Elections in Egypt / The Muslim Brotherhood's Turn

First came the rumors, then the slogans, and now it looks like Allah will indeed be at the center of parliamentary elections in Egypt, a three-stage process, in which the first stage begins today.

Rumors had it that the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement whose political activity has been outlawed, had the support of the United States, as part of its campaign to nurture democracy in the Middle East and Egypt, in particular.

According to those rumors of unclear provenance, Condoleezza Rice - who pressured Mubarak to release from custody the head of Kefaya (Enough), the new and secular opposition movement that has emerged over the past two years - is also the one who demanded that the Muslim Brotherhood be permitted to run unrestricted in these elections.

These rumors were ostensibly verified when detainees from the Muslim Brotherhood, including senior officials in the organization, were freed ahead of the elections.

Now the Egyptian regime is barely lifting a finger to block the Brotherhood's intensive election campaign, which includes slogans of the sort that characterized the early days of the movement and the radical groups that splintered off from it in the 1980s and `90s.

"Islam is the solution," the same slogan that terrified Egyptian regimes in their day, is loudly heard once more at election rallies of the movement, which decided to field a list of some 150 parliamentary candidates.

In the face of the Muslim Brotherhood's dramatic political boost, the other opposition parties, especially those on the left, like the Wafd and the Tagammu, seem like pale shadows, powerless to pose a genuine threat to the dinosaur ruling party. That party, named the National Democratic Party, will certainly garner the sweeping majority of 444 elected seats (10 members of parliament are appointed by the president), therefore making the question not who will win, but by how much.

The Muslim Brotherhood made it clear that it was running "only" 150 candidates and not a list of 444 like the ruling party, so as not to overly upset the party and regime. The Brotherhood knows that its status is akin to that of a suspicious object and that it had better maneuver with exceeding caution in dealings with a regime that still views its members as political criminals.

But it is not concealing an ambition for at least half of its candidates to win seats. If that happens, it would mean an accomplishment nearly five times as great as its victory in the last elections held in 2000.

It would also make the Muslim Brotherhood the largest opposition bloc in parliament, possibly leading Egypt's quiet and docile parliament to awaken, and not necessarily to the advantage of Egyptian democracy.

On the other hand, and paradoxically, some democracy advocates in Egypt are not opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood reaping an achievement in the first stage of the elections, because they see the crux of their battle as chipping away at the ruling party's power and shattering its governing monopoly. To their way of thinking, a crack in the party's political monopoly would be a sign that new parties have a chance of transforming the parliament into a real political arena that would not act merely as a rubber stamp.

Hence the importance of the first stage of the elections, since it will provide an indication of the direction in which the public is going and will impact the results of the following two phases.