Egypt’s long-banned Muslim Brotherhood is on the verge of gaining the political legitimacy it has sought for decades, but as it steps out of the shadows its credibility will be on the line, analysts say.
Ten months after the end of Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years of autocratic rule, Egyptians went to the polls this week in the first phase of multi-stage elections to create a new parliament.
Ahead of preliminary results later Thursday for the third of districts which have already voted, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) said it was in the lead with more than 40 percent of ballots.
“This is an excellent chance to test the group,” said Rabab al-Mahdi, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.
“For years they have been making claims — such as the fact that freedom and religion can be compatible — without being held accountable,” she told AFP.
The Brotherhood has been officially banned since the 1950s, but it counts hundreds of thousands of members and operates a vast network of social and religious outreach programmes across the country.
Its FJP party says it strives for a “civil state, defined as a non-military non-religious state… that respects human rights,” according to its political programme.
Leaders have repeatedly stressed their commitment to multi-party democracy and inclusiveness and pledged to ensure freedoms — in stark contrast to other hardline Islamist leaders who are also expected to do well in the elections.
But if it does emerge as the biggest party in the new parliament — final results for the lower house are expected in January — its credibility will evaporate if it accepts to be part of a toothless assembly, observers say.
Many voters are concerned that the military rulers in charge since the fall of Mubarak are looking to consolidate their influence and are unwilling to hand over real power to the new civilian leaders.
“They will have to fight for the power of parliament which stands more chance of success with alliances with the house’s liberals,” Mahdi said.
As capitalists, the FJP “will have more in common economically with liberals than it would with other Islamist forces,” she told AFP.
It remains unclear how the new parliament will function and how much power it will be given by Supreme Council of Armed Forces headed by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s former defence minister.
The movement, once linked to political assassinations but now seen as a moderate force, said it expected to be asked to form a new interim government if it emerges as the biggest power in parliament.
“The future government is supposed to represent the people,” spokesman Mahmud Ghozlan told AFP ahead of the start of voting.
Once in power, the FJP will have to reassure liberal Egyptians of its commitment to civil liberties, while wrestling control from the military whose economic interests are seen as reducing its desire for genuine reform.
Its treatment of the 8.0-million-strong minority Christian population will also be a test of its rhetoric of tolerance.
The military — which owns numerous businesses and vast swathes of land — will fight for its privileges and look to retain some degree of power, argues Joshua Stacher, a political scientist at Kent State University.
“The power structure will remain until the Egyptian military is ripped out of the economy,” he said.
Ahead of the elections, the army had sought to impose a set of supra-constitutional principles which would give it final say on all military related legislation and keep its budget shielded from public scrutiny.
The Muslim Brotherhood slammed the proposals as “undemocratic.”
But in a country where politics and economic growth are fused into one engine, the FJP could find itself quickly stunted and unable to deliver social justice and a good economy — the main demands of the January uprising.