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EGYPT: Muslim Brotherhood Looks Beyond Tahrir

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

Queuing up to vote in Cairo. Credit: Khaled Moussa al-Omrani/IPS.

Queuing up to vote in Cairo. Credit: Khaled Moussa al-Omrani/IPS.

CAIRO, Dec 1 2011 (IPS) - Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood came under fire from various political quarters for its decision to stay out of last week’s clashes in and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square. But as Egyptians vote in the country’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary polls, many local analysts believe the controversial decision may have ended up paying political dividends.

Queuing up to vote in Cairo. Credit: Khaled Moussa al-Omrani/IPS.

Queuing up to vote in Cairo. Credit: Khaled Moussa al-Omrani/IPS.

“Preliminary indications suggest the Brotherhood did even better at the polls than initially expected because their measured response to the recent Tahrir Square clashes was positively received by much of the public, who just want stability after months of uncertainty,” Abdel Menaam Mounib, prominent Egyptian authority on Islamic political movements, told IPS.

On Monday and Tuesday, Egyptians voted in the first of three rounds of parliamentary elections, which most political observers expect to be dominated by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – the Brotherhood’s political arm – along with other Islamist parties. The elections will pit the FJP against a host of new liberal and leftist parties, most of them established after the February ouster of Egypt’s longstanding president Hosni Mubarak.

The polls, final results of which won’t be announced until mid-January, come on the heels of Egypt’s worst round of violence since the 18-day uprising in January. From Nov. 19 to 23, security forces clashed with thousands of protesters who demanded that Egypt’s ruling military council – which has governed the country since Mubarak’s departure – hand over power to a civilian authority.

Following five days of violent confrontations in and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square, featuring pitched battles between stone-throwing activists and security forces, dozens of protesters lay dead and thousands injured.

“Cairo hasn’t witnessed this level of violence since the height of the January uprising,” said Mounib.

Although a number of the Muslim Brotherhood’s younger cadres joined the skirmishes, the group refrained from formally endorsing the protest. The move was met with derision by the group’s many detractors, who accused it of “betraying” Egypt’s ongoing revolution for short-term political advantage.

“The Muslim Brotherhood lost much of its credibility with its unhelpful position on the Tahrir massacre and its conspicuous absence from Egypt’s public squares,” Ibrahim Eissa, prominent opposition journalist during the Mubarak era and current editor-in-chief of new independent daily Tahrir, wrote in the paper’s Tuesday edition.

Similar sentiments were echoed by numerous liberal and leftist figures, who accused the Brotherhood of “political opportunism” and “not wanting to rock the boat” on the eve of elections it expected to sweep.

In a Nov. 26 statement, Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badei defended the decision, saying that the group’s leadership had instructed followers not to join the ongoing protests “because to have done so would have only led to more chaos and bloodshed.

“We received credible information that the crisis was planned in advance with the aim of drawing the Brotherhood into the conflict and thus further inflaming the situation,” Badei stated. He went on to refer to an “unknown element” that was actively trying to sow chaos in the country in hope of derailing the democratic transition and the implementation of revolutionary objectives.

Speaking to IPS, FJP Secretary-General Saad al-Kitatni explained the decision this way: “We didn’t respond to calls to join the protests because the situation in Tahrir Square at the time was extremely ambiguous. The square was full of unknown individuals and groups whose agendas remain unclear until now.”

He added: “We managed to confirm that certain political trends were trying to escalate the situation because they didn’t want elections, in which they know they’ll be savaged, to be held on schedule.”

On Nov. 22, the ruling military council surprised many observers by announcing that, despite the bloodletting, the first round of parliamentary polling would go on as scheduled.

Mounib, for his part, supported al-Kitatni’s assertions, pointing to “certain groups of liberals, leftists, and influential businessmen with links to the former regime that would like to see the elections indefinitely postponed.

“These groups had hoped to lure the Brotherhood into the streets in order to broaden the conflict and promote chaos with the ultimate goal of derailing the polls,” Mounib said. “These forces own most local media and therefore speak with loud voices, yet their grassroots support is negligible, because they espouse values not shared by the vast majority of the Egyptian public.”

In any event, the Brotherhood’s decision to steer clear of the recent clashes appears to have paid off at the ballot boxes.

“At first I was reluctant to vote for the FJP candidate, but the Brotherhood’s response to the Tahrir Square violence convinced me that the group puts the interests of the country ahead of its own,” Ahmed Ibrahim, a 35-year-old state employee who voted on Monday in Cairo’s Zeitoun district, told IPS. “If the Brotherhood had aggravated the situation by joining the protests, it would have lost the votes of those voters who just want stability.”

Final vote counts won’t be released until late Thursday, but according to preliminary indications on Wednesday, the Brotherhood’s FJP and allied parties had won more than 55 percent of seats reserved for party-list candidates in nine governorates. The Nour Party, the leading Islamist party of the ultra- conservative Salafist trend was said to have secured at least 20 percent.

Parties associated with the liberal-oriented Egyptian Bloc electoral coalition, meanwhile, were said to have secured roughly 15 percent.

Similar results were being reported for parliamentary seats reserved for individual candidacies.

A second round of polling, covering nine other governorates, will commence on Dec. 14, and a third and final round, covering the last nine of Egypt’s 27 governorates, will begin on Jan. 3.

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