'Participate, not contest'
weighs the pros and cons of the Muslim Brotherhood's decision to take part in next month's elections despite a security clampdown and boycott calls
The Muslim Brotherhood's decision to participate in, rather than boycott, November's parliamentary elections added a dash of spice to the otherwise insipid political climate. The announcement was made in a media hyped press conference led by the group's supreme guide, Mohamed Badei, who read out a carefully worded statement justifying the Brotherhood's decision to stand.
Badei cited the current "decisive moment in our modern history", the importance of the parliamentary elections "which the entire world is observing" and the Brotherhood's duties towards Egypt which "is suffering from unprecedented corruption and volatility". The Brotherhood, Badei said, sees running in the elections as a national "duty" despite all the "sacrifices" it will entail. Finally, he announced that the decision to stand was the result of a democratic process of voting within the group and that 98 per cent of the Brotherhood's shura council was in favour of participation.
In line with what has become the MB's new favourite election motto, "participation, not contest" ( musharaka la mughalaba ) Badei said that his organisation will stand in only 30 per cent of the 518 parliamentary seats up for grabs in November. Sixty-four of the seats are reserved for women.
"The message is that they will field fewer candidates than they could afford to in order not to provoke anyone," political expert Diaa Rashwan told Al-Ahram Weekly, "not the government, nor other political forces."
Between Badei's press conference on Saturday and Al-Ahram Weekly going to press on Wednesday at least 41 members of the Brotherhood were arrested. They were detained in Alexandria, the Delta governorates of Sharqiya and Daqahliya, in Qena (Upper Egypt) and in Suez. And more arrests are likely, say observers.
While the Brotherhood has yet to officially declare the names of its candidates to avoid security harassment, many have already started publicising themselves. Candidates in the Delta governorates of Qalioubiya and Kafr Al-Sheikh, and in Fayoum (130km southwest of Cairo) and Alexandria, have been especially vocal. At least two women from the group -- Hoda Ghaniya, a doctor from Qalioubiya, and Fatma Moussa, an educationalist in Kafr Al-Sheikh -- have said they will take part in the elections for the first time in the group's history.
Badei defended the Brotherhood's decision to ignore calls to boycott the election in the absence of fair guarantees. A constitutional amendment in 2007 cancelled judicial supervision of the elections. They are now overseen by the Supreme Election Committee, a body formed by the president outside the judicial corps. The absence of judicial supervision for the first time in Egypt's electoral history sparked fierce criticism from the opposition. Yet despite their reservations licensed opposition parties such as the liberal Wafd and the leftwing Tagammu have said they will contest the elections anyway.
On the other side of the political divide several opposition movements and unlicensed parties announced their boycott of the poll. The Brotherhood's decision to participate in the elections must be particularly galling for the National Assembly for Change (NAC), previously chaired by political activist and Nobel laureate Mohamed El-Baradei. The NAC's raison d'être is to act as a platform for various streams across the political spectrum, including the MB, which is represented in the assembly. It has also created an unforseen rift within the group. An opposition "front"of heavy weights in the MB such as former shura council members Ibrahim El-Zafarani and Khaled Dawoud has emerged already demanding that the group boycott the elections.
By breaking away from the NAC and toeing the line of the licensed opposition parties, the Brotherhood finds itself in an awkward position. A series of leaks from within the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), and more recently statements by officials, suggests that the Brotherhood will not be allowed to repeat its successes in the 2005 election when they won 88 seats -- approximately 20 per cent of the total, while the rest of the opposition managed a meagre four per cent between them.
On 5 October Minister of State for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Moufid Shehab was quoted as saying that the "outlawed" Muslim Brotherhood was overrated in the 2005 poll. He dismissed the possibility of the victory repeating itself and predicted that the licensed political parties, specifically the Wafd, Tagammu and the less visible Al-Ahrar (liberals), would make electoral gains. Such statements, say analysts, are clear indicators of the election results. They also coincide with what observers describe as a clampdown on freedom of speech in the media.
Last week Ibrahim Eissa, the firebrand editor of Al-Dostour newspaper and vociferous Mubarak critic, was fired by the paper's new owners, El-Sayed El-Badawi, chairman of the Wafd Party, and billionaire Reda Edward, a prominent member of Wafd. Earlier, Eissa's show on the privately owned OTV satellite channel had been cancelled for undisclosed reasons. And at the end of September Al-Qahera Al-Yom (Cairo Today), a popular talk show hosted by Amr Adib and broadcast live on the privately owned Orbit satellite channel, was also stopped. Last week sports TV host Alaa Sadek's show was cancelled after he criticised the Interior Ministry's failure to prevent violent clashes following a football match.
On Tuesday the government-owned Nile Satellite company closed down four Islamic channels owned by Gulf-based companies and sent warnings to both OTV and the less popular Al-Fara'een for "violating the terms of the contract" between them and NileSat. On the same day Egypt's telecommunications regulator set new rules for companies sending text messages to multiple mobile phones. Companies that want to send out texts must now obtain expensive licences. In an interview with AP on Tuesday, Mahmoud El-Gweini, adviser to the minister of telecommunications said only registered political parties would be allowed to send mass text messages in the upcoming elections. The ruling party has already been granted a permit.
Given this climate it is unclear how the Brotherhood hopes to make electoral gains or, as they insist they will do, "expose" the regime and the electoral process. With increasing numbers of its members expected to be detained on an almost daily basis, Brotherhood losses in this election could all too easily outweigh any benefits it hopes to achieve by ignoring the call of dissent groups to boycott the 2010 vote.