Neighbors / Brothers in Moderation

Next to the hard-line Salafi Al-Nour party, the Muslim Brotherhood looks downright accommodating. Making coalition deals with secular groups will be key if the party wants to rule Egypt.

"The government has prepared a new plan to encourage the population to exercise," said the mocking headline above a photo published last week in several Egyptian newspapers. The picture showed a grown woman in a long dress and head scarf waving a gas canister above her head. Gas is the new luxury in Egypt and thousands of people must wait in line to get it.

Once again it is clear that Tahrir Square and the constitution committees have failed to solve old problems. Issues keep popping up, emphasizing Egypt's grim situation. Just as in Mubarak's time, one can't cook with the government's promises to fix the gas crisis and other pressing troubles.

Brotherhood election ad - Reuters - sourced 13.12.11

But what are gas canisters in comparison with the profound excitement over the second round of elections that begin today? Will the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood win a bigger chunk of the votes, and how many people will vote for the extremist Salafi party Al-Nour? Will secular parties be able to unite and improve their situation in the parliament?

The struggle against the religious parties isn't over just because the leaders of the secular ones have made political agreements. The business sector is also wary of the religious parties.

An example of this is the Coalition for Tourism, which numbers 1,500 activists in the hospitality industry and who came out with the slogan "Tourism supports our children."

The slogan was developed in response to statements by the leader of Al-Nour, Abed al Munaam el Shahat, that his party would ban "immoral" beach tourism, where men and women can mingle, and would instead promote religious tourism, academic conferences and archaeological tourism.

The Muslim Brotherhood has discovered it can capitalize on Shahat's unpopularity (he failed to win votes for himself in the first round ), and hurried to promote their own tourism plan for Egypt.

Their plan includes an increase in the number of hotels, an easing of administrative regulations for investors in tourism, international advertising campaigns, and not one word against beach tourism. This is good news for the tourist industry, from which more than 3 million Egyptians make their living and which comprises 17 percent of the gross national product. Since 60 percent of the tourists come for the beaches, even the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood bows down before it.

As a rule, relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi movement are based on mutual loathing. The Brotherhood believes that if the Salafis hadn't decided, in contradiction to their traditions, to run in the elections, their own power in the parliament would be much greater. After all, the Salafis, they maintain, always viewed the Brotherhood as traitors to religious principles for taking part in politics, and here they themselves are playing the same field.

At the same time, some Brotherhood leaders see Salafi participation in the elections as an advantage, as the Brotherhood is now seen as representing moderate Islam, relative to the extremist Salafis who promise to forbid the sale of alcohol and force women to cover wear head coverings.

The Brotherhood received good advice from Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda movement in Tunisia, which won a majority in the last elections and is forming a government.

"I advise the Muslim Brotherhood that if they come to power, they form a coalition including the secular parties and the Christians, and all those close to the Supreme Military Council," he said last week during a visit to the U.S. "These three elements, although they are a minority, have a great influence on society and so such a coalition can ensure success in managing the government."

Ghannouchi, whose U.S. visit was to reassure the American government about the presumed dangers of Islam in Tunisia, is not merely talking. He himself ordered the head of government from his party to prepare a coalition with leftist and secular parties, and he is making an effort to demonstrate religious neutrality about everything that has to do with politics in his country.

Honeymoon's over

One body not impressed by the comments of the Muslim Brotherhood is the Supreme Military Council, which is now trying to create a mechanism that will block the Brotherhood's ability to write the new Egyptian constitution.

The council has established an advisory committee, including representatives of all the movements and parties, one of whose tasks will be to sift through the members of the committee that it will recommend to parliament to write the constitution. So even if the Brotherhood wins a majority, it won't be able to determine the makeup of the constitution committee, which will be closely watched by the military.

The Brotherhood understood the council's intentions immediately and has decided to boycott the advisory committee meetings. It claims that the committee has been appointed by the military and so it has no connection to the development of democracy in the country. Is this the beginning of an open split between the military and the Brotherhood, after a 10-month honeymoon?

"The army enjoys its control over the country, giving orders, ordering people to appear before it, appointing governments and creating committees," a leftist Egyptian commentator told Haaretz. "But the army, like the public, has no real political experience. It has already appointed three governments, changed ministers, postponed the elections [from September to November], publicized a statement of principles for the constitution and amended it under public pressure. But until now it has not succeeded in proving it is capable of presenting an economic or political program. Almost an entire year has been lost. I would suggest to the army to rest and not enter an unfamiliar playing field. The Muslim Brotherhood constitutes a blow, but we can manage with them because we also know how to work the street. But if the army starts to take part in politics, we are lost."