Who Will Partner Egypt’s Muslim Brothers?

Human Wrongs Watch

By Will Kelleher*, Think Africa PressThe first democratic elections in Egypt in over 50 years drew to a close on Wednesday, January 11 with the final runoffs held in some of Daqahleya, Qena and South Sinai’s constituencies. Following the regional trend set by last year’s parliamentary elections in Morocco and Tunisia, Egypt’s Islamist parties are emerging as the clear victors of this political contest.

**Image: courtesy of Gigi Ibrahim | Source: Think Africa Press.

By its own estimates, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has secured between 40-45% of the vote, making it the most popular party by some distance. The Al Nour party, which subscribes to the more rigid and conservative form of Salafist Islam, again defied observers who predicted its policies would be unpalatable to the electorate by securing around 20% of the vote.

Secular parties, whose supporters were integral to the anti-Mubarak protests in early 2011 and the anti-SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] protests last December, have again largely underperformed and will further suffer from Naguib Sawiris’ decision to withdraw his Free Egyptians Party (FEP) from the forthcoming elections for the Shura Council, the upper house of Egypt’s bicameral Parliament.

Egypt remains in a state of political flux. Now the elections are drawing to a close, it remains to be seen which parties will form a lasting coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood and how this coalition will negotiate the transition of power from the SCAF-controlled interim government.

It’s the Economy

Since the overthrow of President Mubarak, Egypt’s secular parties and the Salafists have seen a reversal of fortunes. The participation of secularists in the Tahrir square protests increased international awareness, but outside Egypt’s urban centres disparate groups of secularists lacked the funding, grassroots presence and unity of purpose which earned the Al Nour party the second highest number of votes in the new parliament.

The 2011 protests in Tahrir Square may have represented a desire for radical democratic change, but the parliamentary election results suggest that large swathes of the Egyptian population are still socially conservative and do not sympathise with the extensive liberal policies put forward by secularists.

Pragmatism has won the day for Islamist parties, whose superior organisation and wide-ranging social welfare programs have proved more attractive to Egyptian voters than the secularists’ narrow focus on increased democratic freedom.

The political instability of the last 12 months has left Egypt’s economy severely debilitated and 40% of Egyptians are now living on or below the poverty line. Formerly profitable sectors such as the tourism industry are now in tatters, and a contraction of 30% in the tourism industry may have cost the government $9 billion in revenues.

Negotiating with IMF

Last week, the Egyptian interim government reopened negotiations with the IMF over a possible $3.2 billion dollar loan – having rejected one in 2011 due to popular fears that the deal would compromise national sovereignty.

After foreign policy reserves rapidly depleted to around $18 billion dollars and the nation’s credit rating was downgraded to the extent that yields on seven year domestic bonds reached 16%, the interim government was forced to go back to the IMF to negotiate a loan which will be far from unconditional.

At this critical time, Egypt’s economy desperately needs a stable a government, putting pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood to form a coalition as soon as possible. Who could act as potential partners?

Secularists or Salafists: Who Will Get the Brotherhood’s Support?

Despite its low profile before the parliamentary elections, the Salafist Al Nour party managed to secure a large percentage of the vote. However, it remains to be seen if they can maintain this momentum and consolidate a more stable power base.

Although Essiam al-Erian, deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood, said the FJP “stands at an equal distance from all parties”, it seems that the party will be more interested in power-sharing with a few secularist parties than forming an Islamist majority with the Salafists.

Jon Marks, an analyst at the think tank Chatham House, explained to Think Africa Press that “the presence of the Salafists will stiffen the sinews of the Brotherhood”. The two parties appeal to similar sections of the electorate and the Salafists have enough seats in the new parliament to challenge the FJP on contentious issues.

The Brotherhood would prefer to gain a majority through power-sharing with a few secular parties, who have less political clout than the Salafists. A coalition between the FJP and secular parties would mean that the Muslim Brotherhood could protect their interests when negotiating the transition of power with SCAF.

The Muslim Brotherhood leaders have distanced themselves from many inter-party disputes, such as the debate surrounding the blasphemy charges brought against Naguib Sawiris of the FEP, and boycotted the anti-SCAF protests in November and December.

Jon Marks commented that “behind closed doors, SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood will have started informal discussions on power-sharing agreements”. It is unclear how this tense relationship will resolve itself.

However, it is certain that any party who wants a voice in Egypt’s government will have to form an alliance with the Brotherhood – one in which the balance of power will be heavily weighted in favour of the Islamists. The future coalition’s efficacy will depend on the number of power concessions they can secure from the military interim government.

SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood: How Will the Transition of Power manifest Itself?

At this point in time, Egypt’s military elite are still in control of the country’s major power bases: the interior ministry, the security forces and several state media organisations. Many state governors are former army generals who were elected to their positions during Mubarak’s tenure.

For this reason the new Egyptian parliament will have to negotiate with SCAF if it is to have any effective political power; and this transition could be the cause of more social unrest. Until now, the Muslim Brotherhood leaders have resisted anything that could be viewed as antagonistic, boycotting the anti-SCAF protests and agreeing with SCAF’s decision to hand over power in late June after the presidential elections.

A power sharing agreement between the two political factions is not implausible. As Jon Marks told Think Africa Press, “there are members of the military elite who feel very sympathetic towards the Muslim Brotherhood’s cause”.

But both sides will be wary of appearing weak in negotiations. November’s social unrest in Tahrir Square demonstrated that when political debate reaches an impasse, Egypt’s political elite have no qualms about fighting the issue out on the streets.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s recent timidity has drawn criticism from its support base and put the party’s leadership in a difficult position. Oxfam’s Middle East Policy advisor, Adam Taylor-Awny, told Think Africa Press that, “The Muslim Brotherhood cannot become too close with SCAF now and therefore has to tread carefully; otherwise it will have no public support if or when it falls out with SCAF”.

Potential for Further Social Unrest

SCAF has found it difficult to let go of power. Last November’s announcement that future military budgets will not be made available to the civilian government was only pegged back following civilian outcry.

This cycle of aggression and withdrawal is symptomatic of a lack of confidence amongst SCAF’s upper echelons. And this insecurity makes a violent knee-jerk reaction to social unrest more likely.

The election of the constituent assembly could provoke further protest. In November, SCAF caused outrage by suggesting that it would nominate 80 of the 100 members to the assembly that will rewrite Egypt’s constitution.

However Mansour Hassan, head of the advisory council to SCAF, recently said that the assembly will be dominated by elected parliamentarians. Negotiations over the assembly’s structure could be lengthy and torrid but any political debate would still be a step forward if it avoids a repeat of the violence seen in Tahrir Square at the end of 2011.

*Will Kelleher is a journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East and North Africa. This article was first published by Think Africa Press. Go to Original.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Human Wrongs Watch.

**Image: courtesy of Gigi Ibrahim | Source: Think Africa Press.

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2012 Human Wrongs Watch

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