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2 - 8 November 2000
Issue No. 506
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Against the odds

By Omayma Abdel-Latif

Six seats secured, 14 members contesting the run-offs of the second stage of parliamentary elections, and tons of faxes and mobile telephone messages bombarding newsrooms of both the national and foreign press with updates on the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood's electoral performance. This strong showing has caught many by surprise, including the Brothers themselves.

According to Maamoun El-Hodeibi, spokesman for the group, the surprise element was not so much that members of the Brotherhood gained a relatively good number of parliamentary seats, than the fact that the government let them get away with it. He attributed the Brotherhood's electoral gains to the integrity of the judges supervising the ballot. "What is strange is that in [the last parliamentary elections of] 1995, our candidates were much stronger and had a broader grassroots base than the ones we nominated this time, and yet all of them failed. But this time, because the government has lifted its heavy hand and because the judges are doing a proper job in safeguarding the voting process, we are witnessing a surge in the number of Brotherhood members of parliament," El-Hodeibi told Al-Ahram Weekly.

It was in the 1987 elections that the Brotherhood managed to gain its largest representation in parliament after forging an alliance with the Islamist-oriented Labour Party and the Liberal Party. The alliance won 60 parliamentary seats, 35 of which went to the Brotherhood. The 1990 elections were boycotted by the Brotherhood along with all opposition parties. In 1995, out of 50 candidates fielded by the Brotherhood, only one managed to make it to the House.

Notwithstanding, the Brotherhood does not believe the 2000 ballot is necessarily a fair one. "Elections are not about ballot boxes only," said El-Hodeibi. "Inside the polling stations nobody can tamper with the process, but outside it is like a war."

Faxed messages reported numerous incidents between security forces, Brotherhood candidates and supporters, even in the remotest villages. They provided details of police preventing voters from reaching polling stations and the latest arrests of supporters, the time of the arrest and the names of those arrested. One faxed message even urged voters "not to leave your house, otherwise you will be arrested." The faxed messages showed that the group had set up a network to service the press and media and guarantee full coverage of any security harassment. Brotherhood sources denied that they used the press and media "in an excessive manner."

Some beg to differ. "They managed to run an information campaign successfully and brought into focus any action taken by the state against them, since they know that this material will never find its way to the national press," said Seif Abdel-Fattah, a political science professor.

The most important tactic, however, according to political analysts, was the Brotherhood's abstinence from taking any aggressive action against the state.

A source close to the Brotherhood said that instructions were given to candidates and their supporters not to organise any meetings for discussing election plans in order not to give security authorities an excuse for escalating the clampdown against them. Another tactic, showing a pragmatic adjustment by the Brotherhood at the expense of ideological commitment, was the careful selection of candidates. A look at the profiles of this year's candidates will provide ample evidence. Originally, the Brotherhood suffered a shortage of candidates due to the recent spate of arrests. So, they fielded candidates who are not prominent figures of the group but who have broad grassroots bases in their constituencies.

"The state, in its battle against the Islamists, acts according to a security plan and this plan is partly based on information provided by the press," Diaa Rashwan told the Weekly. "But the Brotherhood's candidates this time were not big names with a strong presence in the press; therefore, they managed to escape the filters of security authorities.

Rashwan added that monitoring voter behaviour this time revealed that those who vote for the Brotherhood do not do that out of political conviction. "In the majority of constituencies where Brotherhood candidates are running, people tend to vote for a particular candidate because of social bonds," said Rashwan.

One observer said that those who voted for the Brotherhood wanted to punish the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). "Many voters were determined not to give their votes to the NDP... This is what we call punitive voting," said the observer.

While the Brotherhood managed to secure six seats until now, watchers of Islamist groups expect their overall representation to rise, barring the unforeseen, to 20 seats by the end of elections. But in another possible scenario, Rashwan expects that the coming stages -- Saturday's run-off of the second stage which is contested by 14 Brotherhood members as well as the third stage -- will prove to be particularly tough for the Brothers.

"The strong voting bases of the Brotherhood can be easily identified by the state now, and the government will encourage voters in the constituencies where the Brothers don't have support to vote for the NDP," said Rashwan.

All things considered, the Brotherhood's evident parliamentary success is not an indication that the movement is set to become the political force that will lead the opposition in the coming parliament. Rashwan pointed out that the equation includes 14 independents who have decided to keep their status as independents and refuse to join any political group -- a first in Egyptian parliamentary history since 1976.

As such, Abdel-Fattah believes that if the opposition parties continue their poor performance in the elections, independents may emerge as the "new opposition." He expects that the overall number of independents may reach up to 40 seats in addition to 40 more for the other opposition and Brotherhood. "The one thing that this opposition body has in common is their stand against the NDP and they will have enough seats to make a strong opposition front in the People's Assembly against the all too powerful NDP," added Abdel-Fattah.


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