“Outlawed” Muslim Brotherhood wins record seats in Egyptian vote

The first round of voting in Egypt’s parliamentary elections–much hailed as evidence of a democratic opening–has brought a big surprise. Candidates of the officially outlawed Muslim Brotherhood won an unprecedented 34 of the 164 contested seats, totaling more than 20% of the vote. Nother nine seats went to an opposition front composed of the Nasserite al-Wafd and the Kefayah and al-Karamah parties. The remainder went to the long-ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Muhammad Habib said that “the result confirms that the Egyptian people stand behind the Muslim Brothers and sympathize with them and that they actually represent the strongest political and social group in Egypt.” (Arabic News, Nov. 18)

Parties achieving a five-percent national threshold in the parliamentary race will be able to put forward a candidate for the 2011 presidential elections. It is uncertain how this will apply to the ostensibly banned Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidates officially run as “independents.”

Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential elections were held in September, and handily won by incumbent Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled since 1981. (Zaman, Turkey, Nov. 17)

Conducting an aggressive welfare-oriented campaign under the slogan “Islam is the solution,” the Brotherhood has already doubled in just one phase its total from the last legislative elections in 2000.

The movement’s leader, Mohammad Mehdi Akef, accused the NDP of preparing mass fraud and orchestrating “biased” media coverage. However, he took a more conciliatory stance in a Nov. 17 interview with the independent daily Al-Masri Al-Yom, in which he said the polling had been marred mainly by “individual irregularities” and not “widespread fraud as had been the case in the past.” He added: “Even Mubarak does not tolerate rigged elections. He advocates democracy and freedom.”

Amr Shubaki, a political analyst for the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, offered an explanation for Akef’s about-face. “Akef has a long experience of double talk … It is quite clear that the Muslim Brothers have good reason to worry about the risk of a dangerous confrontation with the regime in the next phases of the vote,” he said. (AFP via Lebanon Daily Star, Nov. 18)

However, accusations of an anti-democratic atmosphere also came from the Egyptian Press Syndicate and other press-freedom and human rights watchdogs. One cited case was the Nov. 13 harassment of Heba al-Qudsy of the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat. “I was taking pictures of a rally for one of the independent candidates when a group of thugs attacked me, stole my camera and hit me,” said al-Qudsy.

While the camera was eventually returned by a police officer, the reporter complained that her only recourse was to file a complaint at the nearest police station. “I don’t understand why the policeman didn’t arrest those who attacked me,” a shaken al-Qudsy told IRIN. “If he was able to get my camera back, he should have arrested those responsible.”

The Paris-based Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF) also condemned the attack: “We urge the authorities to see to it that the law is respected and that journalists are allowed to carry out news gathering in complete freedom and safety,” read an RSF statement.

On Nov. 9, Ahmed Mansur, Cairo correspondent for Qatar-based TV news station Al-Jazeera, was beaten severely by two unknown assailants. Some suggested the attack was retaliation for the station’s coverage of vote-buying by NDP candidates.

“Thuggery is a tool used by the ruling party,” said Gamal Eid of the Arabic Human Rights Information Network, “either to prevent journalists from revealing the truth or to punish them for stating the facts.”

Several journalists were also reportedly intimidated during the May referendum that paved the way for September’s multi-candidate presidential elections. According to reports by local and international rights groups, reporters covering demonstrations by the opposition Kefaya movement were physically assaulted. Some female journalists were allegedly sexually harassed by security officers.

A recent report by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights stated: “These violations were committed with clear disregard for Article 6 of Press Law 96, which states that ‘journalists are independent and not under the authority of anyone.'” The report also cites Article 7 of the same law, which states that “journalists’ opinions or truthful information published by him/her may not be a reason for a violation of his personal security.”

Gamal Fahmy of the Egyptian Press Syndicate said such violations reflect a repressive atmosphere in Egyptian society as a whole. “We must make sure that such incidents are published so the perpetrators are exposed,” he said. (IRIN, Nov. 17)

The first-round results cast a dubious light on the apparent assumption of the neocons that a wave of democratic revolutions in the Arab and Islamic worlds will bring pro-West “moderates” and technocrats to power. They may be dramatically underestimating the degree to which radical Islam has cornered the market on popular unrest in this part of the planet. Their model seems to be Czechoslovakia 1989. A more appropriate one might be Algeria 1992.

See our last post on Egypt.