Egypt’s parliamentary elections will take place on November 28, by which time this issue of Crescent will have gone to press. Normally, this would be problematic from a news point of view; one of the most difficult issues for any periodical is when major developments are expected between its press deadline and its publication date. Considering that Egypt is the most populous country in the Arabian world, traditionally one of the most politically important, and home to one of the Muslim world’s most significant political Islamic movements, its parliamentary elections should certainly come into this category.
The reality, however, is rather different. While the details of the election results remain to be seen, their broad outlines — barring any unlikely unforeseeable development — can fairly comfortably be predicted. So too can the international reaction to them: from some politicians and commentators, muted and empty expressions of regret for the fact that they were not as open and free as the West would supposedly like, but without anything like the concerted outrage over the alleged failings of the polls in Iran last year. And from others, frank and pragmatic congratulations to the Mubarak regime for successfully negotiating another round of managed pseudo-politics, containing and dissipating the popular opposition movements whose success would be disastrous for the West, while maintaining the pretence of reform, moderation and even democracy.
By one measure at least, representative government in Egypt might be argued to be progressing: the new parliament, officially the Maglis al-Sha‘b (the people’s assembly) will have 518 members instead of 454 in the current one, thanks to the addition of 64 seats reserved for women. When the results come in, however, they will show that the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) will have won a comfortable majority, while leaving enough seats to opposition candidates — 20–30%, say — for the results not to be obviously risible. The Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood), almost certainly the largest opposition party, even though it is officially banned, is being severely repressed in the run-up to the polls and is contesting only 130 seats.
Other opposition parties will win a handful of seats, as they did in the last parliament, a result that will be attributed to the decision of Mohamed El-Baradei’s National Coalition for Change to boycott the polls and call for other opposition parties to do the same. This decision makes it possible for him and his supporters (including many in the West who see him as a possible alternative to the NDP regime if Gamal Mubarak is unable to establish himself as a credible successor to his father) to claim that they would have done well had they been able to contest genuinely free elections. In reality, El-Baradei’s tactic was probably dictated by the need to maintain the momentum provided by international support, instead of being exposed as representing only a tiny pro-Western minority of Egypt’s population while the Ikhwan remain Egypt’s only genuinely popular opposition group.
The Ikhwan, for its part, have been criticised by other opposition groups for not joining the boycott, thus supposedly giving the elections a credibility they do not deserve. The Ikhwan’s position is predicated on two assumptions: firstly, that the elections have no credibility anyway, whether they take part or not, so boycotting them would achieve nothing other than to surrender the only political foothold they have, however limited it may be. And second, that as the largest and most credible opposition group, they have no need to follow the lead of El-Baradei, a man with little standing of his own, and who is being promoted as much to stand against the Ikhwan as to stand against Mubarak. The recent debate on political strategy echoes that in the run-up of the 2005 elections, when it surrounded the much-hyped Kefaya movement; and El-Baradei’s movement has even less real substance now than Kefaya did then. Now as then, the Ikhwan are being criticised for refusing to kowtow to a national opposition agenda led by pro-Western secularists, instead of smaller opposition groups being asked why they refuse to accept the lead of the Ikhwan.
But the Ikhwan’s strategy has also been criticised from supporters and sympathisers, who worry that accusations that it has become part of the political establishment, an acquiescent player in a game dictated by the regime rather than an effective opposition movement, may be becoming less baseless. The argument is that the Ikhwan may have reached a stage where they have as much to lose from challenges to the existing order as the regime, and their opposition activities blunted as a result; in other words, they have become the sort of tame and ineffective opposition that any one-party state needs to channel popular dissent. The fact that they are an Islamic movement, and subject to regular rounds of state repression, merely maintains their status and gives them credibility that is as important to the regime as it is to themselves. If this harsh judgment is accurate, the fact that the country’s main Islamic movement has been reduced to this status must be considered a great success for the regime — another area in which Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt leads the Arabian world.
As Egyptians settle back into a familiar political pattern after the country’s latest pseudo-elections, the leaders of the Ikhwan must ask themselves whether the strategy of political engagement they have followed for almost 30 years remains the best way forward for an Islamic movement that still has considerable global credibility and support, but which some fear has lost its way.
Iqbal Siddiqui publishes a personal blog, A Sceptical Islamist: htp://scepticalislamist.typepad.com