Egypt’s Islamists: Betting on the ballot box

Ursula Lindsey writes: One evening a few weeks ago, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) invited journalists to attend one of their parliamentary campaign events in Cairo’s sprawling poor neighborhood of Imbaba.

A disciplined and cheerful crowd marched along the narrow, unpaved alleys. People leaned out their windows in the tightly packed red-brick apartment blocks. While their supporters chanted upbeat political and religious slogans, the candidates stopped at the local shops and cafes to shake hands with middle-aged men.

The march was like many other ones the MB has held in previous elections. But there were also some noticeable differences: the larger-than-usual female contingent and the yellow sashes bearing the name of the organisation’s newly established Freedom and Justice Party. The lack of plainclothes security officers lurking in the background and the palpable optimism also stood out.

For months now, Islamists have made holding elections their priority. That night in Imbaba, candidate Amr Darrag told me that electoral legitimacy would give him and others the power to truly represent the people. “This will be much more powerful than the force in Tahrir Square,” he said. “Rather than having a million people rally for a certain demand, if I represent one million people I can speak for them.”

The MB, and other new Islamist groups who formed parties in the last 10 months, expect to do well in the parliamentary elections. In the 2005 elections, seen as less corrupt as those of 2010, they won about 20 percent of the parliament seats available, and in this election many observers predict that, combined, Islamist parties may win a majority. The MB in particular is well-organized, well-funded and has a regional network across the country that no other party can match.

Ever since Mubarak’s ouster there has been a note of confidence bordering on triumphalism amongst Islamist parties in Egypt. It was they who organized the anti-army demonstration in Tahrir on November 18 to reject so-called “supra-constitutional” principles. Some opposed these principles for granting the army exceptional privileges and for enshrining freedoms that, they said, might contradict Islamic principles.

“People are afraid of Islamists,” a member of the MB told me that day. “But if Islamists win, isn’t that the will of the people? We’ve tried all the other forms of government – Mubarak’s rule, socialist, capitalist rule – why not try the Brotherhood? What’s the problem?”

The following day, the army and riot police violently cleared a small sit-in from the square after a week of bloody clashes that left 44 dead and hundreds wounded, and brought tens of thousands into the streets demanding an immediate end to military rule. The Islamists’ insistence that elections are the solution to the current political crises has reportedly caused some heated internal debates, and widened the gulf of mistrust between them and their secular counterparts.

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