Prospective candidates for Egypt’s opposition Muslim Brotherhood ran into a police cordon when they tried to register in Fayoum, an oasis city south of Cairo, to run in the November 28 parliamentary election.
The hopefuls, who list themselves as independents to skirt a ban on the group, jostled for hours before they were let into the shabby registration offices. Candidates of President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party had no such trouble gaining access.
“We and any opposition must be as persistent as warriors to expose the regime. This corruption will never make us budge,” said Ahmadi Kassem, one of the Brotherhood candidates.
Such scenes of police hostility to Islamist candidates here and elsewhere reinforce forecasts, quietly shared by Brotherhood leaders, that the group cannot repeat its success in 2005, when it won a fifth of seats to become the biggest opposition bloc, Reuters reports.
Analysts say the Brotherhood is likely to lose more than three quarters of its 88 seats in the outgoing parliament of 454, arguing that the authorities want to rid the assembly of their most vocal critics before next year’s presidential poll.
“The state decides when the Brotherhood should be in or out of parliament,” said Deena Shehata at the al-Ahram Centre for Strategic and Political Studies.
But forcing the Brotherhood out of parliament will not weaken its grassroots network, which is at the heart of its long-term goal to win over Egyptian public opinion to its political vision of a state governed by Islamic principles.
“The Brotherhood’s goals for change are long term. Its members permeate syndicates and civil society and will keep working until the moment for change is right,” said Shehata.
The group has built support through religious and charity work, offering medical and other social services to the poor. About a fifth of Egypt’s 79 million people live on less than $1 a day, according to the United Nations.
Mubarak’s government, which quashed a militant insurgency in the 1990s, has long been wary of groups with Islamist leanings.
In Garduh village near Fayoum, a region where militants were active in the 1990s uprising, villagers grumble about security. Speaking in mid-November, they said 20 men had been held for a week on suspicion of militancy. The villagers said the detainees just followed strict Islamic teaching.
“State security does that every now and then. They take them in for a few days to see if they are up to some mischief,” said a villager, in his mid-40s, who asked not to be identified.
Decades ago, the Brotherhood renounced violence to achieve political change in Egypt, but its members are often rounded up.
The Brotherhood and rights groups say the group’s supporters are often blocked from entering polling stations to vote at election time, though the authorities say voting is fair.
“The road to governance is blocked. We must adapt politically so as not to provoke the regime,” said Mohamed el-Katatni, head of the movement’s parliamentary bloc. “In the meantime, we take measured steps and continue our efforts in social aid, political participation and religious teaching.”
The Brotherhood is the only opposition group that could muster thousands of disciplined supporters onto the streets but it has avoided open confrontation that might invite a crackdown.
“It is the only real mass-membership political organisation in Egypt, but it rarely engages in non-violent direct action like mass protests, civil disobedience or boycotts,” said Shadi Hamid, director of the Brookings Doha Centre.
That approach has angered other opponents of the government of Mubarak, 82, who has been in power since 1981 when Islamic militants assassinated his predecessor, Anwar Sadat.
When Mohamed ElBaradei, ex-head of the U.N. atomic watchdog, urged opposition parties to shun the parliamentary poll, the Brotherhood backed his call for change, but rejected a boycott.
The movement is fielding just over 130 candidates, a list that could be slimmed further by an electoral vetting committee which can exclude would-be lawmakers for not filling in documents properly or failing to do their military service. In 2005, 165 Brotherhood candidates ran, even after vetting.
The group’s kid-glove stance frustrates many of its younger members who are impatient for change and eager to mount a more direct challenge to the state and its vast security forces.
“The Brotherhood is losing support among the young and those who realise how clueless it is about the way forward,” said researcher Ibrahim Houdaiby, a former member in his late 20s.
“Many are disappointed because the Brotherhood lacks vision and runs in elections that go nowhere. This drives many away.”
Hamid said the group’s tactics slowed down any wider push for reform. “In some way the Brotherhood has let down the rest of the opposition when they chose not to boycott elections.”
The boycott issue set off a lively internal debate within the Brotherhood, but prospects for a new direction had already dimmed when the movement picked a conservative, Mohamed Badie, 66, as its new Guide, or leader, earlier in the year.
Despite the group’s cautious behaviour, members say the government has used the Brotherhood to deflect pressure from Western countries who have called for more democracy in Egypt but prove wary when Islamists win elections in the wider region.
“The regime has used the Brotherhood as a scarecrow to scare the West and convince it that members of the Brotherhood are a threat to democracy,” said the Brotherhood’s Katatni.