Egypt's parliament isn't Muslim Brotherhood's first win this year

The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party set up booths during the election to assist voters in Cairo.
The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party set up booths during the election to assist voters in Cairo. Mohannad Sabry/MCT

CAIRO — With results of the first round of parliamentary polling due Friday, Egyptians are preparing for what partial tallies show will be a sweeping win for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political force that was the archenemy of deposed President Hosni Mubarak.

Winning a dominant voice in the next parliament would be only the latest electoral victory that the Brotherhood has celebrated since Mubarak's ouster last February.

Thanks to the lifting of the old regime's laws restricting labor activity, Brotherhood-affiliated candidates in recent months have swept the internal polls for the union-like syndicates that represent millions of Egyptians. In a series of victories stretching back to June, Brotherhood candidates have taken control of syndicates for pharmacists, lawyers, teachers and engineers.

They've even taken a majority of seats on the board of one of Cairo's best-known sports and recreation clubs.

Those smaller races hold timely lessons for what to expect when the group's leadership takes the national stage, analysts say. Each victory provides insight into the Brotherhood's strengths — and weaknesses — as it prepares to confront expectant constituents, bitter liberals and nervous Western powers.

"Power is a double-edged sword," warned Shadi Hamid, a Brotherhood expert at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar who'd just spent several days observing the group on the campaign trail in Egypt.

"With the Brotherhood now in a dominant position in Egyptian society, they'll be expected to implement changes," Hamid said. "Now they'll have to deliver, and they haven't had to deliver for the past 80 years," a reference to the Brotherhood's founding in 1928.

One of the first tasks the Brotherhood will confront is countering the stereotypes about what life will be like under its rule.

Already, liberal and leftist leaders are mustering an opposition bloc to counter the Brotherhood's newfound sway and to, in the words of Refaat el Said, the head of the leftist Tagammu Party, "defend the civil state and principles of equality and justice."

"They're saying they're willing to cooperate with leftists and liberals, but it's a different case once they're in parliament," Said said. "They'll start an Islamist bloc that only serves their interests."

The reaction is similar to what happened when Brotherhood associates won control of the board of Cairo's Shams country club, a vast sports club in which membership is passed from generation to generation. As quickly as the new board members took control earlier this year, rumors spread that the Islamist administration had banned swimming for girls older than 15.

The Brotherhood countered the rumors this week with a slick video showing girls and young women, many of them unveiled, participating in swimming, volleyball and ballet classes at the club. The YouTube clip ends with a question: "Who says we banned sports for girls?"

National-level public office always has been the Brotherhood's ultimate dream, analysts say, and the group laid the groundwork years ago when it began targeting the internal elections of Egypt's many syndicates, union-like groups that protect workers' interests, though they aren't nearly as influential here as their counterparts in the United States.

The Brotherhood's success in those syndicate elections "gave us a lot of practical experience in handling issues of public concern," recalled Amr Darrag, an engineer who heads the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party for Giza province.

When the Mubarak government realized in the late 1980s and early 1990s that the Brotherhood was moving to control the syndicates, it severely restricted the syndicates' ability to hold elections.

The Engineers' Syndicate was one example. When the Brotherhood was poised to lead the huge guild, the government shut down the body and appointed a judge to be the guardian of its affairs. That arrangement continued for 17 years, crippling the organization and cowing its members.

Then, earlier this year, Egypt's highest court overturned the former regime's laws, paving the way to free elections for trade syndicates and giving the country's political class a dress rehearsal for the parliamentary polls.

Brotherhood-affiliated candidates easily won the Engineers' Syndicate election just days before the parliamentary polls opened.

Local news media covered the union vote closely, quoting syndicate members as concerned over how much say the Brotherhood's executive board would have over the syndicate's 475,000 engineers.

"If the Brotherhood wins, who will take the decisions? The Supreme Guidance bureau or the syndicate?" Hesham Sedawy, a member engineer, told an Egyptian newspaper.

Before the engineers' victory, Brotherhood-affiliated lawyers won more than half the seats on the board of the influential Lawyers' Syndicate. While the non-Brotherhood incumbent chairman narrowly retained his seat, Brotherhood followers swept the general polls, leaving just two seats on the board for nonmembers.

In September, Muslim Brotherhood candidates handily beat their opponents for control of the Teachers' Syndicate, Egypt's largest guild, with an estimated 1.2 million members. In June, Brotherhood-linked candidates took over the Pharmacists' Syndicate by a landslide.

"We're working hard to pass this test and prove that the people who voted for us chose parliamentarians that understand and appreciate their confidence and trust," said Mohammed el Beltagi, one of the most visible Brotherhood leaders. "People voted for us, and that's the first sign that they expect guarantees from us. It's now the time to prove that they weren't wrong."

Liberals might take heart at what happened this year in the Doctors' Syndicate, an organization the Brotherhood has controlled for years.

In October, Brotherhood affiliates won 18 of 24 seats on the syndicate's national board and a Brotherhood-backed candidate beat out 22 opponents to become the head of the guild, dislodging a non-Islamist chairman who'd been in place since 1978.

But what appeared to be a victory was actually a rebuke.

Led by younger doctors who'd grown tired of the Brotherhood leadership turning aid convoys into religious missions and promoting policies that drove away talented Christian doctors, a non-Islamist Independence List won majorities on more than half of the syndicate's provincial boards.

And while the Brotherhood held on to 18 national board seats, it lost the other six, breaking its longtime monopoly, according to an investigation of the election by the Cairo-based newspaper Ahram Online.

The humbling the Brotherhood received after taking the Doctors' Syndicate for granted is a timely counterpoint to the liberal handwringing over "losing" Egypt to the Islamists in this year's polls, analysts said.

"It's not as if this is, literally, the end of the world," said Hamid, the Brookings Doha analyst. "Just wait five years, prepare yourself and get ready to beat the Brotherhood in the next election."

(McClatchy special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed to this article.)


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