It's All Relative

The general amount of support for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood - not the actual number of votes it receives in Sunday's parliamentary elections - will dictate the agenda of presidential candidates next year

There are now about 1,300 Muslim Brotherhood members under arrest in Egypt. About 30 Egyptian policemen were injured during arrests and clashes in recent days. Parliamentary elections are set for Sunday, and the ruling party is trying hard not to leave anything to chance. This includes everything from using vague excuses to disqualify opposition candidates to refusing to allow foreign observers to be present at the polls, closing television stations that broadcast religious content, and arresting and threatening journalists considered opponents of the government.

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Recently the government also adopted a new slogan, "Islam is my religion and yours," as a counterweight to the slogans of the Muslim Brotherhood: "Islam is the solution." "Allah is with you," "Allah is the good watchman." Those are only a few of the catch phrases being disseminated by candidates of the ruling party, especially in the religious neighborhoods of Cairo and in villages of the conservative south.

Last week the popular religious figure Amr Khaled appeared before 5,000 citizens invited by the association for development in Alexandria, headed by Minister of Local Development Mohammed Abdel Salam Mahjoub. The preacher has been living outside Egypt for eight years, due to pressure from the administration. Although Khaled denies he was invited back by the ruling party in order to encourage voters to support the minister, nobody in Egypt seems to believe this.

The Muslim Brotherhood, even more than the left-wing opposition parties, represents the heart of Egyptian distress: poverty, price increases, low wages and unemployment. While the intellectual elites and secular opposition speak about human rights, freedom of expression and democratic reforms, and oppose handing down the government to Gamal Mubarak, the president's son, the Muslim Brotherhood is talking about environmental quality, fair wages and corruption, and are demanding constitutional reform that will grant more civil rights.

The government in Cairo responded to opposition by arresting activists, as it is wont to do, and by agreeing to pay subsidies to help the poor buy staples. Indeed, Minister of Trade and Industry Rachid Mohamed Rachid said this week that Cairo will increase its budget for subsidies from 13.6 to 13.8 billion Egyptian liras. But when the prices of meat, flour and sugar are increasing, the minimum wage is about $130 a month, and about 22 percent of the population - about 15 million people - are living in poverty, it is doubtful whether the minister's words will bring in more votes for the party. The demonstrations by trade unions in the various sectors, and criticism in the opposition press about the price and quality of merchandise, attest to the fact that before being offered a political horizon, the Egyptian public is demanding an economic horizon.

Although the results are more or less a forgone conclusion, these elections will serve as "warmup elections" for the really important contest: the presidential elections next year.

"The question is not only whether the National Democratic Party will win - it will - nor whether the secular opposition will lose - it will. The Muslim Brotherhood will not take over the parliament. The important thing this time will be the way the wind is blowing," an Egyptian journalist who writes about Egyptian politics for one of the opposition newspapers told Haaretz this week.

Parliamentary representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which has been effectively outlawed and also prohibited from establishing a political party, appear on the ballot as independent candidates. In the previous elections in 2005 it won a large number of seats: 88 out of 454, up from 17 seats in the elections before that. Will it be able to bring more representatives into parliament? Will the ruling party, which received 311 seats (almost 100 fewer than the number it had in 2000 ) continue to erode until it loses the majority required for constitutional change - or will it recover?

"The relative results, and not the absolute figures, will affect the ability of the opposition to present a real challenge in the presidential elections," explains the Egyptian commentator.

If the Muslim Brotherhood does well on Sunday, it will be able to dictate conditions for any candidate who wants to run for president. If it's Mohammed ElBaradei, he will have to find a common denominator with a movement that does not represent his liberal values, but without which he cannot win. If it's Gamal Mubarak, the Brotherhood will likely try to receive official status as a condition for recruiting him supporters.

In any case, there is already speculation that after the elections, the ruling party is likely to change its policy toward the Muslim Brotherhood and even to grant them a fixed quota of MPs - in effect granting them recognition - but on condition that they don't support ElBaradei.

All this is happening when it is still not clear who the ruling party's candidate will be. Will Mubarak senior run for another term? Will Gamal run? Both are not permitted to make any clear statements, at least until Monday. Afterward, the real election campaign will begin.