Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 December 2005 - 4 January 2006
Issue No. 775
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

How the Brotherhood won

Careful organisation within a climate of political discontent explains the remarkable successes of political Islam, writes Nabil Abdel-Fattah*

That the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) won 88 seats -- nearly a quarter of the total in parliament -- in the recent elections came as a shock to many, and a surprise to some, even those closely following Islamist movements. The most palpable reaction came from Coptic commentators; some even predicting that if the MB came to power, Copts would emigrate and the stock exchange suffer as a consequence.

This shock, dismay and anxiety are products of a combination of factors. One is the paucity of academic research, not only in terms of the MB's religious outlook, but also in terms of its evolution as a socio-political and cultural phenomenon. In consequence, there is considerable mystery surrounding the MB's thoughts regarding the modern state, the Egyptian nation, citizenship, civil law, the status of Copts as well as other religious groups like the Shia and Bahaai, and women. To complicate matters, American and European governments have been sending signals that the ban on the MB should be lifted. Speculation is rife over American policy aims in pressing this point.

Coptic, secularist liberal and leftist intellectuals are further disturbed by the inconsistencies of Supreme Guide Mohamed Mahdi Akef. They find it difficult to reconcile the MB's reform initiative in 2000 with its reform initiative in 2005. Nor can they forget former supreme guide Mustafa Mashhour's notorious reversal on the three declarations the MB issued in 1995 on political plurality, women and Copts, backing down on the position stated in one of these declarations that Copts were equal citizens.

Surprise and concern at MB electoral victories also extends to cultural circles, especially writers and filmmakers. The MB has been much less ambiguous on matters of artistic creativity. Not easy to forget are the controversies that erupted around the MB's condemnation of A Banquet of Seaweed by Syrian novelist Haidar Haidar and demonstrations by Al-Azhar students against several other novels. The cultural establishment became wary of certain types of creative output while religious establishments took an increasingly prominent role in the censorship of artistic and even scholastic production.

Nor has the MB been able to dispel fears among Egyptian social and political elites. Radical rhetoric weighs heavier in the minds of establishment figures than more recent initiatives by moderates within the MB leadership. There is a credibility gap that affects any prospects of the organisation's assimilation into legitimate party political structures.

These were the first parliamentary elections to take place following the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution that abolished the system of popular presidential referendum, and paved the way for the selection of the next president through a restricted process of popular election. This new climate was shaped to a large extent by changes in the prevailing mood among eminent political analysts of the 1970s generation, who lashed out at the totalitarian nature of the ruling order, the security apparatus and Egypt's foreign and domestic policies. This new mood spawned new socio-political groupings that attempted to revive the right to peaceful protest, including the Kifaya movement, the Popular Campaign for Change, Writers and Artists for Change and Lawyers for Change. While generally small in number and more of symbolic than tangible influence, these groups engaged in forms of mutual support, via demonstrations, statements to the press, and on satellite TV stations, and over the Internet.

Another feature of the 2005 elections is the backdrop of Western pressures upon the Egyptian regime to institute political reform. Much depended on the intensification of the Sunni resistance against the American occupation in Iraq, and on the Palestinian-Israeli front as Sharon pursued his unilateral vision of a political settlement, to the extent to which Washington thought Cairo could make itself useful in these matters. Maybe, the thinking goes, the MB could be convinced, by being integrated into the political system, to keep their thoughts to themselves on developments in Iraq, Syria, Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East, thereby facilitating US policy drives in the region. With so much at stake, these elections were bound to lack integrity and transparency.

The elections also took place against the backdrop of anxious speculation on the part of opposition forces and political observers over the thorny question of political succession. According to some observers, these elections were crucial to regime architects who wanted to bring in a parliamentary configuration that would set the stage for hereditary succession of the highest political office in the land.

Returning to the MB, this organisation embodies one of the oldest political movements in Egypt, with no ancestral relationship to the totalitarian order that emerged with the July 1952 Revolution. As such, it acquired an aura of opposition militancy that became increasingly appealing to certain sectors of society with the collapse of the Nasserist project, the evanescence of Arab nationalist ideology and the dissipation of Arab left-wing parties. It is impossible to separate the MB's considerable success this year from the decline of that which it long opposed.

From its inception in 1928 to the present, the MB accumulated a rich political and organisational legacy through direct and indirect activities, such as religious proselytising, the organisation of public and clandestine organs, and the recruitment, training and indoctrination of its members. This essentially underground organisation proved highly instrumental in mobilising the protest movement against the US-led war on Iraq. Indeed, it is said that MB leaders coordinated with government agencies and NDP officials on the staging of demonstrations against the 2003 invasion.

The MB benefited greatly from anti-war demonstrations, as well as student protests in Egyptian universities. It further benefited from the role the Kifaya movement played in opening the gates of peaceful protest. Through its involvement in such demonstrations, the MB injected new life into organisational structures, found itself once more in a position to make direct contact with the public, and engaged the psychological factors involved in confronting security forces and negotiating with security officials. It also refined its political message, becoming more adept at strategic manoeuvring.

Rigid discipline has always been one of the MB's hallmarks. However, the activities of Kifaya, and the relative dynamism of the new Egyptian political climate, opened avenues for new tactical alliances. The MB began preparing for the 2005 parliamentary elections a year ago, and clearly developed a comprehensive campaign strategy that drew on its experience in the previous elections, in 2000. It prepared first, second and third tiers of candidates for the electoral constituencies in which it intended to field itself, so as to offset the likelihood of government clampdowns and arrests. It also engaged in much closer study of the socio-political maps of the constituencies in which it planned to field candidates, so as to better assess the strengths and weaknesses of rival candidates, their platforms, their sources of funding and their organisational tactics.

The MB also set up operations headquarters in various constituencies, and linked these with a sophisticated communications network integrating the Internet and mobile phones. As a result, the MB was always one step ahead of the competition. Equally, if not more, important was the care with which the MB chose its candidates. Candidates were reputed for integrity and good standing in their communities. Also, some may have been unknown to security surveillance agencies until electoral campaigns brought them face-to-face with the NDP or official opposition party candidates.

One of the campaign strategies of MB candidates was to pledge free or inexpensive social and healthcare services, reductions in educational fees and other solutions for alleviating poverty and reducing the costs of living. Care was taken to drive home the point that these pledges were integral to the Brotherhood's philosophy, which aimed to fill an important social function abandoned by the state as it pressed ahead with privatisation. This strategy complimented the MB's goal of Islamicising the middle class through infiltrating and controlling professional syndicates. The tactic produced prominent local figures in many electoral constituencies who succeeded in winning popular sympathy for the Brotherhood.

Another important ingredient of the MB's campaign strategy was their excellent PR work, combined with their simple yet catchy campaign slogan, "Islam is the solution". Often MB campaign teams included natives of the constituencies in which they were running, again driving home the point that candidates were sincere in their concern for the public's interests. In addition, the MB maximised channels of direct communication with the electorate through family and acquaintance networks, mosques, clubs and community associations.

One of the most important components of the Muslim Brotherhood's campaign strategy was to limit the electoral districts in which it would field candidates, so as not to provoke the National Democratic Party (NDP) and government authorities. The motto, "We want to participate, not dominate", was intended to reassure the ruling party that they had no designs on majority power. Obviously, NDP and ruling officials were not reassured, and during the elections the MB proved particularly adept at countering attempts to rig the polls and intimidate voters. Women were deployed heavily to deter violence. Voters were prepped on how to deal with the general chaos of voter registration lists, security restrictions and other encumbrances. Indeed, MB teams knocked holes in the back walls of some polling stations and brought in ladders to enable voters to climb in through windows in order to cast their ballots.

Despite all these successes, the MB has several problems yet to confront: the tenor of their political rhetoric; the ambiguity surrounding their ulterior motives and future plans; and their PR campaigns addressing intellectuals and Copts. Their impact on the political map in Egypt, and their relations with the ruling elite and the security apparatus, remain subject to myriad possibilities. Only when the dust settles and the new parliament gets down to work, will these possibilities become probabilities, and a new era for the MB be charted.

* The writer is an analyst with Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and the author of the annual State of Egyptian Religion report.

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