Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is seeking to emerge as a credible and moderate force after marathon elections propelled it to the forefront of the political scene, analysts said on Thursday.
But the once-banned Brotherhood, which for decades pushed the slogan “Islam is the solution”, is being challenged by ultra-conservative Islamists and must adopt a a clear political programme and band with liberal parties, they said.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party claims to have won a crushing victory in Egypt’s three-phased parliamentary elections which wrapped on Wednesday, based on initial estimations.
According to media reports, the FJP could clinch some 45 percent of seats in the parliament, which comprises 498 elected deputies and 10 appointed by the military council ruling Egypt since the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak.
“The FJP is trying to appear moderate and is adopting an appeasing tone as it strives to set up a coalition with other parties,” Cairo University political sciences professor Mustafa Kamel Sayyed told AFP.
“To become lawmakers they will certainly need to cooperate with non-Islamist parties,” he said.
On Wednesday the FJP won a much needed boost when its leaders held unprecedented talks with US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns at their Cairo headquarters.
The meeting was the latest in a series of moves by the administration of President Barack Obama to reach out to the Brotherhood in a nod to Egypt’s new political reality.
But Washington has indicated concerns linger about the group’s attitude toward Egypt’s Christian minority, women and the peace treaty with Israel.
The Brotherhood has been striving to ease these concerns.
Last week, when Coptic Christians celebrated Christmas, an Islamist leader was there for the first time.
FPJ chief Mohammed Mursi presented his greetings to Pope Shenuda III at the Abbassiya Cathedral although he did not attend Christmas mass.
The party has also made it clear it will not insist “immediately” on an “integral application of sharia” law nor would it demand strategic posts — foreign affairs and the interior ministry — in a future cabinet.
“The Brotherhood prefers to run ministries that provide direct services to the people,” such as the health or social affairs, said Sayyed.
The Islamists built their strength through a wide network of social aid targeting the poor across Egypt, where around 40 percent of the 82-million strong population live on less than two dollars per day.
For Hisham Murad, a commentator at the Al-Ahram Hebdo weekly magazine, the Brotherhood “has shown proof of pragmatism and moderation, and a reassuring message on the future intentions of Egypt in the region.”
Initially the Brotherhood campaigned for a strong parliamentary system but it backtracked amid rising tensions with liberal parties and the military rulers who insist on a powerful executive branch.
“The party believes that a mixed parliamentary presidential system is the best for Egypt at this current transitional period,” FJP chief Mursi told Burns at their meeting on Wednesday.
“The party believes that all political powers in Egypt should be in accord with each other to help achieve the goals of the revolution” that toppled Mubarak, Mursi added.
As it aims for majority rule in parliament the Brotherhood must, however, contend with the rising star of Al-Nur, the largest party to represent the ultra-conservative Salafi brand of Islam, which came second in the polls.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is constantly changing. Today it says it is keeping moderates to distinguish itself from the Salafists. But will it keep it up? It isn’t sure,” says Cairo University political sciences professor Nevine Mosaad.
Another cause for concern, for Washington at least, is the fate of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty which turned Egypt into the lynchpin of US policy in the Middle East since it was signed in 1979.
“The position of the Brotherhood is still ambiguous,” said Murad.
In a statement issued in September the Brotherhood demanded a “revision” of ties with Israel but stopped short from calling for the scrapping of the peace treaty – the first between an Arab country and the Jewish state.
“Some members say it will be revised, others stress that it is up to the Egyptian people to decide its fate, said Murad.