The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Backlash against the Ikhwan

As is by now well known, there were at least 300 arrests of members and sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood made today, the second round of Egypt's parliamentary elections. Many of us who observe Egyptian politics had thought it would happen after their upset in the last round, where they already doubled the number of seats they won in 2000. Others thought there would be no police crackdown, but perhaps other forms of fraud or intimidation, or merely a deal to urge the Brothers to calm down before they get whatever would be considered too many seats.

Before we tuck in into today's news, two things are worth remembering. First, the Brothers have taken an aggressive stance in their campaigning, but they are still fielding candidates conservatively. Quite early in the campaign they conceded some seats to prominent NDP members, and overall they only fielded about 150 candidates, or less than a third of the People's Assembly 444 elected seats. In other words, they never really tried to threaten the NDP's control of parliament (assuming they could even in a completely fair election), since it's still practically guaranteed that the ruling party will retain the two-thirds control it needs to do things like kick off MPs, start constitutional amendments, etc.

The second thing is that in 2000, the first round also saw some surprising results in favor of the MB, and that then the second and third round were considerably more violent and fraudulent than the first. Therefore, when this time around they again did well in the first round, many expected a crackdown of some sort. One informed person I spoke to today said that a meeting of all top relevant personalities in the regime was held on Thursday, when the final results of the first round came out. They decided then--against the wishes of some--not to use police force to interfere with the second round. What we saw in the official press, aside from concern about the results, was more like advice to the Ikhwan to stay within the law then a threat. In other words, I'm not sure that today was intended to involve clashes with police or amn al markazi forces, from the regime's point of view.

I made an all-too-brief excursion to Damanhour today, but only managed to stay a few hours before I had to get back. I missed most of the action, but managed to talk to a few people, both locals and observers from various parties. The center of town seemed calm, but there were reports of clashes on the outskirts of town. What certainly seemed clear was that this city was very much a pro-Ikhwan place, especially as its candidate, Gamal Heshmat (who was ousted from his seat in 2002 in a rather unsavory way), could play the martyr's card. His opponent was Mustafa Al Fiqi, a prominent NDP figure and the head of the People's Assembly Foreign Affairs Committee, and therefore a frequent regime interlocutor with foreigners and parliamentary delegations. Al Fiqi had until then been appointed to parliament (Mubarak gets to pick 10 people this way every time), and I am not sure why he was now running--did the NDP want to put one of its biggest honchos there, or was his star declining? In some ways, this was the great symbolic fight of this round, especially as Heshmat had been an exemplary MP for his constituency and was removed in a nasty way.

In the run-up to the campaign, things were almost gentlemanly between the two candidates. Al Fiqi promised that he would resign his NDP membership if any fraud took place. Heshmat said he was sure his opponent would not be tempted by fraud or political corruption, and even thanked Gamal Mubarak for not attending Al Fiqi's popular rally, something that "would have given a presidential character to the parliamentary elections."

From what I saw in Damanhour, Ikhwan supporters actually outnumbered NDP ones around polling stations. They clearly had a strong electoral machine there, were psyched up, and feeling confident. Their posters also seemed to dominate, although usually it's the opposite. People who spent more time there than I did confirmed that, talking about a well-honed political machine and impressively fast responses by organized teams to whatever problems cropped up. From what I've heard and what later transpired, many of the Ikhwan supporters were feeling quite cocky. One NDP supporter I spoke to said that buses belonging to the Al Fiqi campaign were attacked as they entered the city by Ikhwan supporters with rocks. The Ikhwan version is that these buses were either carrying out-of-district voters or thugs.

Later on, I heard from one friend still in Damanhour that amn al markazi (Central Security) troops had surrounded a main voting station. The Ikhwan supporters were angry about it and charged them. The troops hit back, with tear gas (my friend received some of that too.) Overall, the situation around the country is as bad or worse than in Damanhour. Here's the AP's list:

The Brotherhood said about 300 people had been arrested across the country on Sunday. The Interior Ministry said hundreds were arrested, mostly Brotherhood members detained for inciting violence and rioting.

Earlier, a Brotherhood spokesman in Alexandria, Ali Abdel Fattah, said men had opened fire on the group‘s backers in a downtown polling station, killing one man and wounding several other people. That report was also never confirmed.

Mohammed Hehmat, a Brotherhood supporter, said about 2,000 people were prevented from voting as police cordoned off polling stations before closing time. A Brotherhood campaign worker, Sameh Bakr, said police fired tear gas, Molotov cocktails and bullets to keep voters away.

In the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, witnesses said a Brotherhood candidate‘s brother was shot and wounded by the cousin of the NDP candidate.

The Egyptian human rights watchdog said one of its monitors was kidnapped in Port Said, another Suez Canal city, and that candidates‘ representatives were being denied access to polling stations.
Reuters says 467 were arrested, whereas I've heard at least 400. It adds:

A Brotherhood candidate's representative was stabbed in the neck in a polling station in Edku on Egypt's north coast, the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) said.

Armed gangs were deployed in Brotherhood strongholds in the northern coastal city of Alexandria to stop voters entering polling stations, an EOHR monitor in the area said.

A gang of about 70 young men armed with swords, machetes and knives threw rocks at one polling station in Alexandria. Local residents hit back with stones.

Police blocked voters from entering polling stations in the Nile Delta town of Damanhour, an area with strong Brotherhood support. After stones were thrown at them, police fired teargas on crowds waiting to vote, a witness said.

Thugs trying to intimidate voters shot dead one man and stabbed another in Alexandria, medical sources and witnesses said. It was not clear for whom the thugs were working.
Last I heard, the candidate who was stabbed in Alexandria is in hospital in critical condition. I have also heard that the driver of another candidate in Alexandria was beaten to death by thugs. I am certain more of this kind of violence will emerge by tomorrow. In the meantime, the ministry of interior is sending around multiple press releases, for perhaps the first time ever giving actual detail of the arrests being made and engaging in damage control. Here's an excerpt and a PDF [420kb, Arabic/English] of the fax I received:

The Official Spokesman noted that Ministry of Interior sources had discovered, prior to election day, plots by some supporters of some candidates, the majority of which were Islamists, to engage in thuggery, voter intimidation and violence with a view to affecting the outcome of the election.

He went on to say that the Ministry had contacted all party and group leaderships to inform them that the Ministry would not permit any illegal acts and that it would not allow any threat to national security or stability to affect the integrity of the election or the rights and safety of voters and the public as a whole.

General Hamad went on to note that while disturbances and violence were limited to a handful of districts, media coverage by a number of satellite channels gave the impression that chaos ruled the day; an impression which he categorically denied as untrue.

The press release also adds that there were no pre-emptive arrests before the elections, attacks on police officers, denied that they were unfairly blaming Islamists but said that "the reality was that the majority of these incidents were either planned or instigated by Islamic elements" and denied that polling stations were closed early, saying that there were only that some stations "may have paused their operations for brief periods in order to deal with the large number of voters." The general gist of it is this: we wanted to have clean and well-policed elections, but the Ikhwan provoked us. You see, they are violent--give them an inch and they'll take a mile.

I think there is a fair argument to make that the violence against individual candidate could have nothing to do with the authorities are merely a reflection of the fact that candidates are heatedly campaigning in general, and things can get out of hands. That being said, in the first round the police was criticized for being too passive in the face of candidate-inspired fraud and violence. Now they seem to be overcompensating.

There is also no clear explanation why amn al markazi troops were stationed outside polling stations in Damanhour and elsewhere, except unless they wanted to repeat the 2000 scenario of frequent use of troops to block access to polling stations. The other thing is that, in places in Damanhour at least, Brotherhood candidates and their supporters were ready and willing to stand up to fraud and police intimidation, even with violence. This makes it hard to say whether what happened was a result of a chance of stance on the regime's part on a reaction to a more cocky Brotherhood leadership and supporters who were not afraid of taking on police to make sure they got what they feel is owed to them--a repeat of the success of the first round.

More later, as news of the results trickles out and the newspapers come out.

Update: I should clarify--especially after reading Praktike's post--that I do not really know whether yesterday's violence was premeditated by the regime, but simply want to not jump the gun and say the state had planned this all along. I'm sure they had contingencies, but still do not see why in general they would have pulled out the amn al markazi forces rather than resort to other means. I suspect local security leadership may make a big difference in these matters, and also want to stress that Ikhwan supporters, apparently buoyed by their recent success, were more ready to escalate things in the face of police or other type of obstructions than they might have otherwise.