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Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Enjoys Unprecedented Election Success


In Egypt, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood has won a record number of seats in parliament after a chaotic month-long election marred by violence and voter intimidation. The ruling National Democratic Party will still dominate the legislature with two thirds of the seats, but the Islamist group will be a force to reckon with. It will be the single largest opposition bloc in parliament.

Despite blatant attempts to keep Muslim Brotherhood supporters away from the polls, the outlawed Islamist group has won at least 88 seats in parliament. It is an unprecedented showing for a group that has been illegal since the 1950s.

The Brotherhood's candidates run as independents. This year, in more than half the districts where they ran, they outpaced their rivals from both the ruling party and from the secular opposition

And most observers believe the group would have won more seats if it weren't for the extreme crackdown in their strongholds during the final round of voting.

Police cordoned off polling stations in Brotherhood strongholds and refused to let most people vote. Police and armed thugs attacked would-be voters, beating them with truncheons. At least 10 people were killed outside polling stations. Hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters were arrested.

Analyst Mohammed Salah says the group's remarkable success at the polls shows its strength relative to any other political group in the country.

"Their victory reflects the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood was much more organized," said Mr. Salah. He also adds that the group was able to exploit weaknesses in the ruling National Democratic Party.

Mr. Salah heads the Cairo office of the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat and is a recognized expert on Islamist groups.

The Brotherhood credits the strength of its message and its Islamist policies for some of its success. But the group's leaders are also aware that their message, "Islam is the Solution," was not the only reason people voted for the Brotherhood candidates. The group's deputy leader, Mohammed Habib, says there were three main factors.

"The first factor is the nation's hatred for the National [Democratic] Party and the nation's desire for reform and change," said Mr. Habib. "The second was our good preparation for the elections regarding selection of candidates and researching of the conditions in their constituencies."

He says the third factor has to do with major changes in the Egyptian political scene over the last year, starting with the pro-democracy demonstrations that have drawn hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of protesters into the streets.

Scenes like that were unimaginable in Egypt just a few years ago. But the government has been under increasing domestic and international pressure to democratize.

Now that the election chaos is over, the Muslim Brotherhood will once again have the largest opposition bloc in parliament. But this time, it will hold 19 percent of the seats, nearly six times as many as last time.

The National Democratic Party will still have a super-majority with two-thirds of the seats, so its domination of the legislative process will be unchallenged. But analyst Mohammed Salah says the Muslim Brotherhood will have a new challenge in front of it.

"In the end, this bloc will have to present new political programs, different from the media campaigns of the past," added Mr. Salah. "They have to engage in debate about vital and strategic issues, not just talk about freedom, political reform or religious and moral issues."

He says the Brotherhood will have to deal with education, the rights of women and Christians, foreign policy and the economy.

He says religious rhetoric and political reality are very different things, and the Muslim Brotherhood will have to make some compromises if it is going to succeed in the political realm.

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