- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 8, 2005

CAIRO - Most of the hand-painted campaign banners decorating the city’s squares for today’s first round of parliamentary elections urge voters to back the National Democratic Party (NDP), which has controlled Egypt’s legislature since 1978.

But banners emblazoned with the Koran and crossed-swords logo of the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned organization that seeks to implement Islamic law in Egypt, hang beside those of government officials, who in past years authorized the arrests of Brotherhood cadres.

Brotherhood candidates competing for seats in the 454-member People’s Assembly held public election rallies this year for the first time.

Political analysts say the NDP will likely dominate this year’s parliamentary elections, which will run in three stages over the next month. But the breathing room given to the Brotherhood, the 77-year-old religious movement considered the greatest potential rival to the government of President Hosni Mubarak, shows that some things are changing in Egyptian politics, at least on the surface.

‘More freedom now’

The Brotherhood was banned in 1954, but since the 1970s it has been allowed to operate within limits and subject to frequent government crackdowns. Its members have participated in elections since the 1980s, but have never before been open about their affiliation. Thousands were arrested before the 2000 parliamentary elections.

These elections are seen as a test of new political freedoms promised by Mr. Mubarak, who won a sixth term in September with 89 percent of the vote in Egypt’s first direct presidential election.

“Everyone has more freedom now, and everyone, including [the Brotherhood], has the right to campaign,” said Mohammed Kamal, a close aide to Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son.

“There was a decision [by the government] that it is about time to recognize the Brotherhood,” said Abdel Moneim Said, director of the state-run Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Muslim Brothers currently have 15 seats in parliament, more than any legal opposition group. “Even if the Brotherhood doubled its current number of parliament seats to 30 or 40, it still wouldn’t be threatening to the NDP,” explained Mr. Said.

Agence France-Presse reports that the Brotherhood announced yesterday it was pulling out some of its candidates to boost the chances of a broader opposition coalition.

Despite being officially part of the United National Front for Change (UNFC), the Brotherhood had presented its own list of 150 candidates.

“After coordinating with the front, we agreed to withdraw some of our candidates to clear the way for the opposition in some constituencies,” top Brotherhood official Issam al-Aryan told AFP.

He said 23 or 24 candidates had pulled out across the country and that instructions would be given to Brotherhood supporters to vote for the UNFC’s official candidates. That may be good news for Mona Makram-Ebeid, a woman and Coptic Christian who seeks to win a parliament seat and break the back of “sectarianism and sexism.”

Mr. Mubarak’s ruling NDP currently controls 404 of the 454 seats in the People’s Assembly.

Serious reforms likely

The UNFC is a broad coalition of opposition movements that includes the Kefaya (Enough) movement, the liberal Wafd, Tagammu — a Marxist group — and the Nasserist party. It is fielding candidates in every constituency in the country.

NDP officials say recent policy shifts are signs of a regime ready to consider serious reforms when the new parliament convenes. Mr. Mubarak has pledged to replace Egypt’s emergency law, which has severely restricted political activity here since 1981, with an anti-terrorism law, and to grant the weak legislature more power.

Some analysts, however, caution against making too much of this increase in freedom. “The government is getting a bit more sophisticated than it used to be,” said Joshua Stacher, a political analyst and researcher working in Egypt, who predicts the NDP will win 80 percent to 85 percent of the parliament’s seats.

“They have come to think it really doesn’t matter if you have a small opposition paper printing anti-Mubarak articles or a couple of hundred protesters on the streets in Cairo. And they are right,” Mr. Stacher said.

The Brotherhood itself has been sensitive to the regime’s desire to change slowly. It is competing in only 150 of the parliamentary races, and its leaders predict they will win just 50 seats. They are not running candidates in some districts to avoid confrontation with the regime.

Mohammed Morsi, the Brotherhood’s leading lawmaker, said NDP officials communicated to Brotherhood leaders months ago that they could expect a more open atmosphere before this election. But Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif recently repeated the official ban on the group, so the threat of a crackdown looms.

One Brotherhood candidate, Essam Mokhtar, was detained by police Thursday for reputedly using mosque funds for his campaign, but was released after producing documents showing the charge was false.

More than 5,300 candidates are running in this election for the parliament’s lower house. Cairo and seven nearby governorates will vote today, with the rest of the country to follow on Nov. 20 and Dec. 1.

Besides the Muslim Brotherhood, the UNFC is fielding 180 candidates.

Liberal group excluded

The liberal Ghad (Tomorrow) party of Ayman Nour, who ran a distant second to Mr. Mubarak in September garnering 8 percent of the vote, was excluded from the opposition coalition owing to personal and political clashes. His party will field 80 candidates, many of them political neophytes.

These elections, and the next balloting in 2010, are seen as critical contests for the opposition, as they will determine if they will be eligible to contest the 2011 presidential vote. According to the new presidential election law, a party must have 5 percent of the seats in parliament to field a presidential candidate.

The Muslim Brotherhood will probably meet that threshold, analysts say, but their illegal status will prevent them from running a candidate. Prospects for the legal opposition parties making the cut are dismal.

“It will be practically impossible,” said Ahmed Salah, coordinator of Youth for Change, an anti-Mubarak group in the opposition coalition.

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