News / Middle East

Egypt's Islamists' Success: A Sign of Nation's Future, or Past?

Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mohammed Morsi shakes hands with a solider on the first day of parliamentary elections in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Nov. 28, 2011.
Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mohammed Morsi shakes hands with a solider on the first day of parliamentary elections in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Nov. 28, 2011.

Egyptian officials say the results of the first round of voting in parliamentary elections will be announced Friday evening local time, after delaying the announcement twice this week. Observers have said Egypt's first elections since President Hosni Mubarak's February resignation were mostly peaceful.

The Muslim Brotherhood is thought to be taking the early lead in the Egypt's months-long parliamentary elections.  But support for the moderate Islamist group, as well as for more fundamentalist ones, may say more about Egypt's past than future.

From a purely practical standpoint, the Muslim Brotherhood was expected to benefit from the timetable of elections.

The best-organized, yet officially banned, opposition group under the old government, the Brotherhood has left its newly-formed competitors scrambling to catch up.

Perhaps more important is the suffering members of the Brotherhood endured - arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and torture.  

Human Rights Watch Egypt researcher Heba Morayef says both privately and in recent years more publicly, members were at the forefront in opposing the former government's tactics.

"They took on many human rights issues, in a sense, and would very often use their position as being the victim of these violations, I think, to recruit other sympathizers who were angry at Mubarak's repressive regime," she said.

Heba Morayef, Human Rights Watch:

Morayef also points to the Brotherhood's criticism of rampant corruption in the Mubarak years, and the long history of the group's charitable works - key economic points in a nation where at least one third live in poverty.  Such acts, she says, have given the Brotherhood "a very strong grassroots presence."

A poster by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood "The Freedom and Justice Party'" outside a polling station in Cairo, November 28, 2011.
A poster by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood "The Freedom and Justice Party'" outside a polling station in Cairo, November 28, 2011.

The group's slogan "Islam is the answer" also strikes a resonate chord in deeply devout Egypt.  But political observers note the Brotherhood has a moderate face that also appeals to the pragmatic nature of many here.  

It stands in contrast to another Islamic group expected to make its presence felt in these first post-Mubarak elections - the fundamentalist Salafis.   

"For the Salafis, their situation was a lot worse than the Brotherhood because they were not able to operate at all as a group politically," Morayef added. "And this is the first year, in 2011, that we've actually seen Salafis organizing themselves into different parties, being much more present in the media. Because Salafis were very, very underground and they would only conduct charitable activity."

But for all the apparent newfound success of both groups, political analyst and publisher Hisham Kassem says neither has much of a track record as political strategists, and calls into question how well they might do in the future.  

"The Brotherhood - I could talk for hours about how they've bungled historically, and how I think they will bungle again.  But to get to the main point, they have a problem that most of the political forces don't trust them," said Kassem.

The Brotherhood, he says, promises too much to potential allies, but then goes back on its word when it gets the upper hand.  The Salafis, he says, have another problem.  While the puritanical group might attract some by using the language of the democracy, Kassem argues its true message will prove offensive to the majority of Egyptians.

"They adapt and then a situation arises and you hear words of 'we are ready to become martyrs' and relapsing into their own diction.  In addition to their aggressive attitude, where they push people around in the street, claiming they are the voice of God, or the hand of God on earth,  they are anarchic," he said. "They don't have a central command.  Their figures are estimated to be one and a half million in a nation of 80 million."

Human rights researcher Morayef says the real test will come as the new government is formed, and both groups will face the responsibilities of running a country.

"We'll see how the Brotherhood does in this first term of parliament, how they manage to deal with a lot of the bigger policy issues which they've never had to address because all they've ever had to do was to criticize the repressive tactics of the Mubarak government.  And now we're going to shift into a new phase," she said.

Only then, she says will it be clear if people are putting blind faith in the religious nature of the Brotherhood and the Salafis, or whether their support was based on the pragmatic hope these groups would bring about real change.

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