Egypt Islamists keep analysts guessing over ambitions
Wednesday, November 30,2005 00:00
By Middle East & North Africa Division

Egypt Islamists keep analysts guessing over ambitions

How Muslim Brotherhood could ever take power in Arab world’s most populous country.

By Alain Navarro – CAIRO

Faced with the spectacular rise of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in the latest polls, analysts differ on how the Islamist group could ever take power in the Arab world’s most populous country.

Commentators agree however that the Brotherhood founded in 1928 has already achieved remarkable gains after only two phases in the parliamentary elections, securing 76 seats with more likely in the final stage starting Thursday.

Leading a welfare-oriented campaign under the slogan "Islam is the solution", the Brotherhood has demonstrated its popular support base and rattled the ruling National Democratic Party’s dominance.

The still officially banned movement will at best obtain 20 to 25 percent of the People’s Assembly’s 454 seats, imposing itself as the only alternative to the 24-year-old secular regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

"The Algerian scenario is impossible in Egypt, the Turkish model is imaginable but we will witness an Egyptian solution," said Brotherhood spokesman Issam al-Aryan.

The movement knows that its accession to power will not come in 2005 and has displayed a subtle mix of determination and patience, careful not to rush its seemingly inexorable ascension.

"Our goal today is participation, not victory," said Aryan, an English-speaking doctor from the brotherhood’s young guard, who was released recently from five months in prison.

The movement, which has mastered the art of compromise after being chronically repressed for half a century, only fielded around a third of the maximum 444 seats up for grabs in the polls. Ten seats are filled directly by the NDP.

"It’s a clever move, they don’t want to directly confront the regime," said analyst Hugh Roberts, North Africa project director for the International Crisis Group think-tank.

Roberts ruled out a scenario similar to that which saw Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front romp to electoral success in 1991 with 47 percent of seats in the first round of the legislative elections.

The army then suspended the elections, disbanded the Islamist movement and the country was plunged into a civil war that left an estimated 100,000 people dead.

"Let’s not compare Egypt with Algeria, it scares voters away," said Aryan.

Brotherhood politburo official Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh was equally keen to avoid such parallels: "Power? Not until another 50 years".

But Egyptian analyst Amr Shubaki, from the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic studies, argued that the Muslim Brotherhood definitely had a conquest agenda.

"The paradox today is that the NDP is only an organ of the current regime and the Muslim Brothers are organised like a proper party despite not having the right to be one," he said.

Over the decades, the opposition movement has woven a network of influence by systematically ensuring its presence in professional unions and syndicates, whilst contributing to the Islamisation of Egyptian society.

Shubaki argued that "the biggest threat to democracy in Egypt is the ruling National Democratic Party, not the Muslim Brothers."

He predicted that the movement could be inspired by the Turkish example where the Islamist-based Justice and Development party won electoral victory in 2002. Turkey’s current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is an Islamist, albeit a toned-down one.

Roberts argued that the Turkish example was irrelevant in Egypt, "which lacks a secular constitutional framework for the Muslim Brothers to comply with."

While banning religious parties, Egypt’s constitution states that the main source of legislation is Islamic law.

Mustafa Kamel al-Sayed, a professor at the American University in Cairo, admitted that an Algerian scenario was impossible but did not rule out the Turkish situation.

"However, that would imply that the regime accepts to hold free elections, which is a bit out of character," he added.