Cairo: He was one of 88 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s strongest-yet-banned opposition force, who won seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections.
But Mohammad Al Beltagui doubts that the same can happen again in this month’s elections. “Look at the constant police crackdowns on the Brethern and their supporters, and you know that the situation does not augur well for holding free elections,” Al Beltagui said.
"My supporters and I are often harassed by security agencies. In addition, seven of my supporters were briefly detained as police stormed my office," he told Gulf News.
Two weeks before the November 28 parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members run as independents, say they are increasingly the target of police crackdowns. More than 130 members of the group, officially banned in Egypt since 1954, were detained in five governorates in dawn raids last week, they said.
"Moreover, 106 businesses, owned by Brotherhood members, have been closed by the authorities for no good reason," said Abdul Moneim Abdul Maqsud, a lawyer for the group. "The numbers of detainees are, meanwhile, on the rise. We expect more detentions as election day nears."
The Brotherhood, which won an unprecedented fifth of the Egyptian parliament in 2005, has said it aims to clinch 30 per cent of the 508 seats up for grabs this month. More than 130 members of the influential groups have already registered to stand in the elections, despite alleged attempts by the authorities to block their registration.
"Several plain clothes detectives constantly track me as though I were a criminal," said Sayyed Jadallah, a Brotherhood candidate for the working-class area of Al Mataria in northern Cairo. "Police have recently raided stores owned by my supporters and seized goods worth thousands of pounds."
Egyptian Constitution does not allow the creation of political parties on religious grounds. But over recent years, the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, has been courting people, especially in poor and marginalised areas, with religious slogans and a network of social services. A commission, set up by the government to supervise the upcoming elections, has threatened to disqualify candidates using religious slogans in their campaigning.
Many Brotherhood contenders have defiantly clung to their favourite slogan “Islam Is the Solution”, saying it does not contradict the Egyptian constitution, which states that the Sharia law is the main source of legislation in this predominantly Muslim country.
Around 135 members of the group, including 15 women, have registered to run in the elections. Under a recently approved bill, 64 seats are allocated for women in the upcoming elections, thus raising the overall seats in the parliament from 444 to 508. President Hosni Mubarak has the right to appoint 10 others.
“It is unlikely that the Brotherhood will repeat their gains in 2005,” said Fadl Hamed, an expert in Islamist groups. “The regime seems bent on sapping the power of the Brotherhood through constant detentions.
At the same time, the government has shifted to strengthening secular opposition and allowing them to make some gains at the ballot box,” he told Gulf News.
Hamed referred to the ruling National Democratic Party’s nomination of some low-profile candidates in some constituencies where opposition parties, such as the liberal Al Wafd Party, have heavyweight contenders. “I have no doubt that the ruling party will sweep the coming elections, but the party stands to benefit from allowing secular opposition to win some seats. This will also send a soothing message to foreign powers in the West, which are worried about growing Islamism in Egypt,” he argued.
At pains to give the impression that it will hold fair and free elections, the Egyptian government has said it will allow equal air time for different political parties and independents to promote their electoral platforms on state-owned TV stations. Candidates from the Muslim Brotherhood are positive they will be excluded from “this privilege”.
Besides their traditional tools of campaigning, they depend on their website and sympathy from affiliated groups on the popular social network Facebook.
“We are in close touch with the masses. We know their problems well and endeavour to help them,” says Sa’ad Al Katatni,” an Islamist MP in the outgoing parliament. He does not rule out co-ordination between the Muslim Brotherhood and dissident members of the ruling party, who have been angered by their exclusion from running in this month’s elections.