Just a few weeks after Egyptian president Gamal Mubarak was re-elected in presidential polls widely dismissed as the flimsiest political charade, he suffered a substantial setback in November when the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen made major gains in the elections for Egypt’s parliament, despite operating under severe restrictions because it remains officially banned. The problems facing the Ikhwan were shown by the reaction of the state authorities to its unexpected successes in the first round of parliamentary polls on November 9, which were followed by a crackdown on Ikhwan activists and supporters designed to limit the gains it made in the second round, held on November 20, and the third round, due to take place later this month.
In the first round of the elections, the Ikhwan won 47 seats, up from the 15 it had held in the previous parliament. It increased this to 76 when the results of the second round of polling came in at the end of the month. (Egyptian electoral law requires up to two re-runs of the polling if no candidate wins over 50 percent of votes in any given constituency.) Its gains and the poor performance of the secular opposition groups confirm its role as the main opposition to president Husni Mubarak's regime and the principal rival of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which is controlled by Mubarak’s son, Jamal. It is little wonder, perhaps, that the Ikhwan were not permitted to field a candidate against Mubarak in the presidential election in September.
The Ikhwan’s successes stand in stark contrast to the utter failure of the secular groups and secular politicians to make any gains. For instance Ayman Nour, leader of the Ghad party, who came second to Mubarak in the presidential election in September, lost his constituency seat in Cairo by a wide margin.
The Ikhwan's success is significant for at least two main reasons: it came despite a severe crackdown and blatant vote-rigging by the ruling party, and despite the fact that it remains officially banned and is only tolerated because it would be politically unrealistic for the government to ban the party widely recognised as the most popular political force in the country. Since it was founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, a school-teacher, the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen has often been subject to suppression and repression. In 1954 it was banned because it was accused of the attempted assassination of president Jamal Abdul Nasser. But despite this it has survived as the most powerful and best-organised opposition force in the country, and has even managed to acquire seats in parliament by fielding candidates as independents. It is true that because of the government's unremitting suppression and poll-rigging the Ikhwan held only 15 of the 454 seats in the outgoing parliament, but that did not mean it lacks political influence.
One feature of the Ikhwan’s campaign was its direct and fearless call for the introduction of Islamic rule, although it is not entirely clear what it meant by this; perhaps it was happy to be vague, considering that there was not prospect of its actually coming to power. The Ikhwan's success has infuriated the government, the secular opposition groups, and representatives of the Coptic Christian minority equally.
The Ikhwan has always been regarded as ‘moderate' by Egyptians and their rulers, because it is publicly committed to opposing violence and supporting "democratic" rule. But Egyptian secularists and the Coptic Christian minority will not brook the assumption of power by a group claiming to be Islamic, regardless of how ‘moderate' it is or claims to be; hence their acceptance of the longstanding ban on the Ikhwan, though they could never admit it publicly. However, the Ikhwan's campaign slogans and tactics may have made this attitude worse, eliciting loud condemnation by the secularists and Copts. The Ikhwan's tactics included loudspeakers blaring its slogans: "Islam is the solution. Islam is light. Islam is the constitution. Who are we? We are the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen."
The secularists' response to the Ikhwan's more prominent Islamic profile came as no surprise, absurd though it is. Some of them even accused the government of being responsible for the Ikhwan's success. Hisham Kassem of the Ghad party (which failed to get any seats), for example, blamed Mubarak, saying that he "has pushed the country into a position where you have only two positions for politics: the regime or the mosque." Clearly he is blaming his party's utter failure at the polls on the Ikhwan, fearing that it will continue to dominate the country's opposition platform and may even achieve power. Equally clearly the Ghad ("tomorrow") party is misnamed, as the future is much more likely to belong to the Ikhwan or other Islamic groups.
According to analysts, the Ikhwan could win almost a hundred of the Egyptian parliament's 454 seats by the conclusion of the final (third) round of voting on December 7. If it wins more than 65 seat sit could get the right to put up its own candidate in future presidential elections (provided that the government grants it own permission, as the regulations require, according to its own rules). The improvement in the Ikhwan's electoral fortunes is attributed by analysts, both in the West and the Middle East, to the growing anger of young Egyptians about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and about their government's ties with the US. Egyptians, young and old alike, have been inflamed by the barefaced rigging of the last presidential election, and are convinced that Mubarak will arrange for his son Jamal to inherit the presidency.
But for the Ikhwan to retain its recently acquired public support, it must make even more prominent its current radical profile, and resist the temptation to restore its traditional image. It is certain to come under pressure from Muslim allies of the US, such as Saudi Arabia, to adopt a ‘moderate' stance and cooperate with the regime to introduce the ‘democratic' reforms recently demanded of Mubarak by the US government. The pressure is certain to intensify as the so-called war on terrorism persuades more Muslims to support Islamic political programmes and to turn against their secular and corrupt leaders: a development that may even persuade Western governments to decide that ‘moderate' Islamic parties are preferable to radical ones, and to modify their policies accordingly.
There are certainly worrying signs that the Ikhwan is willing to cooperate with Mubarak, despite its radical slogans during the electoral campaign. Some of its leaders are on record as having said that it is not looking for radical reforms. When, for example, it refrained from challenging Mubarak's campaign before the presidential election in September, Dr Essam al-Erian explained its conduct as follows: "Our ideology and programme is a gradual one. It does not call for abrupt change. We must have safe and peaceful change. When the people of Egyptchange then they can change their circumstances." Dr Essam is a senior Ikhwan leader and was imprisoned by the regime; such remarks sound very odd from a man with such a record.
If the Ikhwan has really become more radical and is determined to pursue an essentially Islamic programme, then it should go for swift change and an early departure from power of the Mubarak dynasty and the elites who prop it up. Otherwise Bush et. al. will continue, in effect, to rule one of the world's potentially most influential Muslim countries.