Brothers against the ropes
A conciliatory attitude by the new Guide, Mohamed Badie, has not protected the Muslim Brothers from another string of arrests. That they include people from five provinces and a key electoral planner — Essam al-Erian — and an organizational strongman — First Deputy Guide Mahmoud Ezzat — suggests that it's largely to do with forthcoming elections. This arrest is notable because Ezzat had not been arrested in years, as most top leadership rarely are. It may have also to do with the state noting his ascendancy, and wanting to send disruptions into the group: many have suspected in the past that the regime selects who it arrests in partly in function of the MB's internal politics, to allow an opportunity for rival factions to dominate.1 As for Al-Erian, one of the key planners of the MB's 2005 electoral strategy, it's clear he's long been one of the leaders most intent in contesting elections as widely as possible.
Can the regime push the MB, by this fall, into a strategic withdrawal from the electoral field? Not a total one, but one that reduces the numbers of seats it has in parliament to around the level they won in 2000 (i.e. 17)? A few NDP and government figures have suggested that they expect the MB to return to the levels of that time, but it's a hard thing to guarantee unless you have very rigged elections. This is tricky this time around not so much because of the Obama administration, which has systematically downplayed the importance elections in its concept of democracy-promotion, but perhaps because Mohamed el-Baradei had focused much attention on the electoral system and may gain domestic and foreign traction over the next few months if he finds support for his project. So the alternative would be to push the MB into a deal whereby they present fewer candidates and restrict themselves.2
At this point the regime appears to be less looking for a deal with the Brothers than a kow-tow from them. The MB has already for all intents and purpose frozen its reform process, put aside its political party program, and reduced the influence of those most attached to the idea of a political party (aside from al-Erian). The next questions will be, will it drop its new policy of contesting all elections and not run for the Shura Council (most likely) and reduce its footprint in the next parliament (inevitable, but the question is how?)
1. Some Brothers believe this was the idea behind the prison sentence handed to Khayrat al-Shater in 2007.
2. With the caveat that it can't be about the Muslim Brothers' electoral strategy alone. It is also about the NDP's ability to impose discipline on its members to avoid the pattern of the last few elections where NDP independents ran against the party's official candidates, thus splitting the pro-government vote and giving candidates from the MB a fighting chance. I would venture that, for now, we have no indication that the NDP will be any more disciplined, since government policy has basically moved the intense competition for seats from the public competition into one inside the NDP.