Election shows Islamists truly are Egypt's best-organized force

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 28, 2011 

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — It rained here on election day, but the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party was prepared: Its election workers, sometimes a half-dozen men or more at each polling station, sported matching neon yellow raincoats and baseball caps bearing the party logo.

In an election season in which it had become almost a cliche to describe the Muslim Brotherhood's party as the country's most organized political force, Monday's voting proved it. Its volunteers looked more official than the officials did. They handed out party literature. They used laptops to help people determine where they were supposed to vote. When many polling stations opened hours late, the Freedom and Justice Party volunteers were on hand, offering assurances and a needed feeling of confidence.

Mustafa Mahmoud, an accountant who was volunteering with the party outside a polling station in downtown Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city, said the presence of so many party volunteers was intended to make sure the election went smoothly. If that meant a better turnout for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, that was gravy.

"It's not about which party you vote for," he said. "This is the first time an election has been secured by three groups: the army, the police and people's committees," the last a reference to his group of volunteers.

Representatives of other parties also were present near polling stations, but none in a way that seemed designed to assist the voting process, and none in such numbers.

Since Egypt's ruling military council set the parliamentary election schedule by decree two months ago, everyone had suspected that the Brotherhood, which for 30 years was officially banned and often forced to operate under the radar, would surface as the most organized political power in the country.

In the days before the elections, a constant flow of Alexandrines poured into the Muslim Brotherhood's office to register with the party. Brotherhood officials declined to provide a precise number of people who'd signed up, but they pointed to a bookshelf filled with volumes of registrations that occupied an entire wall of the office. The desks of the two men in the office who'd been given the task of registration were stacked with recently filled out forms.

The organizational skill worried candidates of liberal parties, who see the election as a contest between Egyptians who seek a secular government and those who support religious parties.

"The brotherhood has been organizing for over 30 years. There are 5,000 schools (polling stations) in Alexandria, and the Brotherhood has six people at each one," said Hazem Hilal, a candidate with the Egyptian Bloc, a group of mostly secular parties.

"This parliament will only be for one or one and a half years, and its main goal will be to write a constitution," Hilal said. "People are divided. If the constitution will not serve a (secular) country, then we have failed in this battle."

At the Freedom and Justice Party headquarters in Alexandria, spokesman Mohamed Soudan said the party's exit polls, coming in hourly, indicated "strong" numbers. He rejected the idea of a sectarian divide, and refused to confirm that the Brotherhood had managed 30,000 volunteers in Alexandria alone, though he didn't dispute the claim.

"We are all Egyptians," he said. "We are ready to work with anyone."

Soudan said the party's goals were passing a minimum wage law and reviving Egypt's flagging economy, especially the tourism sector. He echoed the sentiments of many voters that parliamentary elections would be a first step toward a speedier transition to civilian rule than the military council had envisioned even a week ago.

"They said they will hold presidential elections in June," Soudan said of the council. "We believe them, and we trust them; it was a pledge from the military council, and if they do something else, at that time there will be more talking."

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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