Banned Islamic Movement Now the Main Opposition in Egypt

Riot police blocked supporters of a candidate from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood from polls in Mansoura in the prior round of elections on Dec. 1.
Riot police blocked supporters of a candidate from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood from polls in Mansoura in the prior round of elections on Dec. 1. (By Amr Nabil -- Associated Press)
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 10, 2005

CAIRO, Dec. 9 -- 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," Said commented.

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.


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