Dispatch

O, Brotherhood, Where Art Thou?

Has the Egyptian regime finally outsmarted its largest Islamist opposition group?

CAIRO—The noise could be heard from well down the block in the muddy streets of Shubra al-Kheima, a grim industrial suburb just north of Cairo.

A chanting sign-waving crowd, about 50-strong, worked its way through the Mit Nama neighborhood, singing the praises of Dr. Mohammed El-Beltagui -- the district's incumbent parliamentarian and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest and best-known Islamist group.

"The symbol of the anchor," they chanted, referring to the Beltagui's electoral logo -- a key element in a district where illiteracy runs high. "Reform and change! He doesn't sleep and he doesn't lie!"

Every few blocks, Beltagui -- an eye, ear, nose, and throat doctor -- would stop and deliver a spirited speech, railing against the deficiencies and failings of the government.

"They wage war on us because we talk about corruption and the sewers running through our streets," he shouted. "They wage war on us because we ask why our government is selling natural gas to Israel for free."

Beltagui was one of 88 members of the Muslim Brotherhood -- running as nominal independents -- who won seats in the People's Assembly, Egypt's lower house of parliament, in 2005. The victories established the Brotherhood as the country's largest opposition bloc with 20 percent of the legislature, despite the fact the group is outlawed by the Egyptian government and banned from forming an actual political party.

The 2005 vote amounted to a political earthquake, shaking up Egypt's normally stagnant and predictable political process. It served as a stinging rebuke of President Hosni Mubarak's dominant National Democratic Party and a vindication of the Islamist group's decision to participate in mainstream politics.

But five years later, a very different reality holds sway, as the Brotherhood works to defend its gains in elections scheduled for Sunday. A series of harsh government crackdowns has left at least 1,000 Brotherhood activists in jail, and the group's decision to contest the elections -- in defiance of wide-ranging calls for an opposition boycott -- have left it open to both internal and external second guessing. Observers close to the movement say the Brotherhood may be headed for a crushing defeat.

Very few doubt the Brotherhood's sincerity or that its supporters -- estimated at around 50,000 dedicated members -- possess the courage of their convictions; after all, its members are known for smiling in the face of routine mass arrests, and then emerging from jail to head straight back to their political activities.

But the current state of affairs has prompted a debate about the wisdom of the Brotherhood's strategy this time around.

The Brotherhood's decision to re-enter the electoral arena essentially cut the legs out from under the reform movement headed by Mohamed ElBaradei. The former International Atomic Energy Agency chief had spent months cajoling Egypt's opposition forces to boycott the vote as a sweeping gesture of no-confidence in the Mubarak regime's commitment to a true democratic process, but the Brotherhood announced its decision to participate in October.

Brotherhood decision-making is famously opaque, but the group's leaders acknowledge that the decision to defend their parliament seats was far from unanimous.

"Of course, there was a lot of internal discussions and debate," said Mohammed Moursi, a Brotherhood MP. "It's a continuation of our historic struggle for reform. This is our national duty -- sacrificing for the nation."

Beltagui, the MP from Shubra al-Kheima, added, "We decided that participation enabled us to express the desires of the people. We want to emphasize the will of the people for change."

After-the-fact analysis of the 2005 elections attributed the result to a combination of factors: the strength of the Brotherhood's formidable grassroots infrastructure of dedicated cadres, plus widespread public dissatisfaction with both the government and the established political parties.

Political scientist Khalil El-Anani, an expert in Islamist movements at the University of Durham, breaks down the Brotherhood's support into three broad categories: Hardcore cadres willing to fight through police lines to cast their vote, more casual supporters who benefit from the wide range of Brotherhood social services, and protest voters looking to support anyone from outside the established political order.

Based on what Shubra al-Kheima residents told me, much of that appeal appears to be still in place.

Mohamed Ismail, a 25-year-old accountant and one of the marchers in Beltagui's campaign rally, said he was drawn to Beltagui not so much because of his personal qualifications as a candidate as for the larger ideals he represents.

"We're with the Islamic project. It's not just Dr. Beltagui as one man," Ismail said.

But Gaber Refaat, a 30-year old Arabic teacher who was playing dominoes in a cafe as the march went by, seems to represent the other camp of potential Brotherhood voters. He said he would vote for Beltagui on Sunday, but not for any ideological reason. What attracts Refaat is Beltagui's record of charitable acts, including offering free medical service at his clinic for those who can't afford to pay.

"It's not because of the Brotherhood. I don't really care about that," Refaat said. "It's because of who he is as a person -- because he does what he says he's going to do."

Nevertheless, all indications point to serious reversal of fortune for the Brotherhood this time around. The government seems determined to reign in the group, and five years as the main opposition bloc in parliament have proven the Brothers can annoy and harass, but not seriously hinder, the government.

Mohammed Habib, the group's former* deputy supreme guide and second in command, told me he expects the group will win "15 seats at most" on Sunday. His estimate may have been an attempt to lower expectations, but few observers expect the Brotherhood to emerge from the upcoming election with more than half its current total of 88 seats.

The Brotherhood's normally disciplined message control has also broken down badly in the days leading up to the election. As the full extent of the government's pressure campaign has become apparent, dissident Brothers have begun going public with calls for the group with withdraw rather than participate in a rigged vote -- a move that would essentially amount to admission of a tactical error.

"This is the last chance for the Brotherhood to announce its withdrawal from parliamentary elections," prominent Brotherhood leader Mukhtar Noh told the independent Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm Tuesday. Noh and a handful of others have formed what they're calling the Brotherhood Opposition Front, to pressure their own leadership to reverse course.

"It's time the group took the bold decision to withdraw all its candidates from this electoral game, which lacks even a modicum of credibility," Noh said. "Such a withdrawal would destroy the legitimacy of the elections."

However, such a reversal would prove embarrassing for the proud and venerable organization, opening it up to second-guessing from those outside the Brotherhood and also a potential revolt by younger cadres against the group's aging leadership. The Brotherhood's newly installed supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, may not feel secure enough to deliver such a public mea culpa.

There can be no doubt, however, that the Brotherhood's decision badly weakened the drive for domestic reform that appeared to be gaining steam following ElBaradei's return to Egypt. What remains to be seen is how badly the Brotherhood also weakened itself in the process.

*This article originally identified Mohammed Habib as the Muslim Brotherhood's current deputy supreme guide and second in command. He formerly held those positions.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Why a Free Southern Sudan Is Bad News for Darfur

While the world watches the upcoming referendum between north and south, Khartoum is quietly meddling in an old war zone -- Darfur.

MALAKAL, Sudan—For all intents and purposes, it looked like an act of war. Just over two months before Southern Sudan votes whether to secede, on Nov. 12, the central government in Khartoum flew two Antonov aircraft over the contested north-south border and began an aerial bombardment campaign. The bombs landed in disputed territory occupied by the Southern army, marking the first overt provocation since the 2005 Sudanese peace agreement. With an unidentified number of Southern Sudanese soldiers killed, this looked like the start of a new phase of the decades-old conflict between north and south -- a looming war that many in the international community dread.

Just a day after the attack, however, both north and south seemed willing to write off the attack as an accident, an unexpectedly hopeful sign. Unfortunately, though, the bombing has more to do with the fact that Sudan's north is once again taking the fight to Darfuri rebels, the latest chapter in one of the ugliest and most lopsided conflicts the world has seen.

The exact details of what happened are still fuzzy. The Sudanese armed forces say they were trying to hit the Justice and Equality Movement, one of the main Darfur rebel groups, nestled in a murky border area. A U.N. internal report confirmed that explanation, noting that the "Incident [is] unlikely to lead to clash between SPLA [the Southern Sudan army] and SAF [the northern army]. SAF has apologized for the incident."

The bombardment of Sudan's militarized borderlands certainly looked like a show of force by Khartoum, a sign to the south of what might await should it incur the north's wrath. This is something Southern diplomats surely won't forget in the negotiations that are bound to follow the referendum. Khartoum's strike was also embarrassing for the Southern army, which was deployed beyond its side of the border.

Given the situation, it's intriguing that the bombardments -- accidental or not -- were so easily glossed over. Practically on the eve of the referendum that could yield "Africa's big divorce," as New York Times correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman aptly called it, tensions were high. Southerners turned up last week in droves to register for the Jan. 9 self-determination vote, while African Union-brokered negotiations between Khartoum and the semiautonomous Southern government in Juba over a potential border had just drawn to a close in a stalemate over the Abyei region. They are set to resume shortly at the presidential level.

But in fact, now is the moment when north and south are least likely to want to spat. Both sides are walking a diplomatic tightrope until the referendum. Political accommodation and behind-closed-doors deals may well be in the best interests of both sides, and leaders in Khartoum and Juba may be seeing the wisdom in keeping quiet for now in order to increase their leverage at the bargaining table when it counts.

Meanwhile, the message from the United States is that getting to January's referendum is the only thing that matters. Sen. John Kerry's recent visit to Khartoum underlined this point. He offered to take the government off the state sponsors of terrorism list on the sole condition that north Sudan cooperate with the referendum vote, instead of making it conditional on cooperation in Darfur as it has been in the past.

So it's perhaps no surprise that the real impact of the airstrikes has less to do with north and south and far more to do with the other Sudanese conflict -- Darfur, the country's western region, where an internal conflict between rebels and government forces has been ongoing for nearly a decade. These airstrikes were meant for the Darfur rebels.

When it comes to Darfur, Khartoum has less reason to behave than it does vis-à-vis the south. Kerry's message has the effect of essentially decoupling north-south issues from Darfur in U.S. diplomatic brokering with the central government. That's good news for Khartoum, and terrible news for the people of Darfur. Although Human Rights Watch reports that "Sudanese government forces have carried out a series of attacks on civilians since August 2010" in central Sudan, including past airstrikes, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is giving a subtle green light for Khartoum to wage war in Darfur as long as it allows the Southern referendum to occur.  

Unfortunately, it makes sense that Khartoum would escalate in one region while settling with another. Indeed, this has been its strategy for decades. Successive regimes in Khartoum have managed to function and even thrive by exploiting Sudan's vast peripheral regions, using proxy groups like the Arab janjaweed to fight their war against the south. The current ruling party in particular has grown fat by making money off the business it knows best: war, and the oil-industry profits that come with it. When the southern half of Sudan breaks away, Khartoum will suddenly find itself with a handful of discontented and armed constituencies to manage and no one to play them off against, with meanwhile a good deal less oil wealth to sustain itself. 

In the short term, we can expect more provocations, veiled threats, and tense moments like last the Nov. 12 bombardment, perhaps with less peaceful conclusions. In the long term, if Khartoum continues to exploit the world's distraction during the referendum to continue its quiet war in Darfur, there could be some ugly consequences come January -- not just for Darfur, but for the whole country.

AFP/Getty Images