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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 December 2005, 16:44 GMT
Egypt vote sets path for change

by Jeremy Bowen
Middle East Editor

An Egyptian government supporter throws a stone during clashes with Muslim Brotherhood supporters
Voting in the Egyptian elections was accompanied by violent clashes

The Muslim Brotherhood has done better than anyone expected in the Egyptian elections. It has around six times as many seats as it did in the last parliament.

Real democracy is still something to dream about for Egyptians who want reform.

Turnout was very low. Years of autocracy crushed political life in Egypt and left the people cynical about voting. But from the evidence of these election results, if Egypt has a democratic future, it is Islamist.

Officially, the Muslim Brotherhood is a banned organisation. In real life it is tolerated and its candidates stand for parliament as independents.

Its success comes despite a violent campaign in some places by President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party to stop the Brotherhood's supporters turning out to vote.

Mosque power

It is all bad news for the secular opposition parties. They managed to win only a handful of seats.

Their failure demonstrates once again how hard it is for small groups of educated, middle-class activists to connect with the great mass of Egyptian voters.

MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD
Egypt's oldest and largest Islamist organisation
Founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1928
Group has influenced Islamist movements worldwide
Mixes political activism with charity work
Banned from open political activity
Rejects the use of violence and supports democratic principles
Wants to create a state governed by Islamic law
Slogan: "Islam is the Solution"

That should not be a surprise. Against them, on one side, are the massed ranks of President Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP), which has behind it the resources of the government.

On the other side is the Muslim Brotherhood.

Its power comes from the mosques, and it is the only organised alternative to the power of the state in Egypt.

So what's going to happen next in Egypt?

The deputy leader of the Brotherhood, Mohamed Habib told Reuters that the ruling party "does not want reform. It does not want a democratic climate. It wants to keep the political situation completely frozen, stagnant and paralysed."

Pressure for Change

Perhaps Mr Mubarak and his party would have liked to keep Egyptian political life the way it has been for a couple of generations, with a strong man at the top and a parliament to rubberstamp his decisions.

But earlier this year, after a lot of pressure from the Bush Administration, Mr Mubarak seemed prepared to accept that he had to do something to accommodate the pressure for change in Egypt.

Since then, opposition groups have been operating in the political space created by the US intervention.

President Hosni Mubarak
Hosni Mubarak has been under pressure to allow democratic reforms
Mubarak allowed candidates to stand against him for the first time in presidential elections in September.

Despite the fact that he won more than 80% of the vote and that less than a quarter of the electorate voted, supporters of democracy in Egypt hoped that an irreversible process of change had begun.

The ruling NDP will still control the new parliament.

But now it will have an opposition that has enough seats to make a nuisance of itself.

And despite the serious violence that happened during the voting, Egypt still seems set, whether the president and his people like it or not, on a path of change.

Egypt has always been one of the leaders of the Arab world.

The success of the Muslim Brotherhood will be very encouraging for other Islamist groups.

In the Palestinian territories, Hamas is going to take part in parliamentary elections in the New Year. It is also expecting a big share of the vote.

The way elections are going in the Middle East looks good for millions of pious, politically conscious Arab voters - and rather uncomfortable for the Bush Administration in Washington, which has put the spread of liberal democracy at the top of its agenda in the Middle East.


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