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The Egyptian Brotherhood: Out of Parliament, into action

16/12/2010

“We are not expecting a major shift. [The Muslim Brotherhood] know that they have little room to act, they are too weak, and will grow weaker.” – Unnamed Egyptian officialAl Ahram

It may not immediately read like the CV of a political movement on the up. Before Egypt’s November 28 parliamentary polls, analysts described the Muslim Brotherhood as weakened by official repression and internal rifts. Overnight, the Brotherhood went from fielding the largest opposition bloc in the People’s Assembly, in the form of independent candidates, to a parliamentary representation of zero. The National Democratic Party (NDP) secured over 90% of the seats in a heavily manipulated first round of voting. But the Brotherhood may have just been handed the initiative.

The regime appears to have traded a disjointed and domesticated parliamentary opposition for a broad-based movement that already shows signs of coherence and mobilizing power. Aside from headline-grabbing street protests, the Brotherhood has allied with a range of secular and liberal opposition forces – including the umbrella National Association for Change (NAC) of Dr Mohamed El-Baradei – to form a ‘parallel parliament’ to contest the validity of its constitutional counterpart. The Brotherhood is also prominent in a complex legal challenge to the incoming parliament which, in naming the President and Interior Minister amongst others as defendants, promises to be at least symbolically effective.

As the opposition closes ranks, the turn of events may also ease tensions within the Brotherhood. In deciding to contest the elections, the organisation faced a dilemma familiar to all Islamist movements engaged in official political process in the Arab world. Taking part in a flawed system risks a generalised loss of legitimacy, co-option by the authorities and ideological outflanking by apolitical Salafists. To stay away entirely seems to court irrelevance. By participating in the first round, but loudlyrejecting the ensuing run-off vote, the Brotherhood got the best of both worlds.

Parliamentary participation is the most controversial, but by no means the most important, facet of the Brotherhood’s activity. The true substance of the movement – community-based social work, da’wa and informal political activism – will continue regardless. Indeed, the ejection from parliament represents a return to normalcy in the eighty-year history of movement, and may speak to some of a renewal of authenticity. The last-ditch attempt to elbow a few Brothers into Parliament suggests the regime belatedly grasped the magnitude of its error.

Reactive repression on the part of the government would come at a considerable political price. Mubarak has already deployed the security ‘card’ to progressively clamp down on the Brotherhood this year, and his most important ally is unimpressedwith his latest display of democracy. With even the illusion of political pluralism dashed, further systematic human rights abuse would seem ill-advised. As presidential elections loom in the coming year, Mubarak may find himself in a more constrained environment than his presumed ambition (retention of power, or else its smooth transition to his son, or a picked NDP candidate, ideally with the appearance of a democratic contest) would seem to require. Such a situation at home suggests in turn that Egypt, which used to lead the Arab world, will continue to flounder at the regional level.

In this political and moral vacuum, the Muslim Brotherhood looks set to rise.