, emails, faxes and newsletters have all been employed. And in many instances they have provided photo and video documentation of violence and the role of the security forces in the elections.

But the election hasn't been the free and fair vote promised by the government, certainly not according to local and international monitors, judges and leading Muslim and Coptic intellectuals (see statement). The widespread violence has claimed the lives of two people, injured dozens and terrified many more. In some cases judges supervising the poll have been assaulted, and the courts have already annulled results in several constituencies following claims that the returns had been falsified in Damanhour, Dokki, Nasr City and elsewhere.

The month-long campaign conducted by the state-run media against the MB, and the recent arrests of MB members -- 731 so far -- appear to have backfired and the outfit is still progressing. According to Mohamed Habib, the MB's deputy supreme guide, they expect to win 24 to 25 seats in the third and final stage of elections today.

"I think we're going to end up with around 100 seats in parliament, perhaps more," he told the Weekly.

Habib believes three factors have contributed to the group's success -- preparation, planning and reliance on "highly qualified and competent" MB activists "who have the ability to act in times of crisis," communicating with voters, guiding them to polling stations, protecting the ballots and closely monitoring the count.

"We make a point of being present when that is happening," Habib said.

He also attributes the group's success to the "desire of the electorate for change" despite "thuggery and attempts to demonise the MB".

As the election draws to a close the success of Egypt's "outlawed" group has provoked a debate that shows no sign of ending soon. For the time being it is mostly focused on how they won so many seats.

Ibrahim Eissa, editor-in-chief of the independent weekly Al-Destour, tried to offer an answer on the paper's front page last week. When faced with the NDP or MB, any citizen "in their right mind would have chosen the MB without hesitation".

Under the title "The lesson is over NDP", Eissa's widely-read column argued that the MB had not nominated "corrupt candidates, bank robbers, those who steal the daily bread of the people or state security investigation officers who torture citizens. They did not nominate drug dealers, people who have sold Egypt's wealth or robbed its public sector, nor slaves to the president, hypocrites, those who normalise with Israel or work with USAID… Citizens vote MB because the competition is the NDP."

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