The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.


They may say otherwise now, but if you had asked any expert on Egyptian politics how many seats the Muslim Brotherhood would get a month ago, not a single one would have said anywhere close to 76. That's the number preliminary results indicate, and it is also the number of years the Muslim Brotherhood has existed. In terms of political success, there is no precedent for this in the Brotherhood's history. And in about two weeks' time, they stand a good chance at breaking through the 100 barrier.

I am of course now eating my words. Two weeks ago I did not think that the regime would allow the Brothers, who scored an impressive 34 seats in the first round, would do better in the second. But despite attempts to slow down their progress through thuggery, bribery and police interference, the Brotherhood has soldiered on. In the process, it has also occasionally bared its fangs. While I do not buy the state press and ministry of interior's claims that the Brotherhood was behind the violence that was seen in the second round of elections, I think that in certain occasions the Brotherhood (or perhaps individual members or supporters) decided that it would fight back against the NDP, which was bussing in voters and thugs, and took the initiative. It is not innocent in the tensions that we've seen in the past few days. But it is also not mostly responsible--that falls back on the state and the NDP, whose candidates (official or "independent") have grown all too used to using the nexus of political, economic and security power the ruling party can give to contest elections. In the big picture, I don't think that these incidents are that important either. The important thing is that the Brotherhood now has momentum and is emerging as the real winner of the eleciton, even if the NDP is not faring too badly (but they were never expected to get less than two-thirds of seats anyway). But it does show that the Brotherhood is now prepared to take risks (i.e. being painted as a group of thugs) that it has not been taking for a long time. This account from IslamOnline captured one of the most telling incidents:

But state-directed violence was met with resistance, in some cases, unlike in previous elections.

MB supporters fought back and in some instances prevented buses carrying groups of NDP voters from unloading in front of polling stations.

During the first round of elections, Wednesday, November 9, the Higher Committee of Elections and NGOs monitoring the process received dozens of complaints against "group voting".

Supporters of Hishmat were determined to block buses from unloading what they said were "voters from other districts".

Several hours after the polling station opened in Damanhour, the first bus, with Al-Minufiya (a Delta governorate, over 200 kms away) license plates, tried parking in front of a polling station when Hishmat supporters besieged it with clubs and stones, yelling: "You won't forge these elections."

The bus reversed out of the street, followed by a volley of stones that shattered its windows. A cheer went up from the crowd as the bus sped away.

Later in a press conference, Hishmat said that the attackers were frustrated "kids".

"We told the government: don't cause friction in this district, don't treat it like other districts," Hishmat said, recalling his controversial eviction from parliament after he was elected in 2000.

While Hishmat would not say there were orders for MB members to prevent "group voting" and to fight back against the goon squads, he said that there was a difference between the current elections and the elections of 2000, when the Central Security Forces teamed up with gangs of NDP strongmen to scare voters away from polling stations.

"In the past elections the thugs intimidated people and caused them to avoid the polling stations. Now people aren't running away. They're responding," Hishmat said.


On its part, the Muslim Brotherhood depicted the responses by their followers as spontaneous "uprisings." In Damanhour, there was palpable anger towards the NDP over the eviction from the previous parliament of Hishmat, a Damanhour local who is popular in the region.

A voter told IOL she voted for Hishmat to "avenge what happened in 2000."

An organizer with MB in Port Said firmly denied that the leadership had asked its followers to engage in violence towards supporters of the NDP.

But IOL learned from a reliable source close to the Brotherhood that Brotherhood leaders had ordered supporters to "resist with civil disobedience" any attempt by pro-NDP gangs and security forces to intimidate voters.

Shortly before the polls closed in Mina Al-Basl (Alexandria), IOL witnessed nearly two dozen supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood standing across the street from a polling station.

When asked why some of them carried clubs, they responded that they heard a goon squad was on its way to damage the boxes.

On seeing a Reuters journalist with a camera they dropped their weapons, and linking arms, began to shout slogans.

Within minutes, dozens of riot police filed out of two buses and stood in formation between the protestors and the polling station. A commanding officer spoke with an elder from the protestors, assuring him that there would not be an escalation.
Let's not forget, however, that this seems to be one of the rare incidents of this happening. Much more typical of the second round of these elections were attacks on the press:

Security forces have harassed journalists in the past, but physical attacks on reporters have been rare, especially on non-Egyptians or those working for foreign media organisations.

Mohammad Taha, an Egyptian working for the British Broadcasting Corporation, said a police officer had hit him while he was on the phone reporting election violence in the Nile Delta.

"I was telling London that troops were threatening voters, beating them with sticks and using teargas. Then one of the officers heard me ... and put his hands round my neck," he said.

"He tried to put me on the ground. But I struggled. I was on air at the time ... He told me to shut up and used a stick to hit me in the stomach. Then he asked one of the officers to take me away," he added.

Police later confiscated parts of Taha's mobile phone and broke his earpiece. Reuters journalist Tom Perry was taken into police custody after attempting to take a photo.

Both journalists had official press accreditation from the government. In theory there are few formal restrictions on reporting, provided reporters can show the card.
Or police preventing voters from entering polling stations:

In Laqana, a Nile Delta town 105 miles north of Cairo, police blocked all voters from reaching the polls. Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khalad Saad Attayia hails from the village and was said to have near unanimous support.

Dozens of residents showed an Associated Press reporter wounds and bruises they said they were caused by rubber bullets fired by police. Authorities launched volleys of tear gas every few minutes.

As polls closed at 7 p.m. — after 11 hours in which none of the 7,500 registered voters had cast ballots — streets in the village were empty of vehicle traffic but crammed with angry townspeople.

In the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city, a U.S. human rights worker at one polling station also reported that police kept Brotherhood supporters from voting but lifted their cordon to ruling party supporters who showed up in buses at sunset.

At that point Brotherhood voters and other opposition supporters began hurling rocks at police, who opened fire with tear gas, the observer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because his organization would not let him give his name.
Or the mass arrest of Brotherhood supporters--some 680 have been arrested so far, which puts to and end the short span of time, between October and last week, when there were no Muslim Brothers in jail at all. And perhaps it might put an end to the endless rumors about a NDP-Brotherhood deal.

Not to mention the rather horrific murders that took place last week.

The absence of violence in the first round and its return on the second is very reminiscent of what happened during the 2000 elections, albeit on a smaller scale. It also would suggest that things are only likely to get worse as the Brotherhood does better. One of the most striking things about the second round is that among the NDP candidates were some bigwigs: for instance former NDP Secretary-General and Minister of Agriculture Youssef Wali. Arguably, Wali was on his way out anyway; he'd fallen out of favor and lost both his seat in the cabinet and any influence in the party. But he was still a power to be reckoned with in his constituency of Fayoum, which he ruled like a feudal baronet. The NDP did not choose to choose another candidate there, and Wali was defeated by a Brotherhood candidate. I'm sure the lovely Fayoum will be much the better for it.

Other major NDP losers include Sayyed Rached, an important government lackey in the powerless trade unions, and Mohammed Abdallah, the dean of Alexandria University. But the NDP was not the only loser: as in the first round, the secular opposition did not do too well.

The ancient Khaled Mohieddin, 83, founder of the Tagammu Party and the last Free Officer to be involved in politics and at one time a suggested unified opposition for the presidency, lost in Kafr Al Shukr. When his nephew, NDP uber-neoliberal and Minister of Investment Mahmoud Mohieddin changed his mind about running against him I thought it was probably due to someone up high (possibly at the very top) deciding it was not a very respectful way to treat your elders. But perhaps the younger Mohieddin would have been trounced as his uncle was. Another Tagammu loss, more regrettable this time, is that of Al Badri Farghali. Farghali was one of the most outspoken MP in Egypt and a real concern for workers, having started in politics at 16 while working as a stevedore. I remember visiting him with a friend at the qahwa Samara where he held court. Egypt just lost a very personable politician, even if he was a dinosaur in his own way. Another Tagammu stalwart, Alexandrian MP Aboul Ezz Al Hariri, also lost his seat. A bad day for the Egyptian left, but in many ways deserved: the Tagammu had little to offer voters after years of letting the Brotherhood, and lately, Kifaya, do all the standing up to the powers that be.

The Wafd did essentially OK after a bad first round, scooping two seats in Port Said, one of its strongholds, and one in Ismailiya. But generally, the trend is that the secular opposition is doing even worse than its pathetic results in the 2000 elections. The political playing field is now entirely polarized between the NDP and the Brotherhood. It's hard to see how the old opposition parties will reform themselves (short of their leaders dying) or how newcomers like Al Ghad will recover from its split and the defeat and ongoing attacks against Ayman Nour (whose trial resumed last week, by the way.) The secular opposition, the one the West would apparently like to see grow, is doing badly indeed.

There will be more time to explore the impact of the Brotherhood's success later on. But one thing that is being reported has to be dismissed: that now that the Brotherhood has more than 65 seats, it will be able to nominate a presidential candidate. First, assuming Mubarak lives, the next presidential election will not take place until 2011. The next parliamentary election, however, is in 2010. (Although there is a lot of speculation that this parliament won't last more than two years. I already suspect that the regime will slow down its legislative program to avoid getting into embarrassing fights with a crowd of Islamist MPs. Say goodbye to serious reform in 2006.)

Secondly, to nominate a presidential candidate the Brotherhood also needs support from the Shura Council and local (i.e. municipal) councils. It might get the latter, but there has never been a Brotherhood member elected to the Shura Council. Ever. And 50% of it is appointed anyway. So the Brotherhood's parliamentary bloc may not have much impact on a presidential election, especially if come the time the next parliament is elected there isn't so much foreign pressure on Egypt.

There are a lot more dimensions to this that are worth exploring. Tomorrow, I'll be putting up the transcript of a short interview with Essam Al Erian, a prominent member of the Brotherhood, as well a post on what this means in terms of US policy towards Egypt.