Banned Islamic Movement Now the Main Opposition in Egypt
On traffic-jammed Talat Harb Square, forlorn supporters of jailed politician
Ayman Nour walked in little circles, chanted for his freedom and bemoaned the failure of his
Tomorrow Party in Egypt’s just-concluded parliamentary elections.
A few blocks away at a television studio, Essam Erian, a top official of the Muslim Brotherhood
who himself has been imprisoned several times, smiled broadly as he held a series of interviews
about the electoral success of his movement.
The contrast underscored a stunning shift in Egyptian politics. The Tomorrow Party and other
legal, secular opposition groups were all but wiped out in the election -- together, they won no
more than 10 seats. Candidates running as independents but representing the Muslim Brotherhood,
which is formally banned from politics, won 88 seats and became the leading voice of dissent
against President Hosni Mubarak’s quarter-century rule.
Still-partial results show that Mubarak’s National Democratic Party scooped up 314 seats in the
454-seat assembly, 90 fewer than in elections five years ago but still more than the two-thirds
majority needed to pass constitutional changes.
Throughout the three rounds of the election, police and mobs organized by the ruling party tried
to scare voters away from the polls and human rights groups complained of vote-buying and ballot
box-stuffing. Then, on Wednesday, the final day of voting, eight people were killed by police,
bringing the death toll of the month-long voting period to 10. For all that, analysts and
politicians say, the vote exposed the weakness of secular parties that had hoped to benefit from
the limited opening of Egypt’s politics during the past year.
"Most of the most democratic forces lost with only a handful of votes. They became yesterday’s
people. They fought to open the system, but it was the Muslim Brotherhood that benefited," said
Mohammed Sayed Said, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
"The old, official party system is dead," Erian said.
The failure of secular parties and the success of the Brotherhood present a dilemma for the Bush
administration, which has pressed Mubarak to grant rights of free speech and association and to
stop arresting opposition activists.
The secular opposition’s political stands covered a spectrum from rabidly anti-American
Trotskyites to free-market liberals like Nour, but all favored reforms in keeping with
Washington’s desire for Western-style democracy to take hold in Egypt. Democracy activists in a
group called Kifaya, which means "enough" in Arabic, campaigned for free speech in the streets of
Cairo. In the end, the benefits were harvested by the well-organized Brotherhood, which has long
espoused the preeminence of Islamic law in public life and whose history is linked with violent
movements across the Middle East.
"In the end, only the Brotherhood had national reach. Only it could cash in on the new openness,"
The case of Nour reveals the obstacles that opposition parties faced on the road to the ballot
box. His Tomorrow Party was legalized only 14 months ago, and Nour soared to prominence during the
summer’s presidential elections when he won about 7 percent of the vote in the midst of Mubarak’s
landslide victory. But in the first round of the parliamentary elections, Nour lost his seat.
Through his presidential and parliamentary campaigns, Nour operated under the cloud of government
prosecution for alleged fraud in gathering petitions to legalize his party. Although a main
prosecution witness in the case said police coerced him to testify, the case has gone ahead. Last
week, a judge ordered Nour’s arrest. A verdict is scheduled to be delivered Saturday.
"Ayman Nour’s trial, like the violence against voters in the parliamentary elections, is a
terrible advertisement for President Mubarak’s supposed reform agenda, and for Egypt’s judiciary,"
said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division. "In the courtroom as
at the voting booths, there is little tolerance for challenges to the ruling party’s hegemony."
On Thursday night, demonstrators holding candles, orange balloons and banners gathered to protest
Nour’s detention. They were hemmed in by police and prohibited from leaving a sidewalk at Talat
Harb Square. "The government wants to eliminate people like Ayman so they can offer Egyptians only
two choices: the NDP or the Brotherhood," said Gamila Ismael, Nour’s wife. "It is the choice of
Nour faces a new charge in court: insulting Mubarak during an interview on al-Jazeera television.
One Tomorrow Party member won a parliamentary seat. Nour has said the victor was supported by the
ruling party to unseat him as party leader.
Other parties fared equally badly. The Wafd party, an 80-year-old group, won six seats; the
leftist Tagammu ended with two; and the Nasserites, named after Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s leader
of the 1950s and ’60s, secured none.
Kifaya, which ran no candidates, is rethinking its tactics. The movement succeeded in challenging
bans on public demonstrations and broke taboos against criticizing Mubarak. But some supporters
say the protests have reached a dead end. "We became addicted to demonstrations," said Wael
Khalil, a Kifaya activist. "We have to organize to make ourself relevant across the country. We
simply don’t have deep roots in Egypt."
The Muslim Brotherhood faced obstacles as well. The organization was forced to run its candidates
as independents because of its outlawed status, and police rounded up 1,300 members and
sympathizers during the election, Erian said.
Brotherhood leaders were quick to calm fears that the group would run roughshod over the secular
opposition. The Brotherhood ran in only 150 districts to assure Egyptians it was not trying to
seize power immediately, Erian said. If legalized, he said, the Brotherhood would become a
political party. In parliament, it will launch an anti-corruption campaign, he added.
Erian attributed the Brotherhood’s electoral success to fieldwork and social activism. Members
provide social services and medical care in several areas throughout Egypt. "We are visible in
ways other parties are not," Erian said. "This is a moment of truth. Egyptians will see whether we
are a genuine reform movement or not."
As for the United States, Erian said it should avoid trying to mold Egyptian democracy in its own
image. ’They should learn they are not in charge of the world," he said.
Members of the ruling party put a positive spin on the outcome. Mohammed Kamal, a reformer in the
party, said the Brotherhood must now show its true face. "They are integrated into the system, and
this is a positive step in dealing with political Islam," he said. "Is it scary? We will see."