CAIRO, Egypt – A surprise showing in the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections has given the Muslim Brotherhood its strongest political foothold ever heading into today’s vote, hinting at what democracy might look like in the Arab world’s largest country.
Secularists and Christians were unsettled by the Brotherhood’s initial showing, with the country’s oldest Islamic fundamentalist group taking 34 seats, doubling its presence in parliament.
The victories have established the Brotherhood as the leader of the opposition and have proven what the government feared: that the banned group is popular among Egyptians despite, or because of, frequent crackdowns and the government’s media campaign against it.
The unanswered question remains: Does Brotherhood success stem from its platform – summed up in its slogan, “Islam is the solution,” vague but appealing to some in conservative Egypt – or to widespread discontent with President Hosni Mubarak’s government.
Stunned by its own showing, the Brotherhood expects to win more today and in the Dec. 1 third round, polls being held in provinces that include its traditional strongholds.
Some members of the Coptic Christian community were worried by the Brotherhood’s showing.
“What worries me is the (Brotherhood’s) vague call for implementing Islamic law,” said Georget Qelliny, a Copt and former lawmaker.
She added that she was skeptical of the Brotherhood’s pledge to protect the rights of all Egyptians.
Banned since 1954, the Brotherhood is not allowed to run as a political party, but it fields candidates as independents. It had 15 members in the outgoing parliament.
The group, founded in 1928, calls for implementing Islamic law but has long been vague about what this means. Its members are conservative – advocating the veil for women and campaigning against perceived immorality in the media, for example – but the group insists it represents a more moderate face of Islam than the puritanical Wahhabi version that dominates Saudi Arabia.
In the past year, Brotherhood members have presented themselves as advocates of democratic reform and have tried to reach out to Christians, though most in Egypt’s Christian minority oppose them.
The government generally tolerates the group, which renounced violence in the 1970s, but hundreds of members have been detained in recent months amid increased protests against Mubarak, Egypt’s leader for 24 years.
On Friday and Saturday, police detained more than 80 supporters of Abdel Hamed el-Senoussi, an Islamist candidate who is running in today’s elections.
The United States has been urging Mubarak, its steadfast ally in the Middle East, to allow greater democracy. But U.S. officials also are eyeing the Brotherhood with concern.
“I think there are some serious questions about the extent to which some of those parties would defend those rights, if they were in power,” especially the rights of women and religious freedom, Elizabeth Cheney, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for the Near East, told the Associated Press earlier this fall.
“A willingness to participate in the democratic system isn’t proof of that somebody is a democrat. You have to be willing to protect that system and defend the rights of others,” said Cheney, the daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney.
The Brotherhood won 34 seats in the first round, while the ruling NDP seized 112, after joining candidates who ran as independents, in the 454-member legislature.
The NDP is expected to retain a large majority in the body. But the Brotherhood’s showing is more than about numbers. After the first round, it already is stronger than the entire opposition bloc was in the outgoing parliament.
If the Brotherhood can garner 65 seats, it would be able to nominate a candidate to run for president in 2011 elections. The election wins already boost its campaign to be legalized as a political party, something the government has vowed never to allow.