Egypt's Brothers Rise

Egypt's Islamists are clawing to the top through backroom deals and broken promises. The upcoming elections are theirs to lose.

Informed observers are increasingly raising the fear that new elections will put the Muslim Brotherhood in control of Egypt’s parliament and the presidency. Of course it will try. Senior Brotherhood leader Sobhi Saleh, who helped write Egypt’s interim constitution, said in a recent video that he expects the new government to be Islamist.

As new demonstrations broke out at Tahrir Square on May 27th—the “Second Day of Rage”—the Brotherhood withdrew its youth from the Revolution Youth Coalition that has pushed for democratic reform. After forming the Party of Freedom and Justice, headed by Muslim Brotherhood politburo leader Mohammed al-Mursi, it revised an earlier promise to contest only 30 percent of parliament seats upwards to 45 percent or more.

Separately, Dr. Abdel-Moneim Aboul el-Fotouh, who served on the Brotherhood’s Guidance Council, announced that he would run for president as an Independent. He selected a Copt for his running mate. Although Brotherhood leaders claim they won’t support him, skeptics suspect a ruse.

Indeed, who is the real el-Fotouh? He now claims to favor stronger relations with the West, democracy and the rights of women and minorities. But one should recall his earlier pronouncements. Those dismissed all forms of entertainment as “evil acts that distract Muslims from observing their faith” and indicated support for violence to establish an Islamic State. He openly seeks support from Salafis, who hold rigidly conservative views on the role of women and tolerance for Christians in society.

In addition, rumors abound that the Brotherhood has cut a secret deal with the army, whose Supreme Council continues to call the shots from behind the scenes. The scenario envisions the two sharing power in the new government. Indeed, one could plausibly argue that Egypt’s Arab Spring was more show than substance, manipulated by the army to deflect blame for the country’s ills onto Mubarak and his cohorts, while ensuring that the new faces in power dance to tunes that the army calls.

Still, elections are fluid. In the 2005 elections, Brotherhood candidates running as independents won just under 20 percent of the seats. This time they can run under their own banner and be expected to garner far more support. Nevertheless, recent polling by the respected Pew Attitudes Project shows that only 17 percent of Egyptians believe the Muslim Brotherhood should lead a new government. Brotherhood strength may grow, but that is not inevitable. It holds no lock on these elections. A majority, the poll also finds, view the Brotherhood favorably. They value the social services it has provided. They feel having an Islamic presence in the government is fine. But there’s plainly no rush to elect an Islamic majority.

In elections, parties, leaders, candidates and campaigns can make a difference. A key challenge for reformers is the scheduling of early elections. Democratic leaders have pleaded for a delay in elections beyond September. No delay seems likely. Can democrats nevertheless prevail? The potential is hopeful. Pew data show that voters rate the pro-democracy April 6 Movement and pro-democracy leaders like Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, Tomorrow Party-leader Ayman Nour, and Nobel Prize-winner Mohamed ElBaradei very favorably. All three leaders are running for president.

An interesting possibility also lies with the Free Egyptians Party, formed by telecom executive Naguib Sawiris. As a Copt, he won’t be president. But backed by a net worth estimated at $2.6 billion, he can fund a pro-democracy effort that recruits good candidates and mounts savvy campaigns. Moussa and ElBaradei are hugely respected. Their age and lack of solid credentials on economic issues may prove drawbacks to their own candidacies. Yet their support for parliamentary candidates can make a difference. Nour is a dynamic presence. Some marginalize his chances, but he shouldn’t be counted out, given his tenacity as a campaigner. Election battlefields are littered with the political carcasses of front-runners who lost and dark horses who beat the odds.

Pew’s data shows that what Egyptians want is to end corruption, create jobs and ensure their voices in government. Most prefer democracy. Brotherhood candidates will try to portray themselves as reformers who stand for honest government, jobs and growth. They may own an initial organizational edge. Importantly, though, the Brotherhood has no record that shows it can create jobs or get the economy moving or draw badly needed international assistance.

That its leaders would probably work to limit the rights of women and religious pluralism hurts its credibility on these issues, as these would harm economic prospects. The army may be popular, but its apparent backroom deal with the Brotherhood to empower a new political oligarchy may lose it public support, as may the Brotherhood’s reversal of its ambitions for holding power.

In politics hypocrisy is a killer, even more so in a culture like Egypt’s, which feeds on conspiracy theory. Winning elections is not about destroying a rival. It’s about making the case for your side while drawing a contrast that raises serious doubts about the other side. Brotherhood opponents can use these to undercut its credibility. Opposition parties and candidates have all kinds of strategic and tactical options to attract voters.

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