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Brothers Tread Cautiously

This should be a time for the Muslim Brotherhood to savour their election victory. The final results of the parliamentary elections that ended yesterday will determine whether or not its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), secures a majority, ie half the People’s Assembly seats plus one. Currently hovering around 49 per cent of the total the Brothers — banned and persecuted for decades — have emerged as Egypt’s dominant political force.

But the Brotherhood’s vindication through the ballot box brings with it a host of potentially explosive challenges. Egypt is a poor country with a population of 85 million. The economy is faltering. There is flagrant inequality in wealth and opportunities. The security situation is volatile and the security apparatus seems capable of operating only when empowered by draconian emergency laws, in force since 1981.

It will not be lost on the Muslim Brotherhood that failure to address these problems brought down Hosni Mubarak’s regime. How, then, will the Brotherhood approach them?

Mubarak’s “legacy weighs heavy, not just on us but on all of Egypt”, says FJP leader Essam El-Erian. The realisation of just how entrenched “corruption and destruction” is “grows by the hour and by the day”. In other words, the situation is so bad the Brotherhood is not ready to shoulder the burden alone.

El-Erian’s statements can be read as an indirect response to ongoing speculation over the formation of a post-election government. Article 56 of the constitutional declaration of 30 March 2011 gives the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) the right to appoint the prime minister and cabinet. But Article 33 of the declaration — which serves as the constitutional reference for the interim period — stipulates that the People’s Assembly shall determine policy, the state budget, and oversee the executive authority.

The People’s Assembly cannot name the government, but it can dismiss it through a vote of no confidence, says Tarek El-Beshri, head of the committee which drafted the constitutional amendments that form the core of the 30 March declaration.

The support of the parliamentary majority, then, is crucial to the government’s survival.

Given their success at the polls, the FJP could easily demand they be represented in the government. But they don’t want to go there. According to El-Erian: “We’re not thinking of that at all right now. Our focus is on parliament.”

The Brotherhood’s strategy — as far as it goes in the immediate aftermath of electoral success — seems clear. It does not want to be closely associated with a transitional government which few believe can deliver on the public’s expectations. Used to playing the long game, its sights are set well beyond the next few months.

Post-revolution Egypt has already seen three ministers of finance come and go. Any future government, says Samir Radwan, who spent two months in the post, must “immediately” address unemployment, low wages, services and security.

“These impact on the public every hour. The country’s new rulers have no choice but to find solutions, and find them quickly,” Radwan told Al-Ahram Weekly.

During his short term in office Radwan’s ministry faced strikes across Egypt demanding better wages and working conditions. The street, he says, was “boiling”.

Radwan was able to offer some pay rises in an attempt to contain the situation but any real solution, he says, will require a radical restructuring of the public sector. Yet no feasible, full-cost programme to move beyond piecemeal solutions has been developed. And the public sector is just one of the problems an incoming government will have to face. In short, says Radwan, any new government will be faced with overcoming “defects in the system that have accumulated over 60 years”.

Foreign direct investment since the revolution has fallen from $13 billion per annum to $8 billion. The budget deficit is running at 10 per cent, and Egypt’s foreign reserves are half of what they were 12 months ago. These are the hard facts the FJP would face should it venture into government now.

In the absence of “a clear and ready vision on the part of Egypt’s new rulers” the country will, Radwan argues “face very real dangers”.

Nationwide strikes and economic problems, however serious, were not the only reason two finance ministers left within 10 months. When security forces clashed with protesters on 28 June — providing unmistakable evidence that the Interior Ministry has yet to abandon its brutal practices — the Essam Sharaf government was already on the brink of collapse. It survived the nationwide demonstrations that ensued, thanks to a minor reshuffle. But renewed clashes in Tahrir Square between the security forces and protesters on 19 November which ended in the death of more than 40 demonstrators signalled the beginning of the end for Sharaf. The brutality of the security forces had been fully exposed, and thousands of angry protesters began to call for the ouster of SCAF head Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. Instead it was the government that was sacrificed. On 22 November Sharaf resigned. The demise of his premiership makes clear that any future government is vulnerable to public outrage at the behaviour of the police.

“Nothing has changed on the security front since February,” says Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a human rights group has documented post-revolution violence. The Brotherhood may be correct in its calculation that any involvement in a new government will not be to its advantage, says Bahgat, but there is no “easy path through the system”. Sharaf avoided the security file and still his government fell. One possible way forward, suggests Bahgat, is for the Muslim Brotherhood to remain apart from the Interior Ministry but to subject the security apparatus to parliamentary scrutiny: “This kind of oversight could be key to reform. Imagine the impact of a monthly questioning of the interior minister by the parliamentary majority.”

No one should assume ruling Egypt is easy, especially after 30 years of despotic rule during which corruption has grown like a cancer. The problem the Brotherhood’s leadership now faces is that they are no longer in opposition. They must act to show the electorate that they are worthy of the faith that has been placed in them, whether in parliament or government. As they calculate their steps they appear to be doing their homework. Khairat El-Shater, the Brotherhood’s deputy supreme guide, recently toured Malaysia, Thailand and Turkey, consulting over ways to improve social services and boost the economy. The FJP has entered into talks with a Turkish firm on ways to address Cairo’s traffic and garbage collection problems.

Mubarak’s legacy, and how to defeat it: the Brothers clearly have too much on their plate to spend their time in debating whether bikinis be banned.

Amira Howeidy is an editor at Al-Ahram Weekly.

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