Egypt’s opposition Muslim Brotherhood says it will use record gains in legislative elections to press for the abolition of laws restricting opposition activity and which prevent the Islamist movement from functioning legally.
Brotherhood candidates, running as nominally independent because of a half century-old official ban, won a further 12 seats in parliament in third round run-offs on Wednesday. This brought their total to 88 seats, nearly six times what they held previously.
It also gave them a success rate of over 50 per cent in the limited number of constituencies they contested, suggesting that if they had run more candidates nationwide, they might have presented a serious challenge to the supremacy of President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic party.
The NDP emerged from the month-long polls with 324 of 444 contested seats. This is enough to maintain control of the promised constitutional reform process. But the conduct of the elections - marred in their latter stages by widespread fraud and violence - has raised questions about the regime’s willingness to respond to pressure at home and from Washington for democratic change.
According to the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, eight people were killed on Wednesday during street battles sparked when police and ruling party thugs blocked off hundreds of polling stations to Brotherhood supporters.
In interviews on Thursday, leading members of the movement claimed that intimidation and fraud instigated by the NDP had deprived them of a further 35 seats.
Mahmoud Ezzat, secretary general of the Brotherhood said “members of the establishment have failed to grasp the change in the national mood, and insist on clinging to despotic methods”.
He said the Brotherhood’s performance in the elections in spite of the violations, sent a strong signal that it was time to recognise the movement.
But he said, it would press for changes to the laws governing all political parties, rather than attempt to win legal status from a committee headed by the secretary general of the NDP, which could change its mind again the next day.
“The size of our showing in parliament represents a basis for bringing about comprehensive reform,” said the microbiology professor who has spent 15 years in Egyptian jails.
“We want to change the laws holding up Egypt’s renaissance. We want to abolish emergency laws, limit the powers of the presidency and balance those of the legislature and executive and we want reform of the laws restricting political rights,” he said.
The Brotherhood, he added, would use its position in parliament to campaign against corruption. But it would support liberal economic reforms. “A free market is the best method for people to reap the fruits of their work,” he said.
Essam el-Erian, another leading member of the Brotherhood, stressed that the movement planned to work with other opposition parties, including secular ones - who won only a handful of seats in parliament - to achieve greater political freedom.
“Everyone wants reform in this country. The question is how you build it, on the basis of western values or on our own values and civilisation,” he said. “This is a big debate that emerged at the beginning of the last century after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
“Our group believes we must build on the basis of Islam, taking what good points there are from western experience and rejecting the rest. After 100 years of failure we are the people of the future.”