As political Islam grows as a force in post-revolution Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is forming its first political party and getting ready for a good showing in upcoming parliamentary elections. And this has liberal and secular parties scrambling.
The revolution that ended three decades of authoritarian rule by Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak has opened an unprecedented window for Islamists in country’s political life. The Muslim Brotherhood is considered the most organized, well-funded opposition movement in Egypt.
Michele Dunne is Editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She predicts that the Muslim Brotherhood will neither take over the Egyptian parliament in the upcoming elections nor create an Islamic state.
"I do expect the Brotherhood, and perhaps other Islamists, to have a significant presence in the parliament, but I think it is very unlikely that there would be an Islamist president in Egypt. I think even if you ask the Muslim Brotherhood their goal they say it is not to establish an Islamic state but rather to function within a democratic system," she said.
However, Dunne says, the real question is whether - and to what extent - the Brotherhood will respect the rights of Egyptian women and non-Muslims.
The Muslim Brotherhood, long banned from politics, this week announced the formation of their first political party - the Freedom and Justice Party, or FJP. More than ten percent of the FJP’s founders are women. The vice chairman of the new party, Rafiq Habib, is a prominent Christian intellectual. Brotherhood spokesman Essam El-Erian dispels what he calls an exaggerated fear of an Islamist "take over."
"The Egyptian people are wise enough to have a balanced parliament and the Egyptian people are also keen to have a civil state, a democratic state. Muslim Brotherhood is not targeting at all a majority in the new incoming parliament," he said.
El-Erian says the party will nominate candidates in 45 to 50 percent of the districts, hoping to gain about 30 percent of the parliamentary seats. This would allow for a parliament that would represent all Egyptians, not just the country’s powerful elite.
Liberal secular parties
The Muslim Brotherhood is mobilizing its supporters to make the best showing in the upcoming elections. At the same time, liberal secular parties are working to form a coalition strong enough to counter the Muslim Brotherhood.
George Ishaq is the founder of Kifaya, a broad-based opposition grass roots movement. He's also a founding member of the newly-formed “Free Egypt” liberal party. His party is among those pushing for a proportional representation vote - that is, a list of candidates representing a mixed spectrum of political parties.
"We collect all the elements to make one vote list from different elements, but it is not against anybody, but there is a coalition from the opposition movements to go to the elections with one vote list," said Ishaq.
Under this system, Ishaq says, voters would not just vote for individual candidates, but rather, agendas and platforms. This could work in favor of some parties, says Michelle Dunne, but not all.
"In general, it seems that proportional representation would be an advantage to the new parties and not an advantage to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood did very well under the individual district system. I am sure whatever system emerges, the Brotherhood will try to adapt its strategy and do the best they can under that system," she said.
Election law unclear
Whether secular, liberal or Islamic, all Egyptian parties have held off planning their campaign strategies until the new electoral law is clarified. The law does not specify whether voting will be based on proportional lists or voting for individual candidates. Political parties are asking for clarification and, with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood, are pushing for the elections to be postponed until December, which would give them more time to rally voters.
Ayman Nour is the founder and president of the Al Ghad liberal party. He says neither the security situation permits nor the political scene is shaped in a concrete way to allow new political forces and formerly banned parties a fair chance to get ready for the parliamentary elections in September.
Many analysts believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is poised for an impressive showing in parliamentary elections. But they also say that as long as the Egyptian president is elected separately and allowed to select his own cabinet, there is little threat of Egypt becoming a theocracy.