It must seem wrong to most Muslims for an Islamic movement, regardless of whether it is ‘moderate’ (as the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen is often described) or ‘extremist’, to approve of any election that is obviously designed to secure yet another term for a dictator. Even many secular politicians and groups have refused to participate, instead calling on their supporters to boycott the polls. In these circumstances it is mystifying – and highly damaging – that an Islamic movement should advise its followers to “exercise their constitutional right” and vote.
The Ikhwan’s unambiguous call came in a statement released on August 21 by Muhammad Mahdi Akef, its spiritual leader. In this statement, Akef urged Egyptians to “bear their constitutional rights” by voting on September 7, when president Mubarak will be opposed, for the first time, by other candidates. However, Akef has refused to endorse any one of these nine alternative presidents, and has warned Egyptians against supporting or cooperating with “an oppressor or a corrupt tyrant”: a reference to Mubarak, as confirmed by officials of the Ikhwan. The Ikwan cannot post its own candidates because it is banned. It was banned more than a century ago and has remained banned since, with harsher political restrictions imposed during Mubarak’s 24-year emergency rule.
Akef’s statement caused surprise and did much damage as soon as it was issued, confirming, as it seems to, speculation that the Ikhwan has been negotiating with the government in secret for its restrictions to be lifted. The Ikhwan has been the most popular opposition group in Egypt, but in the last few months secular opposition parties, such as Kifaya, have appeared more radical. Even those parties and their leaders who at first backed the poll and posted candidates have since withdrawn both their support and their candidates. on the grounds that the election is a fraud.
George Ishaq, one of Kifaya’s co-founders, said in an interview that his party’s campaign against the election is justified because it is illegal, adding that “anyone who goes to vote will give the regime a green light to argue that it is a genuine competition.” This followed the withdrawal of two well-known secular candidates, Nawaal Saadawi and Saadedin Ibrahim, and their strong criticism of the election in interviews with the media. Ibrahim, for instance, said: “My candidacy... created internal pressure which Mubarak could not ignore. Now he has imposed all kinds of impossible conditions.” These conditions have since been followed by even more severe crackdowns on the media, particularly those sections that are critical of Mubarak. The sales of newspapers and magazines, such as the English-language magazine Cairo, have been suspended. On its cover Cairo showed plainclothes security forces preparing to attack pro-democracy demonstrators. The suppression of media reports, and other forms of criticism directed at the manner in which Mubarak is manipulating the electoral procedure, has caught the attention not only of Egyptians but also of foreign journalists and human-rights observers and activists. One of those activists, for example, is Sophie Redmond of Article 19, an international campaign for freedom of expression, who was quoted in a report on August 12: “The stifling of Cairo magazine in this way is particularly worrying in the lead-up to the limited presidential elections in September,” she said. “Restrictions placed on the media in the lead-up to the elections is a very strong early warning sign, and can be used as an indicator of the fairness of elections.”
Thus it is obvious that this election is widely seen, both in Egypt and abroad, as a device to secure victory for Mubarak. But it is not clear why an Islamic movement should choose to confer respectability on such an arrangement, especially after it has been so openly and widely condemned by secular politicians, journalists and human-rights activists. Akef’s call to the Ikhwan’s supporters to exercise their constitutional right came more than two weeks after Sophie Redmond’s warning, and longer than that after the condemnation of the poll by other opposition leaders.
The Islamic movement has clearly damaged itself by this volte face, and may lose a lot of support as a result, especially if Mubarak wins the election, as is widely expected. More seriously, it may also indirectly damage the reputation of Islamic groups as a whole, particularly in the eyes of young Egyptians, who are dissatisfied with the secular politicians’ failure to remove Mubarak and are open to the argument that an Islamic approach to their country’s problems may be more effective.